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Review of Investing Platforms
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Investing can be daunting and complicated. Don’t worry, we’ve got you. And to help kickstart your research on which platforms to consider using to track, buy, sell, and trade stocks and funds, we’ve tested many of the most popular trading platforms to see what sort of value they give you for your time, money, and, well, values. Here’s what we found!
FWIW tests out platforms
based on value for your...
- Is there a required minimum investment?
- What fees does the platform charge, and what triggers them?
- Are there any perks or extra tools that go along with joining the platform?
- Do they give you any incentives to join?
- Is signing up a straightforward process?
- Are the website and mobile app easy to navigate?
- Is relevant information front-and-center?
- Are there a lot of investment options?
- How easy is it to screen for your values?
- Do they prioritize purpose-and-profit investing? Do they provide specific
programs, products, or spotlights with values-aligned investors in mind?
- What sort of educational materials are available?
Reviews of platforms to consider when
investing in line with your values:
Public’s minimalist interface captures what this app does best: buying and trading stocks. All of the platform’s features are built around this simple concept. Your home page lists your “Buying Power” (the amount of capital available in your account to buy stock), gives a visual of your portfolio’s performance, and also directs you to community resources about the market.
The community element is probably Public’s most defining feature: from the daily analysis and earnings call alerts in their “Market Movers” widget, to the Community board where users can post their own questions and predictions, to the regular AMAs with CEOs, Public is all about market education for the Public community. When you make trades, you can share your “why” with other users of Public and add a hashtag to make it searchable. Following hashtags puts your values front and center — literally.
With no account minimum or transaction fees, Public is available to anyone ready to invest their first dollar. However, service and regulatory fees do apply when you go beyond simple stock trading. For instance, a 1 to 2% markup is applied to all crypto transactions. And, true to their community roots, they are eager to get you and your people on board: when you refer friends, both of you get a free fractional stock share of your choice (from a pre-approved list).
Account signup, which starts with downloading Public’s app, takes about 10-15 minutes — including responding to questions about your fluency with investing, which we’re guessing goes into their newsfeed algorithms. Once your banking info is hooked up, buying and selling are also simple processes. When you log on, your portfolio’s performance that day is the first screen you see, followed by a time-lapse visual. Their how-to’s and other 101 resources are sometimes flagged in your notifications, but otherwise, you need to do some searching and following to really get the most out of it.
Public’s Themes tool curates stocks around values like American Made, Green Power, and Fighting Disease. In addition to its assigned Themes, company profiles include financial performance metrics, news and analyst predictions (including upcoming events that could impact stock price, like earnings calls), and recent activity from Public’s user community. Once again, the Community feature might be where you get the most values-related info: if lots of Unilever’s Public investors are using the hashtag #climateconscious, that could be a good sign for, well, the climate-conscious. By itself, the hashtag search feature is another way to find values-aligned posts, users, companies, and ETFs on Public — provided that your search guesses lead to the right auto-complete. Typing in “racial equity” showed zero search results, for example, but “Black” brought up “#blackentrepreneurs” and a bevy of other related hashtags… as well as the public company BlackBerry.
Founded in 1975, Vanguard is among the old-school fund managers pivoting to new-school digital tools to attract a younger generation. One thing that’s always in style: affordability. Vanguard pioneered low-cost mutual funds back in the disco-and-lapels era by giving ownership to its mutual fund shareholders and passing on the profits in the form of low management fees.
Unlike newer platforms that cater to day traders and market enthusiasts, Vanguard is all about slow and steady winning the race. With a focus on retirement planning and other long-term financial goals, their investment products, advisory services, and rollover options are offered at a range of price points. In fact, the biggest challenge might be navigating the bevy of resources and options on their website. Making Vanguard your values-aligned investing home is possible, but it’s a little like building a home from scratch with an architect rather than a move-in ready condo: it takes time and patience, but you’ll eventually get exactly what you want — and then it can be out of your mind for the next 30 years.
With no real trading platform, Vanguard is for the wait-and-savers among us. There’s no minimum investment required to open an account, and the $20 annual fee for managing portfolios under $10,000 can be waived if you sign up for paperless statement delivery (also a win for the environment!). Vanguard’s fees are indeed low — their 0.09% average expense ratio is a fraction of the industry average — but that’s because they are focused on larger initial investments. For example, you can’t buy fractional shares on the platform, and most of those low-cost mutual funds require a minimum investment in the thousands of dollars. Crypto is also not on the menu, at least for now.
Vanguard is geared towards long-term investors, especially those nurturing retirement or college savings accounts, making the more cumbersome registration process (you have to do it on a browser) a one-time inconvenience rather than a regular headache; they even break down exactly what you’ll need to create an account. Its interface is also more 1975 than 2022, but you’ll be able to glean basic performance information on your portfolio and potential stock purchases (and a face-lift appears to be underway).
