Wealthfront and Vanguard Personal Advisor Services are among the top robo-advisor options in 2019, with both scoring very strongly. While there are upsides to both services, the right one for you will depend on your digital-versus-human preference, the amount you have to invest, and your desire to fine-tune your portfolio.

  • Account Minimum: $500
  • Fees: 0.25% for most accounts, no trading commission or fees for withdrawals, minimums, or transfers. 0.42%–0.46% for 529 plans. Underlying portfolios of ETFs average 0.07%–0.16% management fee
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  • Great for those looking to connect all their financial accounts to see the bigger picture
  • Designed for people who would like to set and track their goals
  • Access to a portfolio line of credit for those interested in a loan 
  • If you are someone who has an account of $100,000 or more you get access to additional securities
  • Account Minimum: $50,000
  • Fee: 0.30% of assets under management (excluding cash)
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  • Not great for people looking for a quick entry point to investing as account setup is a cumbersome process and requires speaking with an advisor
  • Best for those with more money available to open an account with, as the minimum account size is $50,000
  • Ample goal planning resources for those who would like to save for large goals like buying a home or paying for children's education
  • Great for people who want some input from a human advisor–portfolios are reviewed by an advisor at least once a year

Although both Wealthfront and Vanguard Personal Advisor Services are robo-advisors, their offerings and services will appeal to (and be appropriate for) different audiences.

If you’re newer to the investing game, Wealthfront’s top-notch planning tools and small minimum investment make it a good choice, despite a portfolio with limited customization options. It also scored the highest ratings in our 2019 robo-advisor reviews, with 4.4 stars and some great advantages.

For mature investors looking to place capital at a financial institution with a long and stable history, Vanguard Personal Advisor Services may be an excellent fit, as long as clients are prepared to pay extra for transaction costs and third-party relationships.

Goal Setting

Vanguard and Wealthfront both offer goal planning and tracking, but Wealthfront has a clear edge.

Wealthfront’s planning tools are excellent. The dashboard displays your assets and liabilities, giving you a quick look at the likelihood of attaining your goals. The company connects to Redfin to help prospective homeowners determine how much a school will cost in their desired neighborhood. College savings scenarios have cost estimates for numerous U.S.-based universities, and expense projections include not just tuition, but room and board as well as other costs. You even determine how long you could take a sabbatical from work and travel while still making other goals work. There’s a wedding planning goal, and a database that tells you how much your ideal car will cost.

At Vanguard Personal Advisor Services, the site provides ample goal planning resources that include checklists, how-to articles, and calculators. Clients can apply these tools to estimate their total costs of retirement, perform a top-down review of assets, and plan major life goals that include college savings, home ownership, or a rainy day fund. Long-term forecasts and recommendations in the account interface coach clients on how to better meet investing objectives based on life situations and goals outlined during the lengthy onboarding process. The client can make changes at any time by altering the risk profile.

Retirement Planning

Both Wealthfront and Vanguard Personal Advisor Services offer a few options for retirement accounts, including traditional and Roth IRAs, SEP IRAs, and 401(k) rollovers.

At Wealthfront, the robo-advisor uses your information to estimate your net worth at retirement and what you could comfortably spend per month during your golden years. Their Path planning tool helps you compare your projected retirement income against your current spending habits so you’ll be able to see whether you can maintain your lifestyle later. You can change various inputs such as retirement age, savings, target retirement spending and life expectancy to see how they affect the outcome.

Vanguard’s website features an impressive variety of tools and calculators to help clients figure out how much money needs to be set aside to reach goals (such as retirement) within realistic time frames.

Account Types

Wealthfront and Vanguard Personal Advisor Services offer a similar mix of taxable and retirement accounts. Here again, however, Wealthfront has a wider offering, with 529 college savings plan accounts being a key difference. At this time, neither Vanguard nor Wealthfront offer custodial accounts known as Uniform Gift to Minors Act (UGMA) or Uniform Transfer to Minors Act (UTMA) accounts.

