One thing I’ve learned in my years as a Certified Financial Planner™ is that just a handful of personal finance principles separate those who achieve their financial goals from those who don’t.
Two of those principles are:
- You must spend less than you earn and efficiently invest what’s left over.
- You must accurately measure and track your progress.
The first is obvious, but the second is just as important. And it’s where many people who are otherwise smart with their money go wrong.
To manage your money as effectively as possible, you have to consistently make good decisions. Doing so requires accurate data.
But finding accurate data — and knowing how to interpret and utilize it — is easier said than done.
For example, you might have a 401(k) balance of $250,000, but what exactly does that mean in terms of your progress to retirement and your overall financial health? Is that amount high enough that you can opt for a more conservative (and thus less risky) portfolio balance, or do you need to be more aggressive? Should you be saving more? How will inflation impact your 401(k)?
The list of questions goes on and on. And without advanced financial planning tools, it’s hard to draw any meaningful conclusions from that figure. It’s just a number devoid of context.
As my goal is to become financially independent by age 40, I wanted to find the answers to questions like those for my own benefit. After learning that Personal Capital was named the best financial app by Macworld, and specializes in helping people gain deeper insights into their finances — I decided to give it a try.
This Personal Capital review will explain what the service is, run down its list of free and paid features, and touch on who stands to gain the most from using the service.
What Is Personal Capital?
Personal Capital is an online financial advisor and digital wealth management platform. Often thought of as just an investment advisory service, Personal Capital actually has three separate products.
Product #1: Free Financial Dashboard
The first of these products is a free financial dashboard that, similar to its more widely-known competitor Mint, lets you link your accounts so you can manage your money and track your investment portfolio in one online location.
You gain access to this dashboard immediately upon signing up for a Personal Capital account. Its tools cover budgeting, cash flows, education planning, investments, retirement savings and more. We’ll dive into each of these tools in detail later in the article.
Here’s an example of what the dashboard looks like, from the company’s press kit:
Product #2: Cash Management Account
Personal Capital’s other free product is a high-yield “cash management” account (aptly named Personal Capital Cash), which is a combination of a traditional checking and savings account: your deposits earn interest, but you also have a debit card that lets you access your funds.
Product #3: Wealth Management Services
Lastly, Personal Capital offers a tiered wealth management service that you can access with a minimum account balance of $100,000. Wealth management is the only Personal Capital service that requires you to deposit funds on the platform — the financial dashboard and Personal Capital Cash are free and available to anyone.
How to Use Personal Capital
You can access Personal Capital’s services either through its website or by downloading its mobile app from the App Store or Google Play. The app is a bit limited compared to the site, as you can only view your financial dashboard and Personal Capital’s blog.
I want to reiterate that you can still use and benefit from Personal Capital’s free financial dashboard even if you don’t have $100,000 in investments to move to the platform.
By linking your accounts to one location, you’ll no longer need to log in to several separate accounts to view account balances or track bill due dates. More importantly, the dashboard will give you unique insights into your finances — some powered by AI — that can help you make better short-term and long-term financial decisions.
Personal Capital’s Free Financial Tools
Personal Capital’s free financial tools are designed to help you make better decisions with your money. These tools cover nearly every aspect of your finances, but they emphasize your investments — with a particular focus on helping you make sure you have enough money for retirement.
All of these tools are contained within a single dashboard. You can link your checking, savings, investment, loan, credit card and mortgage accounts (among others), giving you a way to view your entire financial life in one place.
Personal Capital supports over 12,000 financial institutions. If you can’t find yours, then you can either link it manually or request that Personal Capital add it to their database.
You can even link other kinds of assets, including:
- Your home. Personal Capital uses Zillow’s Zestimate valuation model to calculate your home’s value. This is an estimate, not an appraisal, but it can still help you understand what your home might be worth.
- Vehicles. Personal Capital asks for your car’s current make, model, year and value. Cars are an asset, so you’ll want to link them to your account.
- Jewelry. You can link your jewelry by manually inputting a description and its value. By doing so, Personal Capital can see a more accurate picture of your net worth, which in turn aids it in providing you insight and recommendations.
