I’ve been using Aspiration Bank since 2015. I’d already fully divested from my 401k – an easy decision on ROI terms alone, since my employer at the time didn’t offer a contribution match. At the time, Aspiration was the only mainstream robo-advisor to offer a pure ESG investing vehicle. Since then, Betterment has added an ESG investing offering and a number of other robo-advisors have gotten into the game. Righteous Money’s Aspiration Bank review takes a look at the product, the performance, and the impact.
I’ve mostly maintained consistent contributions to my account since opening it. My overall assessment: Aspiration is fairly diligent in their environmental and social responsibility agenda, and I feel good about continuing to contribute a substantial portion of my disposable income to my Aspiration account. The “Pay What You Will” fee structure is notable because it’s inherently progressive, at least in theory; it allows those with less to start with to earn better returns, and those with more investing experience and pure interest in the ESG impact of their investments to pay fees on par with other robo-advisors, or perhaps a bit more.
Aspiration Bank Ratings
The Impact Did this product truly adhere to impact investing ideals, or was the stench of greenwashing inescapable?
Aspiration adheres to an impact investing mission better than any other platform in the space, in my opinion. As noted, their fee structure allows for progressive participation among their investor base.
They give a portion of revenue to a micro-lending charity operating across the U.S. While some investors may prefer more agency as to the recipient of such giving, I appreciate the transparency and targeted approach. Aspiration mostly works with Accion – America’s largest provider of micro-loans to Americans actively striving to transcend socioeconomic constraints. Aspirations web app also allows for shopping among vetted organizations for charitable giving. While many investors may be content keeping their charitable giving and investing siloed, this is a nice feature for those that want to consolidate and simplify their socially-responsible financial activity.
Unlike some other platforms in the space, Aspiration does not offer financial products without an impact investing objective. This includes their free checking account – unlike most other consumer banks, their reserves are not invested in companies or securities that may have negative environmental, social or corporate governance records.
Digging into the portfolio makeup of the Redwood Fund, it’s not all rainbows and solar panels. As of this writing, the portfolio was over 5% allocated to Amazon – not what I would consider a strong corporate citizen by Social or Governance standards (the Environment component is debatable). They also devote non-zero allocations to Facebook and Royal Caribbean (which apparently at least pretends to be trying – I plan on writing more on whether a relatively-responsible company in a historically irresponsible industry can be considered an impact investment).
Investment Performance Does this ESG investment provide a level of bottom-line performance so as to be viable in a growth portfolio long-term?
During the years 2015-2017, the Redwood Fund has generally yielded between 8 and 14% annualized simple returns.
Toward the end of 2018, Redwood Fund performance tanked. To be fair, equities markets were in utter turmoil throughout much of Q4, and the fund has bounced back in 2019 so far. Nevertheless, a robo-advisor that aggregates ETFs should afford some degree of volatility mitigation, and it doesn’t appear that Aspiration’s Redwood Fund has delivered this as of late.
It’s worth noting that Aspiration’s Summit Checking Account offers 1.09% interest and has for several years. This may not blow your hair back right now, but for the past several years has stacked up favorably against what most big banks offer for a standard checking account. To boot, the Summit Account reimburses for all ATM fees, which certainly adds up over time.
Aspiration allows investors to pay whatever they want in management fees for their Redwood Fund. This can boost returns and also allows for some built-in progressivism to the product; in theory, those with more means who are less reliant on bottom-line returns from their ESG investments may be willing to pay proportionally more.
The User Experience Does investor support, the web app (if applicable) and product features help make your investment experience easier and more fulfilling?
Aspiration makes it fairly easy to open an account, create auto-deposits into the Summit Account, and automatically reinvest dividends. It also integrates mobile banking with a decent APY for their checking account, with ATM fee reimbursement. For those looking for guidance on charitable giving, the Aspiration user interface allows for discovering reputable, mission-driven non-profits across a host of causes.
My biggest grievance: Aspiration offers virtually nothing in the way of performance reporting. The dashboard doesn’t show the performance trend of the Redwood Fund over time, much less how it stacks up against other asset classes and indices.
Support has always been attentive and prompt.
- Integrated mobile banking with favorable APY and ATM fee reimbursement
- Integrated charitable giving guidance
- Transparent and substantial partnership in charitable giving – Aspiration walks the walk
- Very little performance reporting
- Volatility in fund performance
- Little transparency as far as asset breakdown of Redwood Fund
Aspiration Bank Review: The Triple-Bottom Line
Aspiration is a great solution for someone getting started in ESG investing (or self-directed investing more generally), as they consolidate a number of features useful to an ethically-minded investor. For those who seek a more granular view of performance, other products may be more appealing.
The jury is still out on the performance of Aspiration’s Redwood Fund. It dipped substantially during the period of public market volatility in Q4 2018 (though overall it performed better – or, err, less poorly – than the S&P 500 in 2018). The combination of an interest-bearing debit account that reimburses ATM fees and the robo-advisor with “pay-what-you-will” fee structure makes the overall proposition appealing.
Overall, I would recommend Aspiration Bank for someone seeking an ESG robo-advisor and an entry-point all-in savings and investing app.
Aspiration Bank Review Overall Score: 7/10