Ellavest – Roboadvisor for Women

ellavest

Alma Aguilar, who works for a cloud-storage software firm in Austin, recently asked me what I thought about Ellavest. Aguilar had heard about the woman-oriented roboadvising software service after following founder Sallie Krawcheck’s short video offerings “Money in 60 Seconds.” Aguilar, married and the mother of a one year-old, wondered if she should branch out her investing activities beyond the 401(k) retirement plan she contributes to at work. 

My confession to Aguilar: I’d never heard of it. 

Ellavest has been growing and evolving since 2016. For those looking for an easy on-ramp to investing, my sense is this is worth checking out.

One of the clever features of roboadvising apps is that they enroll you in savings or investing right away from the initial interactions with the website or phone app. Like similar finance apps I use and recommend, such as Acorns, M1 Finance, and Qapital, Ellavest asked me for my name, zipcode, household income, and financial goals. Unlike those, Ellavest also asked about my gender and number of children.

Although Ellavest is targeted for women, the app allowed me to enroll online as a male. 

As I type this, I imagine the Texas legislature is meeting to pass emergency laws to prevent me from entering a woman-oriented finance app as a male-bodied person. But that’s another story for another time. 

Do women want, or need, an investment advisor targeted to them? I don’t know if most women do, but likely some will.

Kathleen Burns Kingsbury, a Vermont-based consultant and wealth psychologist who literally wrote a book called How To Give Financial Advice To Women, is open to the idea that women approach their finances differently. She pointed me to research by Merrill Lynch, which found women nearly three times more likely than men to have had a negative gender stereotype experience with their financial advisor. The Merrill study also found that when a mixed-gender couple sits in front of an advisor, the man typically commands 60 percent of the advisor’s attention, compared to 40 percent for the woman. 

As I enrolled, the Ellavest app asked about my financial goals, and also about what my biggest obstacles may be. The menu of choices include “navigate a career change,” “feel confident negotiating,” or “tackle imposter syndrome.” While these are universal human challenges, they also struck me as signals to women that the designers of this app understand their particular perspective.

Roboinvesting, by theory and design, means setting up an investment account that does not need to involve speaking to another human. Typically we interact with roboadvising software on our phones, with small initial dollar amounts, and receive simple investment plans automatically from a few data points about our goals, risk tolerance, income, time horizon, and life status. 

I ascribe to the idea that – done correctly – the hardest part of investing is just getting started. For that reason alone, I am a proponent for setting up a simple plan with a roboadvisor, and then getting out of the way of our own tendency to mess with the plan. Ellavest appears solidly aligned with this goal and method.

What you should never do on your financial phone app – and I cannot emphasize this strongly enough – is daytrade Game Stop shares because anonymous poster u/FartStocks told you on a Reddit forum that you could stick it to some some imagined short-selling hedge fund. But I digress.  

Ellavest’s stated goal of appealing to women as they ramp up investing seems laudable. 

About her retirement programs at work, Aguilar told me “none of them have been easy to navigate or understand. Ellevest makes it easy and clear to get set up and start investing.”

Something about the educational content of Ellevest also appealed to her. As Aguilar told me “I quickly appreciated that the investment algorithm takes into account a woman’s issues such as the gender pay gap and longer life expectancy. They also do a great job at educating women about why it is important for them to take charge of their finances.”

Kingsbury pointed out that the right way to think about tailoring financial advice to women might be mis-stated. As Kingsbury says, “In the future, I think we will move to services that are more human-centric, rather than gendered.” Kingsbury noted that one person’s experience in the world may be quite different from someone else’s, so that a one-size fits all approach doesn’t work. 

“That may be an argument for a woman-centered roboadvisor. It may also be an argument for a human investment advisor,” says Kingsbury.

In addition to clearly-stated and fixed monthly fees (which I like!) the Ellavest site offers coaching sessions, something that I happen to think is a highly useful financial service that most humans – however gendered – need.

The Ellavest signup presents plans for $1/month, $5/month, or $9/month with a heightened suite of services at the top price point. The $1/month cost is in line with other roboadvising services Once you’ve accumulated at least $1,000 or more, the fees become moderate. As with most investing costs, they come down as a % of assets as assets increase.

Also, given the gender pay gap, will the software would be content to receive on average 82 percent of what a male-oriented roboadvisor charges? 

What? I’m just asking the question.

A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express News.

Please see related posts on Roboadvisors:

About Qapital

About M1 Finance

About Acorns (This one is my favorite)

About Robinhood (This one is my least favorite)

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Check Out This Acorns Thing

acorns_app

I downloaded a fin-tech app called Acorns a few weeks ago. I recommend you drop this blog post now, text your favorite twenty-something, and make sure they’ve downloaded this thing already. I am now an evangelizing convert.

Here’s a short list of problems many people have in getting started investing and building wealth.

