Apps like Acorns, Robinhood and Stash - which were founded in 2012,2013 and 2015 respectively - have grown in popularity recently. In May Robinhood announced it had already added three million funded accounts in 2020. LAST month my husband asked me about the trading app Robinhood and whether I’d seen reports of its users getting hacked and having their money stolen. Apparently, the victims had trouble getting in touch with company representatives. The situation led to a larger conversation about investing apps and whether one should use them in lieu of traditional brokerages. There are a few things investors should consider before deciding that an app is right for them. Apps like Acorns, Robinhood and Stash - which were founded in 2012,2013 and 2015 respectively - have grown in popularity recently. In May Robinhood announced it had already added three million funded accounts in 2020. The apps appeal to their targeted Millennial and Gen Z demographics in no small part because they make stock market access fairly simple and cost-effective. The straightforward user experience makes them far more appealing and easier to use than many of their clunky brokerage counterparts. These apps also help novice investors by offering educational information about the market. Still, there are advantages to getting started with investing via an established brokerage. One is the security blanket of customer service access. Have a problem? No worries, you can generally call and speak with someone. This is not always the case with investing apps, which may only offer email support. Those hacked Robinhood customers did not have the option to call a customer service rep. Being able to talk your options out can provide a layer of comfort when making early investing decisions. Granted, brokerages won’t be providing you with specific investing advice unless you pay an advisory fee, and in many cases, you need an asset minimum to unlock that offering. However, if you have a question like how to roll over your IRA or how to invest in a new ETF or index fund, you can call your brokerage for customer service help. Another consideration is the additional fees you might pay by going through apps that essentially act as middleman. For the index or ETF investor, the brokerages are a direct shopping experience. You go on their platform and choose what you want to invest in. The apps largely use the ETFs of well-known brokerages like Vanguard, so electing to use the app versus the brokerage could mean paying more for the same product - and you want to ensure you’re getting value for the extra cost. It’s important for investors to compare the expense ratio they’d be charged from the app with what it would cost to go directly through the brokerage to purchase an ETF or index fund. It’s usually the same, but it’s always good to check. Another factor is the fee. Some investing apps charge a monthly fee, which may be worth it for perks like a better interface and tools that help you save and contribute. But going directly through a brokerage to invest in its funds instead of using the app may actually leave some extra money in your investments for future growth. One more thing to consider is that these apps essentially gamify investing. They’re easy to navigate but all those intuitive and colorful interfaces, push notifications and alerts can also nudge you to make quick, rash decisions - which isn’t always the strategy you want to take with investing. How much money you should put through an investing app should rest on your goals as an investor and your comfort level with the security and customer service accessibility. One thing is for sure, if you’re going to use an investing app, then you need to ensure you’re investing enough to account for any fees. Small dollar amounts sound reasonable, but if you only invest $5 a month, then your monthly fee is probably eating up your returns. Committing to $25 to $50 a month helps preserve your returns and reduce them getting negated by any fees. This, of course, is assuming you’re in the $1-a-month fee range and not the $9 or $10 monthly fee. These apps also shouldn’t be used as a replacement for investing into retirement accounts such as a 401(k) or Roth IRA. Granted, there are investing apps that offer access to IRAs - but then you need to decide if it makes sense to pay the extra fee to go through the app as opposed to going directly to the funds at brokerages that the apps use. Ultimately, investing apps can help encourage younger generations to learn about investing and financial health earlier on. But as with any tool that’s tied to your money, they’re best approached carefully. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. Erin Lowry is the author of "Broke Millennial, ” "Broke Millennial Takes On Investing” and the forthcoming "Broke Millennial Talks Money: Stories, Scripts and Advice to Navigate Awkward Financial Conversations.” - Bloomberg
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