- Art. Any art that you own is also part of your net worth. As with jewelry, you must know its value to link it.
What’s in the Dashboard
These are the different free tools you’ll find in the Personal Capital dashboard.
The “Bills” section displays information on all upcoming credit card, loan, and mortgage bills for your linked accounts. It tells you each bill’s due date, as well as the date of your most recent payment. For each credit card, you can see your statement balance, total balance, and minimum payment.
This is an excellent tool for managing multiple debts at once. Instead of checking due dates or statement balances by logging into each loan or credit card’s website, you can view this information in one location. As someone who carries their fair share of travel rewards credit cards (usually around six to 10 at any given time), this feature is extremely helpful.
Plus, Personal Capital links each bill to its respective website for added convenience.
Personal Capital heavily emphasizes investment advice, but its budgeting tool works well if you want a quick, informative look into your monthly spending habits.
It breaks your expenses out by category, which can help you identify areas where you need to trim your spending. It also sets a default monthly budget using this spending data. While you can’t yet set budgets for each category, you can adjust your monthly budget as you please.
Visuals are used to enhance your understanding of your spending. On the left side of this screen is a graphical illustration of the amount of your budget you’ve spent. To the right is a bar graph containing your total spending per day or month.
Below these two graphs is a list of the current month’s transactions. You can see which account you used to complete each transaction, and this can further aid you in finding specific areas in which you’re spending too much.
I’ve tested dozens of budgeting apps, and Personal Capital is one of the better ones — though not the absolute best. While there are no ads or product offers, its user interface is a bit more cluttered than something like Truebill (which I reviewed here), which means it’s not the easiest option if you need to keep a close eye on every penny.
In my opinion, it’s best when used as a cash flow analysis tool that gives you greater insight into what you spend versus what you earn.
The Cash Flow Analyzer displays most of the same information as the budgeting tool, but from a cash flow perspective. It charts your cash flows over time and shows a “this time last month” comparison. You can view your overall cash flows, or you can look just at income (cash inflows) or expenses (cash outflows) by category.
Tracking your cash flows is essential because net worth doesn’t tell the whole story. You could own a valuable illiquid asset (such as a home) and have a positive net worth. Yet, you’ll be stuck living paycheck-to-paycheck if you’re spending every penny you earn.
Related: How to stop living paycheck-to-paycheck.
Whether you’re saving for your child’s education or planning to go back to school yourself, the Education Planner will be of great use to you.
The Education Planner does not have its own section — instead, it’s a part of the Retirement Planner tool (which is discussed below).
Using this tool, you can create scenarios to determine if you’re currently on track to be able to afford college tuition in the future. Personal Capital gives you dollar figures for average in-state, out-of-state, and private institution tuition.
You can add a specific college for more accurate planning.
Despite your best efforts to save for retirement, fees could be robbing you of some of your savings.
Personal Capital’s Fee Analyzer details how much you could be losing to fees, both visually and numerically. Using information from your linked investment accounts, the Fee Analyzer displays a graph that illustrates in red how much money in total you’re paying.
If the graph isn’t enough, the Fee Analyzer also tells you how many years of retirement income you’ll lose to fees over your career.
With this information, you can adjust where your retirement savings are going and potentially shave several years or more off your time in the workforce.
Worth noting is that it’s common to have quite a few old 401(k)s floating around. Most 401(k)s have outrageous fees — often 20 times the cost of investing the account on your own!
By checking the dashboard’s 401(k) fee analyzer, I can see that I’m paying only .09% in annual fees. The benchmark is .50%.
A famous study from the 1980s, “Determinants of Portfolio Performance,” concluded that asset allocation accounts for 95.6% of an investor’s return. In other words, it’s the single biggest factor by a wide margin.
I find that improper asset allocation is quite common among all age groups. Millennials tend to be afraid of the market and therefore avoid it altogether, with one study showing that less than 50% of people ages 23 to 38 held stock. Meanwhile, Gen Xers often lack a clearly defined target, while those who are closer to retirement often have unnecessary levels of risk in their portfolio.
