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In this article, I’ll review Vanguard Personal Advisor and explain why it is money expert Clark Howard’s favorite financial advisor option.
Table of Contents
- What Is Vanguard Personal Advisor?
- How Does Vanguard Personal Advisor Work?
- Where PA Shines
- Where PA Falls Short
- What Do I Get as a PA Customer?
- Is PA a Robo-Advisor or a Financial Advisor?
What Is Vanguard Personal Advisor?
|Weighted Average |
|At least 0.35%*||0.07%**||$50,000|
*For all-index fund or ESG portfolio options only.
**It’s difficult to track the performance of any robo-advisor because they recommend different portfolio allocations depending on your risk tolerance and investment timeline. However, Condor Capital Wealth Management (formerly Backend Benchmarking) offers detailed information about the historical performance of every major robo-advisor in their quarterly report. Your actual results will vary based on the portfolio option you select as well as future market performance.
Known for its low-cost index funds and long-term investment philosophy, Vanguard is a Clark.com favorite.
A typical full-service, fee-only financial advisor charges an annual fee of about 1%. PA offers financial planning tools and some access to human financial advisors for an annual advisory fee of at least 0.35% (for the all-index and ESG portfolio options).
Vanguard’s PA clients get quality financial advisors at rock-bottom prices. You can attribute that to a combination of the company’s scale, the fact that PA isn’t operating customer-facing physical branches for its robo-advisor clients and because it invests clients’ money via its entry-level (read: cheapest) robo-advisor.
Vanguard’s Digital Advisor, the standalone robo-advisor, charges 0.20% in annual fees and requires a $3,000 minimum investment. You can unlock the premium version (PA) by depositing at least $50,000 in assets with Vanguard and paying a fraction more in fees.
PA is considered a hybrid. Vanguard manages your portfolio via its robo-advisor. But it also provides you with ongoing unlimited access to its team of human financial advisors including full-scale financial planning.
Meeting specific investment thresholds will unlock additional benefits. At $500,000, you’ll get a dedicated advisor rather than whoever is available. This is called Personal Advisor Select.
You’ll also get a lower annual advisory fee at $5 million (0.20%), $10 million (0.10%) and $25 million (0.05%). However, these fee tiers are progressive, much like the U.S. tax system.
How Does Vanguard Personal Advisor Work?
As with most robo-advisors, you’ll start by filling out an online questionnaire about your age, income, assets, goals and risk tolerance. Vanguard will suggest a pre-built portfolio that matches your answers.
Whether you accept Vanguard’s suggestion or request a different portfolio, here is where the path starts to diverge from a typical robo-advisor.
You can schedule a conference call with one of Vanguard’s financial advisors to talk about your objectives and review your answers. The best part? You don’t have to commit to using PA until one of the financial advisors walks you through the plan and answers your questions.
Vanguard used to create a customized financial roadmap for you. That’s now reserved for Vanguard Personal Advisor Select (minimum investment: $500,000).
Now, in addition to establishing your investment portfolio via its robo-advisor, Vanguard will “nudge” you to “complete your financial picture” by “setting up automatic contributions to meet your goals, defining your emergency savings, choosing a Medicare plan prior to becoming eligible, preparing for healthcare costs in retirement, and more.”
If you become a client, you’ll get the ability to self-schedule a call with a Vanguard financial advisor to walk you through financial planning. Common topics include tax planning, withdrawals (such as in retirement) and debt management.
As a PA client, you’ll also get access to Vanguard’s digital financial planning tools as well as an account dashboard to monitor your progress.
Where Vanguard Personal Advisor Shines
Here are some areas where Vanguard Personal Advisor excels:
- Inexpensive access to fee-only fiduciaries. You can expect an annual advisory fee of at least 0.35%. Considering Vanguard gives you unlimited access to fee-only fiduciaries, a designation that Clark views as a must-have, this represents great value. You’ll typically pay about 1% annually for a full-service financial advisor and Vanguard’s advisors offer you some of the same services for around one-third of the price.
- Low average expense ratio. According to Backend Benchmarking’s First Quarter 2023 Robo Report, Vanguard Personal Advisor presents clients with an average expense ratio of 0.07%. Vanguard is investing your money in a variety of assets, some of which are funds that charge management fees. A 0.07% average expense ratio is very competitive and indicates an all-in cost of around 0.37% per year.
- Substantial financial planning advice. Vanguard doesn’t operate like a glorified call center: offering only scripted advice based on common financial situations. The company’s advisors have a reputation for thorough communication that will help Vanguard understand your goals, priorities and circumstances.