ValuesA signatory to the UN’s Principles of Responsible Investing, Vanguard makes values-related options available to all of its account holders. The firm’s ESG investing page lists its most popular ESG ETFs and clearly explains what’s included and excluded; individual ETF pages are much more focused on performance data, but also list out the criteria. That said, if you’re searching for a specific value — like climate-friendly investments — you’ll have to do more digging or chat with one of their advisors. It’s definitely more hands-on, but that is arguably a holdover benefit of the pre-Internet world in which Vanguard was founded.
Founded by barrier-breaking Wall Street banker Sallie Krawcheck, Ellevest says it’s “redefining investing for women.” The platform has grown from a nifty 401(k) alternative to a full-service community with not just investing options, but access to career coaches, savings tools, and more.
The women-centric marketing might lead one to assume that Ellevest is for gender lens investors. Though they do offer an “Ellevest Impact” portfolio (more on that below), the gendered part of their approach is less about the “what” than the “how.” Their tools for setting feasible retirement goals or equity-building strategies take into account factors that are more likely to impact women, such as longer lifespans, taking time off to care for kids or elderly parents, and that persistent pay gap. (Yes, men can join, too, and Ellevest resets those factors to account for norms among men.)
As their life-cycle visioning suggests, Ellevest is more about the long-term than the short-term when it comes to investing — but the platform’s other tools can be useful for day-to-day decisions, too.
Ellevest charges a monthly membership fee that replaces what others might charge through transaction fees and mandatory account minimums. In addition to covering fees, each membership tier includes additional benefits. The lowest tier is just $1/month and includes one brokerage account and 20% off Ellevest’s coaching services. (Yes, at any membership level, talking to a real human being costs extra.) Members at the Plus ($5/month) or Executive ($9/month) tiers can create multiple IRA accounts and get up to 50% off coaching. Not interested in membership? Ellevest does offer free budget and savings worksheets and a robust hub of educational resources, including a regularly-updated blog. You can also book an a la carte coaching session at full price ($300 on average).
One quirk worth flagging: unlike a lot of robo-advisors, Ellevest does not offer automated tax-loss harvesting — meaning that if one of your investments loses you money, Ellevest won’t sell it at a loss to offset capital gains taxes you might owe on other investments.
Ellevest’s tiered membership system means being prepared to spend time on the front end deciding which of their resources you’ll actually use. The platform is continually growing — most recently, they’ve added insurance options through partnerships with Lemonade and Policygenius — so it can be difficult to keep track of what you are or should be using it for. Once you’re in, though, Ellevest’s landing page greets you with a portfolio snapshot and fairly straightforward account maintenance links. It’s possible to set-it-and-forget-it, but Ellevest seems determined to keep you coming back from more.
Ellevest’s proprietary investing algorithm uses women-specific factors to come up with a strategy. But that’s where the customization typically ends: members can create a portfolio in Ellevest Core, which prioritizes tax minimization, or Ellevest Impact, which includes up to 53% “ESG and impact” ETFs. Once you pick, Ellevest comes up with an aligned mix to meet your goals. Ellevest is somewhat explicit about what “impact” means to them — their big focus is advancing companies with women on boards and in C-suites — but digging deeper is tough, and if you don’t like what you find, your options are limited.
That said, Ellevest’s coaching component, which offers support on everything from negotiating a raise to building an annual personal budget at an extra cost, is about as customized as you can get.
Between being one of the first providers to allow crypto in 401(k)s and its two-year streak as NerdWallet’s “best online broker for beginners,” you might be surprised to learn that Fidelity wasn’t founded in Silicon Valley by a guy in a hoodie, but in 1946 by a lifelong Bostonian named Ed. Fidelity is a far more sprawling enterprise than a focused trading app like Robinhood, with trillions in assets under management and a long list of product offerings. As with other multi-pronged platforms, it is best to go into Fidelity knowing what you want to get out of it.
Fidelity’s investing app in particular offers plenty of low-to-no-fee indexes, ETFs, and mutual funds, but what really sets it apart is the customer service, which routinely gets 5-star ratings from users — a rare bird among finance apps. That personal touch, and the robust research materials offered for free, speak to Fidelity’s roots as a family business (Ed’s granddaughter Abigail is the current company president).
Fidelity offers fractional shares, but it is better known for its commission-free host of index funds with no expense ratio or transaction fees (read: no hidden fees for you!). In addition to $0 account minimums, Fidelity has eliminated most of the fees commonly associated with online brokers. A few exceptions: a $0.65/contract fee for options trading, a $3/year management fee for robo-advised accounts with more than $10,000, and a $32.95 fee (substantially higher than similar brokerages) for a broker-assisted trade.
