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Online Advisers Fight Big Brokers for Techie Crowd

Eva Serrabassa | Agency Collection | Getty Images

Online calculators can readily tell you much house can you afford, when to retire or how long will it take to pay off debt. But comprehensive investment guidance has been a lot harder to come by with the click of a mouse.

Some upstart firms are betting that plenty of young, upwardly mobile and very tech-savvy savers want neither to pay for a traditional adviser to manage their money, nor to handle their own portfolios through a low-cost brokerage.

Two of the biggest players in this space are Wealthfront and Personal Capital, with $50 million or more each in assets under management. Smaller competitors include Betterment and Hedgeable.

These nascent firms may never be as well-known as Charles Schwab or Bank of America's Merrill Lynch, companies that manage billions of dollars. But they can compete on price.

Fees for online advisory services are below - sometimes far below - one percent, compared with an average of more than 1.19 percent for traditional fee-based advisers, according to Toronto-based research company PriceMetrix.

While naysayers question the value of online advice, one expert says any action is better than none.

"Anything that could help someone wrap their arms around their financial situation and work towards a viable goal is a good thing," says Jacob Gold, a certified financial planner and ING Group retirement coach.

There is no time like the present. Since many procrastinators decide to take action on their money just as the year is winding down, here are some of options in this increasingly crowded field:

Wealthfront (wealthfront.com)

Cost: Free for first $25,000 invested, 0.25 percent annually for additional amounts.

What you get: An automated selection of exchange-traded funds, such as the Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF, allocated according to your risk portfolio. There is also an automated program for continuous tax-loss harvesting - selling winners and losers regularly to gain tax advantages - rather than just as a year-end review.

"Based on our research, we think we can add 1 percent after-tax to your return each year," says Chief Executive Officer Andy Rachleff.

What you do not get: In-person meetings. Advisers are available by phone, but clients rarely call. "The younger generation doesn't want to talk to people," Rachleff says.

Betterment (betterment.com)

Cost: Sliding fee scale based on invested assets, starting at 0.35 percent for a $100 deposit per month and falling as low as 0.15 percent with a balance of at least $100,000.

What you get: A goal-oriented approach to investing, which encourages monthly contributions. You can set up objectives like buying a house or funding a child's college education.

Tony Ouyang, who works for a tech company in San Francisco, began putting his "extra" money to work in a Betterment account for his young daughter about eight months ago.

"Saving for when she gets older, that was a big sell for me," says Ouyang, 32.

What you do not get: A lot of customized advice. But that is OK with Ouyang. "I feel like I know enough," he says. "I'm just trying to diversify."

Personal Capital (personalcapital.com)

Cost: Website tools, such as salary comparisons, are free; asset management fees are 0.95 percent for up to $5 million in assets.

What you get: Clients receive one complimentary consultation and then personal investing advice once they open an account. Certified financial planners are available for long-term retirement plans as well.

"We believe we eliminate conflicts of interest by being fee-based," says Vice President Michelle Brownstein.

What you do not get: The rock-bottom fees that are available from more-automated systems or from do-it-yourself brokerage accounts.

Hedgeable (hedgeable.com)

Cost: Free for basic automated portfolio management. For active management, from 0.60 to 0.80 percent for assets under $1 million, 0.50 to 0.65 for more than $1 million in assets.

What you get: Access to Hedgeable tools, such as the Portfolio Analyzer, and investment strategy, which the company also markets to institutional clients. "We're a next-generation Vanguard," says CEO Mike Kane, referring to the company that pioneered low-cost index fund investing.

What you do not get: Scale. With only $3 million in assets under management, the company is still ramping up many options for individual investors.

If you just need investment advice, try these services:

Market Riders (marketriders.com)

Cost: Subscription fee is $14.95 per month or $149.95 per year, plus costs of trades or brokerage fees wherever you choose to hold your account.

What you get: You plug in your asset information and the Web-based software spits out your recommended investment options, then emails you when it is time to rebalance.

What you do not get: A full retirement plan or personalized advice.

LearnVest (learnvest.com)

Cost: After a free 15-minute consultation, there is a sliding scale for services, up to $599 for a full-year program of financial advice, including investment allocation strategies.

What you get: Personalized service, primarily focused on women, but 25 percent of the users are men. In contrast to other Web-based account-management firms, LearnVest operates with the philosophy that when it comes to making detailed life choices, "people don't feel totally equipped without asking someone," says founder and CEO Alexa Von Tobel.

What you do not get: Asset management. While the highest level of service provides investment advice, you need to take the plan and execute it elsewhere.

Contact Personal Finance

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