- Strong digital planning tools. The best financial planning tools in 2023 are dynamic. They don’t provide a simple progress bar that shows how close you are to retirement. You can prioritize multiple goals, change inputs and get data on the likelihood of achieving your goals based on those changes.
Where Vanguard Personal Advisor Falls Short
Here are the downsides of Vanguard Personal Advisor:
- High minimum investment requirement. Clients must invest a minimum of $50,000 to be part of Vanguard Personal Advisor. That’s not a high number in the context of financial advisors, but it’s twice as much as the equivalent offerings at Schwab and Fidelity.
- No in-person meetings. If you’ve never used a financial advisor, perhaps you won’t notice a difference. Traditional financial advisors almost always meet with clients in person, although that’s shifting to a degree. All Vanguard Personal Advisor live communication takes place through video or phone calls.
- Moving assets from elsewhere can be expensive. The rules are somewhat murky but expect to be strongly encouraged to sell or transfer investments you hold at other brokerage firms. Before you sign up, it’s worth figuring out Vanguard’s exact requirements on this front and considering the potential costs.
What Do I Get as a Personal Advisor Customer?
Vanguard’s PA clients receive three main benefits:
1. Guidance from a human financial advisor.
Whether or not you commit to PA, you can discuss your financial goals and assets with a Vanguard advisor.
You’ll then get access to digital financial planning tools that can help you set goals and make good choices as far as saving for retirement or working toward a family vacation home.
Once you enroll in the PA program, you can schedule a call with a member of that team of fiduciaries to discuss financial planning topics. Separately, Vanguard’s customer service team is available from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. EST seven days a week.
You can schedule a call with an advisor. Here are some of the topics that you may be able to discuss with an advisor:
- Social security optimization
- Tax planning
- Advice on long-term care and medical costs
- Estate planning
- Charitable giving
- Roth conversions
- Trust services
Vanguard will invest your money into a pre-built portfolio that matches your goals, age and income.
Unlike working with a typical robo-advisor, you’ll be able to talk to a human advisor before locking into your portfolio choice.
Again, you can look at Condor Capital Wealth Management (formerly Backend Benchmarking), which reports extensive robo-advisor data, if you want to explore info on historical performance for Vanguard and other robo-advior investment options.
The portfolio options include always-popular Vanguard funds.
3. Digital planning tools.
Vanguard isn’t exactly the gold standard for modern gadgets and user experience.
However, if your expectations are low, its digital planning tools may pleasantly surprise you.
You can explore hypothetical scenarios by adjusting inputs for your preferred retirement age and annual household savings. Vanguard will run 10,000 Monte Carlo simulations to determine the probability of you meeting your goal(s).
Is Personal Advisor a Robo-Advisor or a Financial Advisor?
The terms “robo-advisor” and “financial advisor” can be confusing.
If you’re still not clear on the difference (and how PA offers both at the same time), let’s take another look at it.
A robo-advisor uses algorithms to match you with one of several pre-built investment portfolios. You answer some questions, give it some money and it invests in a well-diversified portfolio that matches your needs. It’s inexpensive, guided “set it and forget it” investing.
However, robo-advisors don’t offer financial planning or any services beyond investing.
Traditional full-service financial advisors build a holistic financial plan for you based on your goals, offer financial coaching and can even prevent you from making poor financial decisions.
PA offers the best of both worlds by using Vanguard’s robo-advisor to handle your investing while still giving you access to human financial experts who can help you with pretty much any money goal, issue or question.
Vanguard Personal Advisor is the first option that Clark mentions when I ask him about financial advisor options.
Getting unlimited access to a team of advisors for an annual advisory fee of around 0.35% per year is a tremendous deal, one that’s possible only because of Vanguard’s enormous scale.
Finding a financial advisor with the right qualifications (fee-only fiduciary) can be needlessly complicated. Doing business with Vanguard Personal Advisor removes that concern.
Vanguard’s advice services are provided by Vanguard Advisers, Inc. (“VAI”), a registered investment advisor, or by Vanguard National Trust Company (“VNTC”), a federally chartered, limited-purpose trust company. The services provided to clients will vary based upon the service selected, including management, fees, eligibility, and access to an advisor. See VAI’s Form CRS and each program’s advisory brochure here for an overview. VAI and VNTC are subsidiaries of The Vanguard Group, Inc., and affiliates of Vanguard Marketing Corporation. Neither VAI, VNTC, nor its affiliates guarantee profits or protection from losses.