The biggest drawback to Fidelity is, unfortunately, the one that greets most users: it’s a bit of a slog to set up, and even though no minimum investment is required to open an account, you really can’t get a sense of the features until you’ve made your first deposit. Once you’re in, however, you’re in — and thanks to the diverse offerings, you can make your experience on the app what you want it to be. Fidelity does offer IRAs and other long-term retirement accounts, but most of its other tools cater to active traders. The density of offerings is offset by the readily-available education materials. Like so much of investing, this is an app where you truly get back what you put in. A fully-customizable experience is available with their Active Trader Pro, but it requires a high minimum portfolio value ($250k+).
Until recently, Fidelity was slow on the sustainability uptake; in 2021 they doubled their ESG thematic mutual fund offerings to 11 and announced their support of shareholder resolutions to address climate change and gender diversity. To date, that’s about it. Given the short list to choose from (along with their extensive research catalog), it might be a quick decision whether there are options aligned with your values.
Like its namesake medieval hero, the low-fee fractional shares on the Robinhood app — coupled with that whole 2021 GameStop market manipulation dust-up, led by the app’s most (ahem) passionate users — are intended to be a sassy thorn in the side of the rich. Regardless of where you stand on “GameStop-gate,” equipping people outside of the 1% with easy access to affordable fractional shares of the stocks that regularly mint billionaires is a pretty great idea. More than half of the app’s users are first-time investors, and the majority are under 30.
Robinhood’s accessibility is a huge selling point — and truly, its features are great for users who are just getting the hang of investing — but the app is really designed for the here-and-now day trader, not longer-term investing. Retirement accounts, and the mutual funds and bonds that often anchor them, aren’t available on the app. This also means that Robinhood users aren’t eligible for some of the tax benefits for traditional investors. However, if your priority is using a few bucks to master the basics, Robinhood could be the right place to start.
From a free fractional share upon signup (chosen from a pre-selected list) to its pioneering zero-commission trades, Robinhood lives up to that “Investing for All” tagline. There’s a $1 minimum for purchasing a fractional share in just about any company and there are no transaction fees, aside from a $75 fee for transferring money out of your Robinhood account. Robinhood has also gone all-in on crypto, still a key differentiator among the apps.
That said, the analysis available on the free version of the app is limited to what is basically a highlights reel from major analysts. It’s not nothing, but it doesn’t exactly help you go deeper. For $5/month, you can upgrade to “Robinhood Gold,” which provides access to Morningstar’s full analyses, as well as perks like $1000 in interest-free margin trading and the ability to transfer more money into your account, which is still limited to a simple brokerage. Because Robinhood does not offer bonds or mutual funds, it’s trickier to build a diversified portfolio — you’re pretty much at the mercy of the market’s daily ups-and-downs.
Robinhood’s origin as an app is reflected in its streamlined design and process: you just need your name, email, and some basic info to get started. They also have instant-transfer relationships with most major banks, meaning that you’re a few clicks away from having money in your Robinhood account to make your first investment.
Once you’re in, you’ll see a quick snapshot of your portfolio performance, followed by the performance of companies on your Lists. The app defaults to listing the most popular companies — Apple, Twitter, and Tesla are regulars at the top — but the idea is that you create multiple lists of companies whose performance you want to monitor, so that you can strike when the proverbial iron is hot. The search screen includes Trending Lists (think “Newly Listed Cryptos” and “20 Most Popular ETFs”) and daily snapshots of market news (known as “Robinhood Snacks”).
To navigate Robinhood, keep in mind that the default setting is “popularity”: if you haven’t personalized anything, it will keep showing you what the majority of other investors are buying, selling, trading, or saying. So if you want to look beyond household names like Netflix or Microsoft, it may take some digging to find alternatives. (Plus, we have never been fans of crowdsourcing investment advice.)
We’ll be blunt: If you want readily-available info on the values-related ratings of companies, Robinhood is not the place to find it. (Case in point: a search for “climate” on the app brings up only companies and ETFs that have the word “climate” in their name. The profile of one such ETF, “US Vegan Climate,” does not even mention its ESG criteria beyond “principles-based,” and its only related Robinhood List is “Size-based ETFs.”) Company profiles capture financial performance, but that’s it; the “People Also Own” feature on the company profile could introduce you to other potential investments. And, Morningstar does include ESG and other sustainability-related metrics in their analyses, so Robinhood Gold subscribers might fare a little better. But for the free users that form the backbone of Robinhood’s customer base, the app more or less assumes that you’re doing your values-related research elsewhere and bringing your knowledge onto their platform.
You no longer have to be a “wolf” to put your portfolio in the hands of a leading Wall Street bank. Goldman Sachs’ Marcus offering — named for founder Marcus Goldman — is a robo-advisor built with the firm’s proprietary investment methodology.
