M1 Finance vs. Acorns for ESG (Socially Responsible) Investing (Review)

Both M1 Finance and Acorns let you create socially responsible investment portfolios, though the two platforms are very different. We have reviewed over 30 robo-advisor portfolios, and we will help you compare M1 Finance and Acorns with sustainability in mind.

SustainFi October 15, 2021

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At a glance

  • Both M1 Finance and Acorns offer environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing options that consider factors like carbon emissions and shareholder rights. Because the platforms are so different, the best option depends on what type of investor you are
  • Best for beginners: Acorns. Acorns is easier to use for beginners and lets you save and invest your spare change. You can fully outsource your investments to Acorns
  • Best for experienced investors: M1 Finance. M1 Finance lets you easily create custom ESG portfolios, buy fractional shares and borrow against your investment account

Keep reading to learn more.

Minimum investment

 $100

Minimum investment

$0

Management fee

None ($125 / year for Plus accounts)

Management fee

$3-5 / month

ESG option

Two Responsible Investing "Pies"

ESG option

ESG (Sustainable) Portfolio

Individual stocks

Yes

Individual stocks

No

Full-service robo-advisor

No

Full-service robo-advisor

Yes

What is M1 Finance?

M1 Finance is an investment platform rather than a full-service robo-advisor; it’s a cross between an online broker and a robo-advisor. M1 Finance offers an easy-to-use app that lets you build customizable portfolios (called “pies.”)

The pie portfolio model allows you to easily add a stock or an exchange-traded fund (ETF) as a piece of the pie. You choose what percentage to invest in each asset.

If you don’t want to “bake” your own pies, M1 Finance comes with over 80 premade options. The app offers two socially responsible pies, the Responsible Investing and the International Responsible Investing Pies. Both are made up of asset manager Nuveen’s ETFs. In addition, M1 Finance offers fractional shares and lets you borrow to invest.

Despite its flexibility, M1 Finance is a platform for investing, not for day trading. For example, you can only buy and sell during the daily trading window (two windows for M1 Plus members.) (If you are interested in trading more frequently, check out Public, a social investing app.)

Brian Barnes started Chicago-based M1 Finance in 2015. His startup has recently surpassed $4.5 billion in assets under management, raising over $300 million from investors like Softbank.

🔔 Read the full review of M1 Finance.

What is Acorns?

Acorns is a robo-advisor that lets you invest spare change from everyday purchases in diversified portfolios made up of ETFs. The company was launched in 2014 by the father and son duo, Walter and Jeff Cruttenden, to make investing accessible to everyone. Acorns has since expanded to retirement and checking accounts.

The robo-advisor grew its assets under management from $3 billion in 2020 to $4.7 billion in 2021. It has over 9 million users.

Acorns is best known for having no minimum balances, letting you save spare change and being beginner-friendly.

🔔 Read the full review of Acorns.

M1 Finance vs. Acorns: Account Types

Both Acorns and M1 Finance support:

  • Individual and joint taxable investment accounts
  • Retirement accounts for traditional, SEP, and Roth IRAs, plus rollover IRAs
  • Custodial (UTMA/UGMA) accounts for kids

💰 The winner: Tie.

M1 Finance vs. Acorns: Banking

Both Acorns and M1 Finance can set you up with checking accounts.

M1 Spend is a free savings account that comes with a Visa debit card. M1 Plus members get 1% APY on their money and 1% cash back on qualifying purchases. The account is FDIC-insured for up to $250,000. M1 Plus members get reimbursed for up to four ATM transactions each month.

An M1 credit card is coming soon.

Acorns offers checking accounts that come with a metal Visa debit card. The card offers free access to over 55,000 in-network ATMs. Your account is FDIC-insured for up to $250,000 and includes fraud protection, direct deposit and mobile check deposit options. Acorns Earn lets you earn bonus investments when you shop with over 350 brands like Apple, Chewy and Sephora.

💰 The winner: Tie. Although M1 Finance offers a higher APY, you need to be an M1 Plus member to qualify. Acorns gives every customer access to a large network of free ATMs and lets you earn rewards.

M1 Finance vs. