What is the Vanguard Digital Advisor service?

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Did you hear the news?

The world of robo-advisors might have a new entrant and it’s a huge one – Vanguard.

Table of Contents
  1. What is Vanguard Digital Advisor?
    1. What does it invest in?
    2. Digital Advisor Fees
  2. What about Personal Advisor Services?
  3. My Thoughts

What is Vanguard Digital Advisor?

Vanguard Digital Advisor will ask you a series of questions to establish risk tolerance and then recommend a portfolio based on your risk attitude assessment. These data points include “information relating to your family, age, risk tolerance, specific financial goals, investment time horizon, current investments, tax filing status, other assets and sources of income, investment preferences, planned spending, and existing financial/investment accounts.”

You currently can set one financial goal, saving for retirement, and they will ask how you’d respond to hypothetical scenarios to further assess your risk tolerance. It then appears you will be put in one of five risk attitude categorizations to build an asset allocation. You can review the different categorizations and pick a different one if you choose to (or if Vanguard is unable to assess your risk tolerance).

This all sounds like pretty standard robo-advisor stuff. Ask a few questions, establish some goals, assess risk, and build a portfolio to meet those.

There are accounts that Vanguard Digital Advisor can access and transact on (“Eligible account types include: individual, traditional IRA, Roth IRA, 401(k), and Roth 401(k) accounts authorized by plan sponsors”) but Digital Advisor can also include accounts it can’t transact on. With those, they can include those accounts in goal forecasting. This is also very familiar because it’s similar to what Personal Capital does with it’s tracking and goal success forecasting.

Also, as a retail investor, Vanguard Digital Advisor requires a minimum of $3,000 to start.

What does it invest in?

As you’d expect, Vanguard Digital Advisor will rely on exchange-traded funds. ETFs are useful for this because they have no minimums and low fees.

Specifically, it will recommend a mix of:

  • Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF
  • Vanguard Total International Stock ETF
  • Vanguard Total Bond Market ETF
  • Vanguard Total International Bond ETF

(sounds a lot like a simple three/four fund portfolio)

Vanguard Digital Advisor will not recommend “individual securities, bonds, CDs, options, derivatives, annuities, third-party mutual funds, closed-end funds, unit investment trusts, partnerships, or other non-Vanguard securities.”

Some may point to this and say – “hey, why is Vanguard only offering their own funds?”

Just look at the expense ratio of their funds:

  • Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF – 0.03%
  • Vanguard Total International Stock ETF – 0.08%
  • Vanguard Total Bond Market ETF – 0.035%
  • Vanguard Total International Bond ETF – 0.08%

Those expense ratios are ridiculously good.

Digital Advisor Fees

Vanguard is aiming for an annual net advisory fee of 0.15%, “although actual expenses will vary based on the specific holdings in your Portfolio and the net advisory fee you pay may also vary by enrolled account. The combined annual costs of enrolling in Digital Advisor and investing in Vanguard Funds in the Portfolio will be 0.20% for RIG Clients.”

So, Vanguard Digital Advisor will charge 0.15%, the underlying fees (for the funds) will be around 0.05% (blended average), so they expect the fee to be 0.20% after you include everything. This is lower than the 0.25% charged by the most popular robo-advisors (which doesn’t include the fees you pay for the underlying funds they choose).

What about Personal Advisor Services?

If this all sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because Vanguard currently offers a service called Personal Advisor Services.

Personal Advisor Services connects you with a financial advisor. It starts with you working with a human Vanguard advisor to understand your financial situation. The advisor works with you to create a custom plan. Once you agree to the plan, the advisor helps to build your portfolio with a mix of stock and bond funds according to that plan, all tracked through Vanguard. The service will review and rebalance your portfolio on a quarterly basis as needed.

It’s very much like today’s robo-advisors except you get a person (I recognize how silly that statement sounds, but a lot of folks are more familiar with robo-advisors than human ones!). I suspect some of the optimization (like rebalancing) is done by algorithms. It’s never explicitly stated but there’s no reason human intervention is required.

The minimum is $50,000 and the fees start at 0.30% on assets up to $5 million. Vanguard Personal Advisor is competitive with Betterment (0.25% – 0.40%) and Wealthfront (0.25%) but you work with a person, rather than an algorithm.

Vanguard Digital Advisor is cheaper but does not include a person.

My Thoughts

Robo-advisors are very popular these days and it’s no surprise that Vanguard is offering a new service.

A few things that jump out – the fees are lower because Vanguard structures their fees differently. 0.20% vs. 0.25% may not seem like a big deal but the other roboadvisors charge a fee on top of the underlying funds.

For example, Betterment charges their advisory fee and you still pay the expense ratios of the underlying funds. If you’re paying 0.25% to Betterment, you’re also paying 0.04% to Vanguard if they put you into VTSAX. On the other hand, Vanguard owns the underlying funds and will “reduce your gross advisory fee by the amount of revenue that Vanguard (or a Vanguard affiliate) collects on your Portfolio to calculate the net advisory fee.” In other words, they will give you credit for the fees you pay for the underlying funds and your “all-in” cost will be no more than 0.20% (as it currently works for retail clients, it’s exactly 0.20%).

One of the big reasons why I haven’t used a Robo-advisor is because of the added complexity. If you look at these robo-advisor portfolios, they’re waaaaay too complex. That first Betterment account has a dozen funds. That’s going to create some tax filing headaches (not unbearable but it’ll be annoying) down the road. I like that Vanguard is sticking with four of their most diversified funds though that will make tax-loss harvesting a little trickier.

Lastly, I already use Vanguard so having it all remain under one roof is appealing.

Disclosures: All investing is subject to risk, including the possible loss of the money you invest.

For more information about Vanguard funds and ETFs, visit vanguard.com to obtain a prospectus or, if available, a summary prospectus. Investment objectives, risks, charges, expenses, and other important information about a fund are contained in the prospectus; read and consider it carefully before investing.

Vanguard Digital Advisor’s services are provided by Vanguard Advisers, Inc. (“VAI”), a federally registered investment advisor. VAI is a subsidiary of VGI and an affiliate of VMC. Neither VAI nor its affiliates guarantee profits or protection from losses.

Vanguard Digital Advisor is an all-digital service that targets an annual net advisory fee of 0.15% across your enrolled accounts, although your actual fee will vary depending on the specific holdings in each enrolled account. To reach this target, Vanguard Digital Advisor starts with a 0.20% annual gross advisory fee to manage Vanguard Brokerage Accounts. However, we’ll credit you for the revenues that The Vanguard Group, Inc. (“VGI”), or its affiliates receive from the securities in your managed portfolio by Digital Advisor (i.e., at least that portion of the expense ratios of the Vanguard funds held in your portfolio that VGI or its affiliates receive). Your net advisory fee can also vary by enrolled account type. The combined annual cost of Vanguard Digital Advisor’s annual net advisory fee plus the expense ratios charged by the Vanguard funds in your managed portfolio will be 0.20% for Vanguard Brokerage Accounts. For more information, please review Form CRS and the Vanguard Digital Advisor brochure.

Vanguard Marketing Corporation, Distributor of the Vanguard Funds.

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About Jim Wang

Jim Wang is a forty-something father of four who is a frequent contributor to Forbes and Vanguard's Blog. He has also been fortunate to have appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Entrepreneur, and Marketplace Money.

Jim has a B.S. in Computer Science and Economics from Carnegie Mellon University, an M.S. in Information Technology - Software Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a Masters in Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University. His approach to personal finance is that of an engineer, breaking down complex subjects into bite-sized easily understood concepts that you can use in your daily life.

One of his favorite tools (here's my treasure chest of tools,, everything I use) is Personal Capital, which enables him to manage his finances in just 15-minutes each month. They also offer financial planning, such as a Retirement Planning Tool that can tell you if you're on track to retire when you want. It's free.

He is also diversifying his investment portfolio by adding a little bit of real estate. But not rental homes, because he doesn't want a second job, it's diversified small investments in a few commercial properties and farms in Illinois, Louisiana, and California through AcreTrader.

Recently, he's invested in a few pieces of art on Masterworks too.

>> Read more articles by Jim

Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, not those of any bank or financial institution. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  1. KIM says

    Note that joint accounts are currently restricted from using Vanguard Digital Advisor. The language in VG’s DA brochure on this is a bit confusing. Joint accounts are eligible to be managed only by VG’s Personal Advisor Service currently.

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