Going digital was a bold step for an investment bank that made its name with relationship-driven support. Perhaps that’s why Marcus is more intentional about replicating the human-to-human experience: they ask financial wellness questions during signup and offer advice based on responses (Don’t have an emergency fund? Start one before you invest!) and offer a “Financial Personality” quiz developed with the creators of the Myers-Briggs personality assessments. (This author is a very on-brand Values-Based Planner.)
Marcus recently brought its $1000 minimum investment down to $0, and there are investment options starting with as little as $5. The 0.25% annual management fee, based on the average daily performance of your portfolio, is competitive with similar platforms. Other fees are essentially invisible: ETFs purchased on the platform include an embedded investment expense ratio ranging from 0.05% to 0.17%, and Marcus covers ancillary costs like printing checks on behalf of its customers. On the downside, however, Marcus does not offer tax-loss harvesting.
In addition to individual and joint brokerage accounts and IRAs, Marcus also offers high-yield savings accounts, personal loans, and credit cards — perfect for those who prefer a one-stop banking shop. The desktop and app both have clean interfaces that are easy to navigate. And for those of us who don’t have our bank account numbers memorized, you can skip the deposit step altogether when setting up your account, so all it takes to get started is some personal information .
From there, Marcus Invest is an automated set-it-and-forget-it offering, down to the fact that talking to a human isn’t an option. It’s a time-saver for sure, but for those seeking more hands-on customization, this might not be the right fit.
Goldman Sachs became one of the first investment banks to get in on the impact investing game in 2013, when they provided financing for a criminal justice reform social impact bond. So it’s not too surprising that “Impact” is one of 3 Marcus Invest portfolio themes (the others are “Core,” a market-benchmark staple, and “Smart Beta,” which includes Goldman Sachs-managed ETFs).
That said, Marcus’ Impact theme is more of an “impact-weighted” portfolio: the methodology favors ESG ETF options over market-cap ETFs when they align with your risk profile. In practice, you could end up with a Marcus Impact portfolio with no ESG ETFs. There’s little information about what ETFs are included, and customization options appear limited.
Why the double header? Charles Schwab recently completed its acquisition of TD Ameritrade, and the plan to fully integrate the two by late 2023 is underway — so any new accounts will ultimately become a twofer. Good thing they share similar origin stories (they were both founded in the Midwest in 1971!)
As traditional brokerage firms are growing up for the digital age, Schwab and TD Ameritrade offer a range of account types, educational resources, and advising services. But what really sets them apart — and what will likely become the defining feature of their joint future — is their day trading platforms. TD Ameritrade’s thinknotswim and Schwab’s StreetSmart Edge (all available on browser, mobile, and desktop app) track every twitch in every corner of the markets in real-time. Think Robinhood or Public on steroids. Those who master a platform can become the guy in the red-strings-connection meme, but with the ups and downs of stocks and bonds.
Schwab and TD Ameritrade have free options, but there are exceptions. There are no account minimums for simple self-managed brokerage accounts (where you can invest in over 4,000 no-transaction-fee mutual funds), but you need to deposit at least $5000 to take advantage of their robo-advisor services.
Same with their respective day trading platforms: they’re free to use, with no minimums or fees attached, unless you opt for one of their premium upgrades. If day trading becomes your new hobby, then forking over a little extra might be worth it for the extra research/analysis access — but the free versions are pretty robust, especially if you’re just getting started.
As with other platforms, though, the lack of minimums doesn’t change the fact that most of the investment options are in at least the hundreds of dollars; TD Ameritrade does not offer fractional shares at all, and Schwab’s fractional share selection is very limited.
Account setup is quick and straightforward with both institutions. Account management is another story. There are a lot of options, and if you really want to dive into that day-trading rabbit hole, there’s a lot of research available to read. The variety of offerings will take some time to sort through and figure out what you want, need, or just find kind of cool to play with. Interface-wise, Schwab’s site and apps are a bit more intuitive than TD Ameritrade’s; both offer regular banking services for that all-in-one experience (Schwab can also show the status of your non-Schwab accounts on your landing page). Customer service for both also rates relatively high.
Pre-merger, both TD Ameritrade and Schwab had ESG options at the ready (including TD Ameritrade’s Socially Aware portfolios, and Schwab’s Ariel ESG ETF). And while it’s not clear what exactly their post-merger ESG offerings will look like, they will continue providing their clients with plenty of resources to decide what aligns with your values. Pages for each mutual fund and ETF on Schwab’s ESG list, for instance, prominently break down fund strategy, which companies are in the holding and what countries are represented, and their Morningstar ratings. The layout is a bit eye-watering in its level of detail, so you’ll need to do some digging, but it’s all there.