Robo-Advisor vs. Index Fund (2024)

For investors today, index funds and robo-advisors stand out as accessible and effective tools for crafting well-diversified portfolios.

An index fund is a low-cost, passive investment strategy, aiming to mirror the performance of a specific market index—often structured as either a mutual fund or an exchange-traded fund (ETF).

A robo-advisor is an automated service that creates and manages diverse investment portfolios, often leveraging a selection of various index funds.

The key distinction lies in the level of user involvement. While a robo-advisor offers automated portfolio management, investing directly in one or more index funds requires you to manually create and balance your own portfolio for optimal diversification. This article will delve into these nuances and help you determine which approach aligns best with your investment objectives.

Key Takeaways

  • In the world of investing, index funds and robo-advisors represent two low-cost strategies, each with its own unique benefits and levels of user engagement.
  • Index funds are low-cost mutual funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that passively track a benchmark index, sector, or asset class.
  • Robo-advisors are affordable automated investment platforms that often construct well-diversified portfolios based on a mix of index ETFs.
  • Robo-advisors are more hands-off, but lack the flexibility and customization that managing your own portfolio of index funds affords.

Robo-Advisor vs. Index Fund: Key Differences

An index fund is an investment vehicle, generally a mutual fund or an ETF, built to follow a particular market index, such as the S&P 500 or the Nasdaq Composite. The objective of an index fund is not to surpass the market, but to emulate its performance. This is attained by holding all, or a representative sample, of the securities included in the index it tracks at their appropriate weights.

An index fund is inherently passive, with the fund’s portfolio only changing when the constitution of the underlying index itself shifts. However, you can take a more active role in choosing which indexes to own and in what amounts.

Thus, if you invest in index funds, you retain some degree of control—while you can’t decide what an index holds, you can decide which index funds to include in your portfolio, determine the relative weighting for each, and choose when to rebalance your portfolio. This approach requires a level of financial knowledge and an ongoing commitment of time and analysis.

Robo-advisors, on the other hand, are digital platforms that provide algorithm-driven portfolio construction and management. They automate the investment process, considering crucial factors such as your financial goals, risk tolerance, and investment time horizon.

Based on these parameters, robo-advisors create a diversified portfolio, which they continually manage through periodic rebalancing to sustain your selected risk level. This is particularly beneficial for investors who either seek a hands-off approach or lack the time or expertise for portfolio management.

Robo-advisors, by and large, utilize low-cost index ETFs to diversify across geography and asset classes. But, in contrast to the self-directed nature of investing in index funds, robo-advisors assume control of these tasks, choosing which indexes to own and reducing the need for continuous monitoring and decision making. They offer a guided approach, making them a viable choice for novice investors or those who favor a fully passive investment strategy.

What Is an Index Fund?

The creation of index funds can be attributed to John Bogle, the legendary founder of Vanguard Group, who launched the first public index fund, the Vanguard 500 Fund, in 1976. The primary goal was to provide investors with a low-cost, diversified way to invest in the broad stock market. This new idea of passive investing was initially met with skepticism, as it fundamentally contradicted the dominant paradigm of the time, which held that skilled managers could consistently outperform the market.

An index fund is a type of mutual fund or ETF that aims to replicate the performance of a specific market index. For example, an would seek to match the performance of the S&P 500 by investing in the 500 companies that make up that index, or a representative sample of fewer components that would still match its return. The idea is not to beat the market, but to mirror its performance. This passive approach is a core characteristic of index funds, and it contrasts the active investment strategies that aim to outperform the market.

Over the years, index investing has gained substantial traction, becoming a cornerstone of modern investment philosophy. The rise of indexing can be credited to its simplicity, affordability, and access to broad market exposure. Index funds generally have lower expense ratios than actively managed funds because they eliminate the need for managers to conduct extensive research or make frequent trades.

Additionally, index funds provide inherent diversification, reducing the risk associated with investing in single stocks or individual sectors. This broad-based investment strategy has led to a steady growth of assets in index funds, reaching an estimated $5 trillion in 2022 in the United States alone.

However, like all investment strategies, index funds come with their share of pros and cons. On the upside, they offer simplicity, cost-effectiveness, and diversification, making them an excellent choice for novice investors or those seeking a hands-off approach. On the downside, returns are limited to the performance of the index, and the passive nature of index investing means missing out on potential opportunities that a more active or tactical approach could exploit. Furthermore, not all index funds are created equal; some track less reliable, less liquid, or more volatile indexes, which could increase investment risk.