  1. No money (duh, obviously)
  2. No time to figure out investing
  3. No interest in following stock and bond markets
  4. No confidence navigating investment choices
  5. No plan for ongoing automation of investments
  6. No experience avoiding high-cost service providers

Each of these problems afflicts twenty-somethings even more than the rest of us.

And yet, as any fifty year-old who wakes up from a few decades working and paying down debts learns (when they finally make that appointment with an investment advisor) even small amounts of money socked away decades ago would have made the problem of retirement and wealth-building so much easier.

But how does anyone even begin? As I’ve mentioned before, beginning is perhaps the hardest part of investing. Enter Acorns.

Endorsing a product

Now, I really hate to endorse a specific product or company when I write about finance topics, because part of my whole “ex-banker in recovery” identity is to form opinions without the reality – or even appearance of – “selling a product.”

Having said that, I’m almost annoyed with myself to say: this is an awesome product and every investment beginner should be using it. The crazy thing about Acorns is that they’ve addressed all six of the problems I listed above.

spare_change

No money?

The app invites you to begin with an initial $5 bank transfer. The app’s opening pitch is that it will invest your “spare change.” They use a technique Bank of America pioneered about 10 years ago, which was to “round up” little transactional odd-lots – the equivalent of pocket change you’d throw into a coin jar at the end of the day – and invest it for you. Acorns tracks these spare change amounts from all accounts you choose to link – such as a debt, credit, or checking account – and automatically transfers it into an investment account. Pretty clever.

No time?

The app took about 5mins to get started, and another 3 minutes that first day entering a bit of personal data and linking bank accounts. I never spoke to a live human, which is great. I never set aside time to do it. I set it up on my phone, in between my kids talking to me about their day.
“No, sweety, I didn’t really listen to your story about the turtle. Can’t you see Daddy’s moving money around with his phone? This is 2 minutes of sacred Daddy-time.” (I’m a really good parent.)

parenting with phone

No interest?

After about 2 minutes of entering personal information, the app suggests one of five portfolios on a risk spectrum from “Conservative” to “Aggressive.” Each of these is built from a blend of Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) to get you exposed to bonds and stocks, but without having to know anything about these things. While I personally find markets fascinating, I think the ultra-simplification makes sense for everyone who finds stock and bond markets utterly dull.

No confidence?

With no investment choice to make beyond one of five portfolios on a risk spectrum, app users don’t get stuck by the deadly indecision-problem – what behavioral economists call “the paradox of choice” – in which we avoid something entirely because we can’t face the problem of choosing between too many options.

Based on my age, income and wealth, the app suggested the merely “Moderately Aggressive” portfolio for me.

black_camaro
Bitching Black Camaro because YOLO

“Are you calling me old?” I hissed angrily into my phone. I chose the “Aggressive” portfolio instead, like the middle-aged man who rents the black Camaro convertible because #YOLO.

No plan for automation?

This, right here, is the most powerful part of the Acorns app, since automation is the key to moderate-income people getting wealthy. The app continuously pestered me to commit to an automatic investing program, either daily, weekly, or monthly, and in any amount, from as little as $1 per transfer. It prompted me so many times that I finally agree to do it weekly, in an amount affordable to me.

By the way, nobody’s accumulating much money based on the “spare change” gimmick I described above, but this automated-invested feature is what will make a twenty-something a millionaire in the long run, with hardly any suffering along the way.

Cost avoidance?

Acorns charges $1/month until you get $5,000 with them, after which they charge 0.25 percent per year on your portfolio. This is the kind of rock-bottom robo-advisor fee that has the investment advisory business a little freaked out right now. I like it.

Acorns’ limitations

Can I come up with some criticisms of this thing? Of course I can.

  1. I personally wouldn’t choose a blend that includes even the 10 percent corporate and government bonds I got – despite the fact that I chose “Aggressive” as my allocation. Fortunately my “Aggressive” Acorns allocation is 90 percent risky, the way I like it.
  2. A person confident and informed about investments could do all of what Acorns does without paying the Acorns fees, obviously. Their fees are low, but yes you could do this yourself, fee-less.
  3. The simplicity of the app does not allow for a complete suite of investment activities. I happen to think simplicity almost always works better than complexity when it comes to our personal investments, but of course the entire money management industry is built on the opposite idea – the conceit that complex tools help us “beat the market.” Not only can you not execute butterfly call spreads or hedge foreign-exchange exposure with Acorns, but you can’t even buy individual stocks. Again, that’s a feature not a bug from my perspective, but shockingly not everyone sees things my way. (Not yet they don’t.)
  4. If you already have some wealth, and your system works for you without too much cost, Acorns seems mostly unnecessary. It’s definitely geared toward the “just getting started” crowd.

On the other hand, I’m not even the right demographic for Acorns, and I’m a total convert.

So…basically…like, download this thing right now.

A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express News.

Please see related posts:

Getting rich slow through automation and small regular contributions

Getting started is the hardest part of investing

Automation may be the most important feature of your investment program

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