Personal Capital’s Investment Checkup tool is designed to help you avoid those common pitfalls. After signing up, linking your accounts and providing a little bit of information about your goals, the Target Allocation feature (as shown in the screenshot below) gives you an easy-to-read graph that highlights your current allocation compared to a potentially more ideal balance, allowing you to see which would provide the greatest expected return — taking into consideration your needs, desires and ability to take risk.
Another valuable benefit of the Investment Checkup tool is the ability to see where your current allocation falls on the Efficient Frontier, which represents the set of allocations that offer the highest expected return at a given level of risk.
Investment Checkup also shows you a side-by-side comparison of your current portfolio versus its recommendation in terms of historical performance, projected retirement savings and risk/return.
You can then adjust the target allocation from its initial recommendation depending on whether you want a more conservative or aggressive investing approach.
Investment Checkup is one of the most helpful features in the dashboard, providing you with free insight into how much you can grow your wealth by optimizing your portfolio’s allocation. This kind of information would normally cost hundreds of dollars to receive from a financial advisor.
And frankly, Personal Capital’s asset allocation algorithms are quite good. If you know nothing about investing and follow their recommendations, you’ll still be in a good position relative to the majority of other investors.
The Investment Checkup section also shows you other valuable information, including the exact dollar amount you’d need to rebalance your portfolio in order to optimize return and minimize risk, and future projections of your current portfolio based on expected annual returns.
The Net Worth tracker compiles information from your linked accounts, as well as any assets you’ve added manually. The best part is you can monitor your net worth over time. That’s valuable because seeing your net worth inch upwards can motivate you to continue working hard on your finances.
You should always have an idea of your net worth because it shows you long-term trends in your financial health. Tracking your net worth over time can indicate whether or not you’re moving in the right direction.
In the Portfolio Tracker, you can view several pieces of information regarding your investments:
- Holdings: contains information regarding the quantity and share prices of your holdings.
- Portfolio: displays changes in your portfolio balances.
- Performance: tracks the historical performance of your portfolio.
- Allocation: uses boxes to visually display the weights of each asset class held within your portfolio.
- U.S. sectors: contains a graph of your equity holdings in U.S. sectors.
One unique feature of the portfolio tracker, the You Index, compares your portfolio against the broader market as if your portfolio was a market index. The You Index charts the performance of your cash, stock, ETF and mutual fund holdings against the DOW and S&P 500, as well as indices for foreign equities and US Bonds.
In the screenshot below, you can see how my portfolio performed in 2019.
By clicking on each tab, you can then compare how your portfolio performed compared to certain indices. For example, here’s how I measured up against the S&P 500. (You can also compare against the Dow, foreign markets, and the U.S. bond market.)
Planning for retirement is no easy feat, but Personal Capital’s free planning tool can help you see if you’re on track.
You can create several “what-if” scenarios based on income and expense events to determine if your retirement goals are feasible.
Income scenarios include:
- Annuity income.
- Pension income.
- Rental income.
- Sales of property
- Social Security income.
- Work during retirement.
- Other income.
Expense scenarios include:
- Charitable giving.
- Dependent support.
- Home purchase/upgrade.
- Vehicle purchases.
- Other expenses.
Once you create a few scenarios, you can compare them back-to-back to aid you in making important life decisions.
For example, let’s say you and your spouse are planning on having kids. You can add Dependent Support and Education spending goals to your current plan to see if you’ll be able to support a child and their future educational expenses.
With the ability to plan for several scenarios and analyze them side-by-side, you can create retirement contingency plans to prepare for whatever life throws at you.
The Retirement Planner doesn’t stop at saving for retirement, though; a new Smart Withdrawal Tool uses several pieces of your tax information to create a retirement withdrawal strategy that minimizes taxes and penalties.
Running out of money in retirement is a big worry for many people, but maximizing your tax benefits and avoiding early withdrawal penalties can make your retirement money go further.
Further reading: How to know how long your money will last in retirement.