What Is a Robo-Advisor?

The advent of robo-advisors can be traced back to the financial crisis of 2008. As the world reeled from the economic downturn, trust in traditional financial institutions wavered. In this atmosphere of skepticism, robo-advisors emerged as an innovative solution, marrying financial services with the burgeoning field of financial technology.

In 2010, Betterment was one of the pioneers of the robo-advisor service. Today, there are hundreds of robo-advisors available around the world. Their growth has been impressive, reflecting the increasing comfort level of investors with relying on fintech to manage their money. list.

At its core, a robo-advisor is a digital platform powered by algorithms, and increasingly by artificial intelligence (AI). These platforms deliver investment management services with minimal human intervention at low cost and with low account minimums—democratizing access to investment advice that was previously available mainly to high-net-worth individuals.

Robo-advisors start by getting a sense of your financial situation and goals. With this information, they construct a personalized investment strategy that suits your profile. The algorithm creates and manages a diversified portfolio, typically made up of various index ETFs that align with your risk tolerance and investment goals. These ETFs will often represent a range of asset classes and geographic regions, weighted according to financial models like modern portfolio theory (MPT).

Beyond portfolio construction, robo-advisors also provide additional services like automatic portfolio rebalancing and tax optimization strategies like tax-loss harvesting, where the robo-advisor sells securities at a loss to offset capital gains tax liability. These features allow robo-advisors to manage investments more efficiently, offering convenience and potentially better returns for investors.

Different Fee Structures

The fee structure of an index fund will vary somewhat from that of a robo-advisor.

  • Index funds charge a low expense ratio, such as 0.15% per year.
  • A robo-advisor will typically charge a low fee based on assets under management (AUM), such as 0.25% per year—but investors may also be subject to the expense ratios of the funds that the robo-advisor invests in.

Pros and Cons of an Index Fund

Index funds provide broad market exposure and tend to have lower expense ratios than actively managed funds. They are a solid choice for those seeking a long-term, passive investment strategy.

However, index funds rely on overall market performance. This means they can’t outperform the market, only match it. In addition, they may be less suitable for investors looking for short-term gains or high-risk, high-reward strategies.


  • Lower risk through diversification

  • Low expense ratios

  • Lower tax exposure than active funds


Pros and Cons of a Robo-Advisor

Robo-advisors can offer personalized investment advice, easy access via digital platforms, and often lower fees compared to traditional advisors. They are particularly well-suited to novice investors and those with a more passive approach to investing.

Because they rely heavily on technology, robo-advisors may lack the personal touch of a human advisor and can be limited in their ability to adapt to complex financial situations. They also may not provide the highest possible returns since they primarily focus on risk management and portfolio diversification.


  • Lower cost than traditional advisors

  • Low minimum balance requirements

  • Hands-off portfolio management

  • Good diversification across asset classes


  • Lack of flexibility

  • Lack of human touch

  • Vulnerable to market swings

Things to Consider

When faced with the decision between using a robo-advisor and buying index funds directly, several key factors come into play. It’s important to understand that neither of these investment options is inherently “better” than the other, but rather, their suitability depends on your personal circ*mstances and preferences.

Investment Goals

First, consider your investment goals. Are you looking to save for a specific goal such as retirement, a down payment on a house, or perhaps your child’s college fund? Or are you investing to grow your wealth over the long term without a specific goal in mind? Robo-advisors can be particularly useful for goal-oriented investing, as they can tailor your investment strategy to meet your specific objectives and timeline. On the other hand, index funds are a popular choice for general long-term wealth accumulation, owing to their potential for steady growth and comparatively lower fees.

Risk Tolerance

Second, evaluate your risk tolerance. Robo-advisors offer risk-adjusted portfolios, which can be useful for those with lower risk tolerance or a shorter investment horizon. They use algorithms to diversify investments and can adjust the portfolio in response to market changes, aiming to mitigate risk while still pursuing growth. For instance, a more conservative robo-advised portfolio will often have a higher weight to bond index funds. In contrast, investing directly in index funds gives you full control over your portfolio’s composition and risk level, which can be advantageous if you have a higher risk tolerance or a longer time horizon and want to pick more volatile or obscure indexes.