Wealthfront account types:

  • Taxable accounts (individual, joint, and trust)
  • Traditional IRA accounts
  • Roth IRA accounts
  • SEP IRA accounts (for the self-employed and small businesses)
  • IRA transfers
  • 401(k) rollovers
  • 529 college savings plan accounts
  • High-interest cash accounts (individual, joint, trust)

Vanguard Personal Advisory Services account types:

  • Taxable accounts (individual, joint, and trust)
  • Traditional IRA accounts
  • Roth IRA accounts
  • SEP IRA accounts (for the self-employed and small businesses)
  • IRA transfers
  • 401(k) rollovers

Features and Accessibility

Wealthfront and Vanguard Personal Advisor Services vary quite a bit in terms of features, and this is reflective of the different customers each is targeting. Wealthfront focuses on a younger crowd that is comfortable with technology. Vanguard Personal Advisor Services has features aimed at higher net worth clients who are likely older and may need more human contact when it comes to being confident in the management of their portfolio. 

Wealthfront:

  • 529 college savings: Wealthfront allows you to open a 529 college savings account, which is rare among robo-advisories. (Fees are slightly higher for 529 accounts as compared with other Wealthfront accounts because these plans include an administrative fee.)
  • Wealthfront cash account: Wealthfront offers a high-interest cash account paying 2.07% APY with no fees, unlimited transfers and FDIC insurance up to $1 million.
  • Portfolio line of credit: Once you reach $25,000 in your individual, trust, or joint investment account at Wealthfront, you have access to a line of credit at 4.75% to 6% interest. There’s no credit check or credit score impact, and you can borrow up to 30% of your account.
  • PassivePlus investing. This is Wealthfront’s term for their rules-based investment strategies, which aim to maximize client investments using tax-loss harvesting. At higher asset levels ($100,000+), the company offers stock-level tax-loss harvesting and risk parity. At $500,000 and up, the strategy includes Smart Beta, which weights the stocks in your portfolio more intelligently.

Vanguard Personal Advisor Services:

  • Dedicated advisor for large accounts: While accounts up to $500,000 are assigned to a group of advisors, accounts above that level get a dedicated advisor.
  • Cross-company application: Some 80% to 90% of applicants to this advisor have other Vanguard accounts, and the $50,000 investment minimum can be applied across all Vanguard assets.
  • Whole-picture advice: Although Vanguard Personal Advisor Services can’t include your other accounts (employer-sponsored retirement plans, college savings plans) under this advisor umbrella, planners will take those holdings into account when they design your portfolio and offer advice.
  • Access to advisors: Although the on-ramp is slow, each client’s portfolio is designed by a certified financial planner (rather than auto-generated by your answers to a questionnaire), and it’s possible to reach a planner—during business hours—who can answer any questions you have. On this point, Vanguard considers itself a “hybrid” advice service, marrying robo-advising with the ongoing guidance of a human advisor.

Fees

Wealthfront and Vanguard are both competitive in the industry when it comes to fees, but here again, Wealthfront has the edge.

Wealthfront’s fee structure is simple: 0.25% of your portfolio, assessed monthly. There are no fees charged for cash balances. The ETFs that make up most of the portfolios have annual management fees of 0.08%. Larger portfolios enrolled in the Smart Beta program may be invested in funds with slightly higher management fees.

Vanguard Personal Advisor Services charges a competitive 0.30% advisory fee, paid quarterly, but hidden costs may add up since clients also pay transaction fees. The broker has also entered into payment for order flow deals with third-party mutual funds, and the client foots the bill for those fees as well. The average expense ratio of underlying investments is 0.11 percent.

Minimum Deposits

Wealthfront has a competitive advantage over Vanguard when it comes to minimum deposits. Vanguard's robo-advisor requires you to have $50,000 as a minimum whereas Wealthfront requires just $500. Again, this is due to the two services having different customers in mind, but it makes Wealthfront the more attractive robo-advisor to try out. Testing out Vanguard requires 100 times more capital. 

  • Wealthfront: $500
  • Vanguard Personal Advisor Services: $50,000

Portfolios

Wealthfront and Vanguard Personal Advisory Services differ greatly in how long it takes to get your portfolio started.

Getting started with a Wealthfront account is fairly straightforward, though the brokerage won’t show you portfolio allocations before you give them some personal information. Link a checking account and answer some questions to help pinpoint your financial goals, risk tolerance, and time horizon. While you can see the exact portfolio you’d be funding, you’re not able to customize it. Customers with more than $100,000 in their accounts can choose a stock portfolio rather than a portfolio of ETFs.