An important component of the Savings Planner is the Emergency Fund section, as it compares your cash amounts against your monthly budget from the Budgeting tool and recommends a dollar figure for a three to six month emergency fund.
There’s also the Debt Paydown section, which displays each of your debts and their respective interest rates. That way, you can determine if you should target one of your debts next or shift over to saving and investment.
Lastly, the Savings Planner summarizes your current progress by comparing your planned savings for the year with the amount you must save to hit your retirement savings goals.
Personal Capital Cash
Like other online advising/wealth management services, Personal Capital offers a cash management account that combines the strengths of a savings account with the convenience of a checking account.
For example, Personal Capital Cash’s APY (the amount of interest you’ll earn every year) of around 1.5% puts it in the same league as a high-yield savings account. However, unlike a savings account, you can withdraw cash from your Personal Capital Cash account as many times per month as you’d like.
Personal Capital Cash also charges no fees, requires no minimum balance, and insures your deposits up to $1.5 million.
Personal Capital Cash is a nice feature for users of the company’s wealth management services (more on those below), as it represents one less account you need to maintain and has one of the better interest rates for this type of service. However, there are banks that pay higher rates that might be a better fit for people just looking for a place to park their cash.
One drawback to an online bank account such as Personal Capital Cash is the lack of physical locations. The only two ways to make deposits or withdrawals is to link an external bank account and transfer money using your Personal Capital dashboard or to set up direct deposit at work.
Wealth Management Services
Personal Capital’s wealth management services are designed for high net worth individuals, as the minimum account value is $100,000.
To put that number into perspective, Vanguard — one of Personal Capital’s biggest competitors — only requires you to have $50,000. However, Vanguard doesn’t give you a dedicated financial advisor until you reach $500,000, whereas Personal Capital gives you two dedicated investment advisors once you reach $200,000.
That level of service alone may make Personal Capital worth picking if you have enough to invest.
But the human advisor access isn’t all that Personal Capital does well. Their investment methodology is strong, too.
They use Smart Weighting to construct their portfolios, an investment methodology that weights several factors to increase return while keeping risk as low as possible.
Additionally, Personal Capital monitors your investments for rebalancing and tax savings opportunities to keep you on track to your goals.
Three Tiers of Service
Personal Capital offers three tiers of wealth management services.
Tier #1: Investment Services
Their first tier is called Investment Services and requires clients to have between $100,000 and $200,000 in assets.
Investment Services clients can invest in Personal Capital’s tax-efficient ETF portfolio and request reviews. Clients at this tier have unlimited access to financial planning and retirement help from Personal Capital’s team of financial advisors.
Tier #2: Wealth Management
Wealth Management is the next tier, requiring an account balance between $200,000 and $1 million. Personal Capital assigns two dedicated financial advisors to each Wealth Management client. Also, clients at this tier can talk to specialists in other areas of finance, such as real estate, insurance, and stock options.
As for investments, Wealth Management clients can customize their portfolios with a mix of ETFs and individual stocks.
Tier #3: Private Client
At the top of Personal Capital’s tier system is Private Client. If you accumulate at least $1 million in your accounts, you unlock some of Personal Capital’s most exclusive services, including:
- Priority access to Personal Capital’s specialists and investment committee.
- Individual bond and private equity investments.
- Collaboration with an estate attorney and CPA for estate and tax wealth planning.
- Estate, tax, and legacy portfolio construction.
- Lower fees starting at $3 million in investments.
Dynamic Portfolio Allocation
Personal Capital uses all six major liquid and investable asset classes to focus on long-term returns:
- U.S. Stocks: growth focus.
- International stocks: growth focus, but also diversifies portfolio from U.S. stocks.
- U.S. bonds: adds stability, income, and diversification to the portfolio.
- International bonds: similar benefits to U.S. bonds.
- Alternatives: diversifies portfolio and can hedge against inflation, but highly volatile.
- Cash: adds portfolio liquidity and capital preservation.
The company uses Modern Portfolio Theory and several other tools to determine the optimal allocation of each asset for your portfolio. As your life goes on, they recommend changes in allocation so you can always keep your portfolio in line with your goals and needs.