Desired Level of Involvement

Third, reflect on your desired level of involvement in managing your investments. Robo-advisors provide a hands-off experience, making them a good choice for those who either prefer not to make regular investment decisions or lack the time to manage their investments actively. They handle all aspects of portfolio management, from selecting and purchasing investments to rebalancing and tax optimization. But, if you enjoy being more hands-on with your investments and have the time and knowledge to manage your portfolio, then investing directly in index funds could be a better fit. While you won’t pick individual stocks or set entry and exit points, you will be able to tailor which funds you want.

Need For Personalized Advice

Finally, consider your need for personalized advice. Robo-advisors can provide custom advice based on your financial situation and goals, which can be particularly useful for less experienced investors. The best robo-advisors can guide you on factors such as how much to invest, which types of investments to choose, and how to balance your portfolio. Index funds, on the other hand, are a more DIY approach—you’ll need to make these decisions yourself, which can be empowering but also daunting for those with less experience.

Most robo-advisors use a mix of low-cost ETFs to construct their portfolios.

Who Are Robo-Advisors Best Suited for?

Robo-advisors serve a broad range of investors, but they’re particularly suitable for beginners and those who prefer a passive, hands-off approach to investing. They can also be a good fit for investors who may not have a large amount of capital to invest, as robo-advisors often have lower minimum investment requirements than traditional financial advisors.

Can Robo-Advisors or Index Funds Beat the Market?

Index funds are designed to be passive strategies that mirror index returns rather than beat them. For instance, an index fund that tracks the S&P 500 is designed to deliver returns that approximate the performance of that index.

Robo-advisors often build portfolios using a mix of various index funds. But depending on the asset class mix and the particular index funds selected, a robo-advisor may underperform or outperform a broad equity index like the S&P 500.

Are Robo-Advisors Safe?

While no investment is entirely risk-free, robo-advisors typically use modern encryption techniques to ensure the security of your personal and financial information. Furthermore, robo-advisors are usually registered with regulatory authorities such as the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), and the funds they manage are often held by well-established custodian banks, adding an extra layer of protection for investors. Many robo-advisors are further backed by Securities Investor Protection Corp. (SIPC) insurance.

What Is the Average Return of a Robo-Advisor?

The average return for a robo-advisor portfolio can vary depending on several factors, such as the portfolio’s specific investments, the robo-advisor’s investment strategy, the user’s risk tolerance, and the overall market conditions.

Robo-advisors tend to invest heavily in low-cost index funds and ETFs, which often track the broader market. Therefore, a robo-advisor portfolio’s returns may be similar to a mix of comparable index funds minus any management fees charged by the robo-advisor.

According to Condor Capital Wealth Management's robo-advisor benchmarking service, The Robo Report, the five-year trailing average annualized return through the first quarter of 2023 for a 60/40 stocks-bonds robo-advised portfolio ranged from around 4% to 6%.

The Bottom Line

Index funds are passive investments that track the performance of a benchmark index such as the S&P 500. They provide an accessible, low-cost way to achieve broad diversification in the market.

Robo-advisors are a relatively new class of automated financial management, relying on algorithmic portfolio construction and trading. Also low-cost, these automated services may lack the human touch, but they provide good diversification across asset classes and automatic monitoring and rebalancing.

Choosing between a robo-advisor and an index fund requires careful consideration of your investment goals, time horizon, risk tolerance, desire for control, and need for personalized advice. By taking the time to evaluate these factors, you’ll be better positioned to make an informed decision that aligns with your unique needs and circ*mstances.

Robo-Advisor vs. Index Fund (2024)


Do robo-advisors beat index funds? ›

Robo-advisors often build portfolios using a mix of various index funds. But depending on the asset class mix and the particular index funds selected, a robo-advisor may underperform or outperform a broad equity index like the S&P 500.

Are robo-advisors better than S&P 500? ›

Comparing robo-advisors to the S&P 500 isn't an apples-to-apples comparison. While the S&P 500 is a broad market index, robo-advisors are tools that can invest in a broad range of assets, often including an allocation to S&P 500 index funds.

Do millionaires use robo-advisors? ›

High-net-worth investors exited robo-advisor arrangements at the highest rates. Here's how the data broke down along asset levels: $50,000 or less: A drop from 23.6% to 20.6% in 2022, which translates to a decrease of 3 percentage points.

What are 2 advantages of using a robo-advisor two correct answers? ›

In addition to creating an automated portfolio, robo-advisors can also offer their customers the following benefits: Lower fees compared with a traditional financial advisor. Lower capital required to start. The ability to avoid human error and bias.

Do financial advisors beat S&P 500? ›

Less than 10% of active large-cap fund managers have outperformed the S&P 500 over the last 15 years. The biggest drag on investment returns is unavoidable, but you can minimize it if you're smart. Here's what to look for when choosing a simple investment that can beat the Wall Street pros.

What is the average return on a robo-advisor? ›

Robo-advisor performance is one way to understand the value of digital advice. Learn how fees, enhanced features, and investment options can also be key considerations. Five-year returns from most robo-advisors range from 2%–5% per year.

What is the biggest disadvantage of robo-advisors? ›

The generic cons of Robo Advisors are that they don't offer many options for investor flexibility. They tend to not follow traditional advisory services, since there is a lack of human interaction.

What is the biggest downfall of robo-advisors? ›

Limited Flexibility. If you want to sell call options on an existing portfolio or buy individual stocks, most robo-advisors won't be able to help you.

What are the disadvantages of using a robo-advisor? ›

Cons of Robo-Advisors
  • Employ standardized strategies off their questionnaire, offering limited customization.
  • Cannot take a holistic view of your financial planning to help integrate your estate planning, tax strategy, etc.
  • No human point of contact or limited human interaction if you have specific questions.

Do robo-advisors outperform the market? ›

Do robo-advisors outperform the S&P 500? Robo-advisors can outperform the S&P 500 or they can underperform it. It depends on the timing and what they have you invested in. Many robo-advisors will put a percentage of your portfolio in an index fund or a variety of funds intended to track the S&P 500.

Why would you use a robo-advisor instead of a financial advisor? ›

For core investing and planning advice, a robo-advisor is a great solution because it automates much of the work that a human advisor does. And it charges less for doing so – potential savings for you. Plus, the ease of starting and managing the account can't be overstated.

How risky are robo-advisors? ›

They may also manipulate or sabotage the robo-advisor's algorithms to cause losses or damage. Therefore, you should always check the security and privacy policies of the robo-advisor platform and use strong passwords and encryption methods to protect your data.

How much would I need to save monthly to have $1 million when I retire? ›

Suppose you're starting from scratch and have no savings. You'd need to invest around $13,000 per month to save a million dollars in five years, assuming a 7% annual rate of return and 3% inflation rate. For a rate of return of 5%, you'd need to save around $14,700 per month.

Why are index funds so popular? ›

Lower costs: Index funds typically have lower expense ratios because they are passively managed. Market representation: Index funds aim to mirror the performance of a specific index, offering broad market exposure. This is worthwhile for those looking for a diversified investment that tracks overall market trends.

Why are index funds such a popular investing option? ›

One of the main advantages of index funds is their low cost. Being passively managed, there are fewer fees and expenses involved in managing the fund compared with active alternatives. This means that investors can often achieve similar returns to actively managed funds but with lower costs in terms of expenses.

Do robo-advisors outperform the S&P? ›

Do robo-advisors outperform the S&P 500? Robo-advisors can outperform the S&P 500 or they can underperform it. It depends on the timing and what they have you invested in. Many robo-advisors will put a percentage of your portfolio in an index fund or a variety of funds intended to track the S&P 500.

Do robo investors beat the market? ›

They do not, however, generally function as stock brokers, instead choosing a basket of funds for you based on your goals. Don't expect a robo-advisor to beat the market since its goal is to maintain a balance with the market.

Is robo-advisor better than ETF? ›

Robo-advisors help automate the decision-making, recommending a portfolio that aligns with an investor's goals and preferences. Robo-advisors may carry higher fees than ETFs, but their costs usually remain below those of a traditional human advisor.

Is a robo-advisor better than a fund manager? ›

Mutual funds serve as a sort of prebuilt portfolio that investors can buy into, with professional managers who handle the day-to-day management and rebalancing. Robo-advisors, on the other hand, are computer programs that construct an investment portfolio for investors based on their specific situation.

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