At Vanguard Personal Advisor Services, the up-front work is similar, but the timeline is lengthy. You’ll answer detailed questions regarding age, assets, retirement dates, risk tolerance, and market experience, generating a proposed portfolio allocation filled with Vanguard funds and “other securities.” Most of the heavy lifting is done by algorithms, but the new client must speak with a financial advisor to complete the customized plan, and the fine print states that the final investment plan will be created within “a few weeks” after the consult, marking a major negative compared to the rapid onboarding at rivals. The client must agree to the new plan via another consult before implementation, which can create further delays.

Wealthfront Assets

At Wealthfront, customers can choose from ETFs and mutual funds from Vanguard, Schwab, iShares and State Street, or they can save cash.

Vanguard Personal Advisor Services Assets

Vanguard’s methodology follows traditional Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) principles, emphasizing the benefits of low-cost securities, diversification, and indexing, driven by long-term financial goals. Stock and bond methodologies increase diversification by including equity funds at different capitalization and volatility levels as well as bond funds with different geographical, timing, and capital risks.

Tax-Advantaged Investing

There are a variety of ways to efficiently invest money to avoid excessive taxes. One such way, tax-loss harvesting, is used by many robo-advisors. Tax-loss harvesting is the selling of securities at a loss to offset a capital gains tax liability.

Wealthfront’s primary method of reducing taxes is tax-loss harvesting. It’s available for all taxable accounts. An ETF showing a loss may be swapped out for a similar ETF in order to reduce your tax bill. Accounts over $100,000 may take advantage of stock-level tax loss harvesting. 

Vanguard Personal Advisor Services engages in tax-loss harvesting through the MinTax cost basis method, which identifies selective units or quantities—referred to as lots—of securities to sell in any sale transaction based on specific ordering rules. The MinTax cost basis method will minimize the tax impact of transactions in many cases, but not necessarily every case. You must opt into MinTax.

Security

Wealthfront is a member of the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC) and client accounts are protected up to a maximum of $500,000. The site actually has an article on why SIPC insurance doesn’t protect investors in the way they think it does, but the company still holds the coverage. Wealthfront also has the option to enable 2-factor authentication for further protection of your account.

Vanguard, on the other hand, holds client funds in the Vanguard Marketing Group, providing access to SIPC and excess insurance. Cash, however, is swept into money market funds that are not FDIC-insured. The site uses 256-bit SSL encryption and also provides two-factor authentication.

Customer Service

At Wealthfront, customers can call a support phone number if they need help with a forgotten password. You can also pose a support question to them on Twitter, and most were answered relatively quickly, although one question took more than a week to get a response. There is no online chat capability on the website or mobile apps.

At Vanguard, clients can speak to a financial advisor at any time by scheduling an appointment. Unscheduled contact attempts produced a variety of unacceptable wait times, from over five minutes to more than 13 minutes. There is no live chat for prospective or current clients, and registration is required to send an email through the firm’s secure message application.

Our Take

Wealthfront has the edge on Vanguard Personal Advisor Services in most categories, with the exception of serving the sophisticated investor crowd. If you are a high-net-worth investor looking to put your money with a large, well-known firm, then Vanguard makes a decent case with its affordable and automatically managed portfolio. The human advisors at Vanguard are another important element that high-net-worth investors may expect from a company they’ve invested millions with.

That said, if you have a more modest bank balance and want a great robo-advisor that will manage your portfolio, help you plan your investing goals, and keep you on track, then it is hard to beat Wealthfront. Younger investors will find the goal planning and tracking tools a great help in getting started and even older investors can benefit from a service that requires just $500 to get started and takes away the headaches of actively managing a portfolio. Faced with a choice between Wealthfront and Vanguard, most people will find Wealthfront the obvious choice.

Methodology

Investopedia is dedicated to providing investors with unbiased, comprehensive reviews and ratings of robo-advisors. Our 2019 reviews are the result of six months of evaluating all aspects of 32 robo-advisor platforms, including the user experience, goal setting capabilities, portfolio contents, costs and fees, security, mobile experience, and customer service. We collected over 300 data points that weighed into our scoring system.

Every robo-advisor we reviewed was asked to fill out a 50-point survey about their platform that we used in our evaluation. Many of the robo-advisors also provided us with in-person demonstrations of their platforms.

Our team of industry experts, led by Theresa W. Carey, conducted our reviews and developed this best-in-industry methodology for ranking robo-advisor platforms for investors at all levels. Click here to read our full methodology.