Rebalancing is the act of buying and selling portfolio holdings to bring the weights of each asset back to their targets. Continuous rebalancing (when the market presents opportunities) can keep you on track to your investment goals and can help you maintain your preferred levels of risk. Additionally, rebalancing can prevent you from making mistakes out of emotion.
Personal Capital’s software checks daily for rebalancing opportunities. Instead of using hard triggers that automatically rebalance a portfolio, their software relies on exception reports so that they can evaluate whether a rebalancing action should be taken before following through.
Personal Capital believes that capitalization-weighted indexes like the S&P 500 add unnecessary risk and can increase costs over time because they too heavily favor larger companies while under-representing smaller stocks.
To improve your returns with less risk, Personal Capital’s investment methodology, Smart Weighting, weights three factors equally:
- Economic sector.
Weighting these factors equally is meant to improve your portfolio’s diversification and protect you against declines in any particular market.
Personal Capital emphasizes tax-advantaged investing. They build their portfolios using both individual stocks and tax-efficient ETFs instead of mutual funds.
By including stocks in their portfolios, Personal Capital’s clients can take advantage of tax-loss harvesting — the tactic of selling securities at a loss to earn a tax deduction or to offset capital gains.
However, Personal Capital’s tax optimization tactics go beyond tax-loss harvesting; they also strategically place investments in accounts where they’d receive the most tax benefits.
To illustrate, let’s say you owned a bond and a dividend-paying stock. Bond income is taxed at ordinary income rates, while most dividends are considered “qualified dividends” and are taxed at favorable capital gains rates.
Personal Capital would attempt to move the bond into an IRA first, as doing so would allow you to defer the higher taxes on your bond income and thus reduce your taxable income in the present.
Personal Capital’s Costs and Fees
If you’re a Mint user, you probably understand how that company makes money. Essentially, Mint earns a referral fee for recommending products and services. For example, if Mint recommends a certain credit card based on your financial situation, they earn a referral fee from the credit card company when you apply.
Personal Capital is entirely different. The company does not charge account service or trailing fees, does not charge commissions on your trades, and does not advertise third-party products.
All the financial planning and intelligence tools described in this article are free to use — Personal Capital makes its money solely off of its wealth management platform.
These are their fees at the time of publication:
|Account Balance||Advisory Fee|
|First $1 million||0.89%|
|First $3 million||0.79%|
|Next $2 million||0.69%|
|Next $5 million||0.59%|
|Over $10 million||0.49%|
Compared to a Vanguard Target Date Retirement Fund — which averages 0.13% in fees — these costs are quite high.
However, working with clients has allowed me to see some of the destructive behaviors and faulty rationalizations people make when managing their investments. Things like jumping in and out of the market or investing everything in gold “because it’s safe.”
Behaviors like those can set people back in profound ways that are difficult to recover from. And it’s in helping people not make irrational decisions that advisers have value.
Investing on your own is a lot of responsibility. When a random idea pops into your head, you can literally be on your brokerage account making a trade within minutes. For many people, having an adviser to work with is helpful for that reason. A good adviser/money manager, like Personal Capital, optimizes your portfolio and helps stop you from sabotaging yourself.
Having this financial advice just a phone call away can be well worth the .76% extra wealth management fee for the right person.
Related reading: Here’s my comparison of Vanguard and Betterment, the two platforms I use to invest my own money.
Personal Capital vs. Mint
When it comes to free financial tools, one of Personal Capital’s closest competitors is Mint. Both Mint and Personal Capital let you link your accounts to aggregate your financial information into one dashboard.
However, each service has a different focus.
Mint is primarily a budgeting platform. Although Mint lets you set goals and track your investments, it emphasizes monitoring your expenses, staying up to date on bills, and saving money.
Conversely, Personal Capital is more of an investment management platform. You can receive advice on your investments, track your portfolio’s value over time, analyze your retirement plans and their fees, and forecast several retirement scenarios.
