DIY vs Robo Quick Challenge

January 11th, 2018 by Potato

I was challenged a while ago to figure out if DIY investing is really worth it for regular people when you factor in the value of the time and effort spent — should I even be putting time into things like the book and course to help people learn to invest when robo-advisors are the future?

And of course the first defense is that even if a robo-advisor is doing the work, you still need to do some reading so you’re prepared for the risks and uncertainties inherent in investing, etc. But the point is still there: are the savings of DIY worth the extra time it takes now that robo-advisors exist?

I decided to do a quick back-of-the-envelope comparison. Though there’s no way to know for sure that I didn’t tweak the assumptions to get an answer I liked, I assure you that these are the first reasonable estimates that came to me as I was trying to be fair — we are “doing it live” so to speak.

So do-it-yourself investing requires a bit of time and effort, and the question is how do you value that time and effort to figure out when it makes sense to DIY vs. just pay a robo-advisor? For this I’m going to assume that we’re only talking registered accounts, so no ACB and other tax reporting headaches of a non-registered account (and besides, if the robos aren’t tracking it for you then a more complex robo portfolio may be more work than a simple DIY one).

First, you have to learn about your risk tolerance to make sure you’re ready to invest at all, come up with a rough plan, figure out whether to prioritize your TFSA or RRSP, etc. But that’s a wash as even if a robo-advisor is handling the day-to-day aspects of your investing, you still have to deal with that.

There will be more up-front costs to learn how to invest as a DIY-er. You’ll have a bit more learning to do for DIY investing, like the mechanics of making trades and rebalancing, choosing a model portfolio to follow, as well as some investment in learning to control bad investor behaviour. The Practical Index Investing Course is $299 $169 and a one-stop resource, with another ~15 hr required to work through it — so the total cost depends on what you value your time at. Let’s use $25/hr and call it $544 in up-front investment (more if you’re going to go with the library card and time method – the course will save you lots of research time, which is the point of it /self-promote).

Then on-going effort is small but not nil. For the TD e-series route you may have to spend 2 hours/year or so on tweaking your automatic contributions and rebalancing; for ETFs it might be more like 4 hours/year. Plus the ongoing MERs of the funds (and the robo-advisor’s fee for that option).

Element DIY e-series DIY ETFs Robo-advisor
Time: learning about risk tolerance, planning Same – this is table stakes for investing Same – this is table stakes for investing Same – this is table stakes for investing
Learning how to trade and manage portfolio $544 (one-time) $544 (one-time) 0
Annual cost of funds 0.45% 0.2% ~0.7%
Annual effort to maintain $50 $200 0
Total cost for $10,000 for 5 years $1,019 $1,644 $355 (*)
Total cost for $100,000 for 5 years $3,044 $2,544 $3,275 (*)

* – includes “first $5k managed free for a year” offer calculated with real all-in costs.

Now I am a fan of robo-advisors and they do have their place — lots of people will be well-served by going to one and not everyone wants to be a DIY investor. That’s important so I’ll repeat it: regardless of the potential savings of DIY, not everyone will want to (or should) do it all on their own. Plus there are other potential benefits, for instance a robo-advisor may help prevent bad investor behaviour (and read Michael James’ comment to further reinforce that — any savings can be swamped by bad investor behaviour).

But it looks like even if you give a decent value to your time ($25/hr here) and assume that there’s a big up-front commitment required to learn it, that DIYing can still make sense and be worth the time and effort for moderate-sized portfolios. I picked 5 years out of the air as a reasonable amount of time to amortize those up-front costs — the longer you think that’s good for, the more DIY will pull ahead (at least where the portfolio is large enough to make sense in the first place). For smaller portfolios, the time might not be wisely spent on DIY efforts, though small portfolios do grow into large ones and there is some value to just sticking with one method.

Note that putting a value to your time also reinforces the traditional wisdom that you need a ~5-figure portfolio for ETFs to make sense over TD e-series — even with commission-free purchases, the MER savings may not outweigh the effort with smaller portfolios.

4 Responses to “DIY vs Robo Quick Challenge”

  1. Michael James Says:

    Interesting comparison. I suspect the most important factor is whether the investor can handle managing a portfolio without making some big, dumb moves. If Robos help prevent this, then the majority of people who need that type of help are better off with Robos.

    The best answer I have is that people should take the cheapest option that will prevent them from doing stupid things. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible for a person to know under what circumstances they’ll do stupid things.

  2.  Weekend Reading – Cool bars, oil patch predictions, stocks for 2018 and too much dividends - My Own Advisor Says:

    […] My friend John Robertson decided to compare DIY investing vs. using a robo-advisor. […]

  3. Potato Says:

    Yes, that’s the million dollar question: will the automation and step-removed nature of robo-advisors help lead to better behaviour, or the extra work and reading to DIY?

  4. Holger Says:

    That’s an interesting comparison and I feel you arrive at the right conclusion. The balance will be even more in favour of DIY for larger portfolios, where you can drive down the cost of funds below 0.2%.

    That said, leaving out tax reporting from the equation is problematic. The effort for ACB maintenance and (for portfolios with >$100k in US ETFs) annual T1135 reporting probably overshadows other portfolio maintenance tasks.

    If your robo-advisor doesn’t handle that for you, you are probably right in that a robo portfolio may even cause more work than a DIY portfolio.