Personal Capital’s budgeting tool is sufficient, but not at the same level as Mint’s.
|Budgeting||Breaks out transactions by category and monitors cash flows.||Lets you create detailed budgets for every category.|
|Retirement Planning||Extensive retirement planner that lets you create several scenarios based on life events.||Lets you set goals and tracks your progress towards them.|
|Retirement Fee Analysis||Analyzes your retirement plans for fees, and shows you how much you’re paying.||None.|
|Investment Monitoring||Monitors linked accounts. Makes recommendations on asset allocation and provides a host of other features.||Monitors linked accounts.|
|Credit Monitoring||None.||Displays VantageScore credit score from TransUnion. Also shows your performance in each factor affecting credit score.|
|Manual Transaction Entries||Personal Capital does not allow you to manually add transactions.||Mint lets you manually add transactions.|
|Bill Management||You can view upcoming bills in the “Bills” screen.||Lets you create bills manually.|
|Account Synchronization||Uses Yodlee to sync accounts. Personal Capital’s syncing is more reliable than Mint’s.||Uses internal system to sync accounts. Can sync with a similar amount of institutions as Personal Capital, but syncing problems are more frequent.|
|Customer Support||Fast and helpful. In addition, they frequently publish updates on technical issues affecting their customers.||Helpful, but harder to reach. Intuit, the parent company, does not provide Mint-specific phone support. You can only access Mint-specific support via chat.|
|Mobile App||Mobile app for Android and iOS devices. Some features are app-exclusive.||Mobile app for Android and iOS devices. Some features are app-exclusive.|
|Monetization||Advisory fees are collected on wealth management client accounts.||Referral fees for recommending credit cards, loans, and similar products.|
Frequently Asked Questions About Personal Capital
Robo-advisors rely primarily on algorithms to provide investment advice. Although Personal Capital’s free dashboard uses robo-advisor algorithms to some degree (such as optimizing your asset allocation for minimum risk), investment clients have access to financial advisory services from human advisors.
Personal Capital uses AES-256 encryption with multi-layer management, along with rotating, user-specific keys and salts. Qualys SSL Labs, an award-winning security diagnostics company, gave Personal Capital’s website encryption an A+.
In addition, no one at Personal Capital can access your credentials for any linked accounts. Credentials are stored with software company Yodlee and are only ever sent to your financial institutions.
Personal Capital makes money solely by charging advisory fees on their wealth management clients’ accounts. It does not generate any revenue from the financial tools. Those are free to use all the time. Also, unlike Mint, Personal Capital does not earn referral fees by recommending financial products to you.
Personal Capital Review Summary
If you step back and look at Personal Capital’s services, their structure makes a lot of sense.
The free financial dashboard can stand in as a financial advisor when you don’t have a lot of money, thanks to its comprehensive set of tools and guidance.
If you fall into that group, there are three primary benefits of the platform.
- Real data: Personal Capital’s Retirement Planner doesn’t work on assumptions — it uses real data from the retirement accounts you link to calculate whether you’re on track to meet your desired timeline.
- Customizable: How will college or a new home impact your retirement? What about an expected boost in income? Personal Capital allows you to see the impact that a wide range of events would have on your goals.
- Discover hidden fees: They’re called hidden fees for a reason. Personal Capital’s Fee Analyzer uncovers the investment fees you’re paying across all your financial accounts.
As you accumulate money over your life and career, you begin to build your wealth by investing. These investments can grow in size and complexity to a point where you will need someone else to handle them for you. That’s when it may make sense to sign up for Personal Capital’s wealth management service and take advantage of its more advanced offerings.
As your investments grow and you advance up each tier, Personal Capital gives you the additional features you need to manage your wealth.
These services come at a relatively high cost, which is offset in part by an excellent array of valuable products. I would recommend the company’s paid services to…
- People who have, in the past, tended to make quick, irrational decisions with their investments (which they’ve later regretted).
- People who are not really interested in learning about investing and tax strategy, and are thus seeking a more hands-off approach.
- People who want a real person to bounce ideas off.
If you’re looking for a way to manage your entire financial life in one place and receive investment guidance, Personal Capital is an excellent platform.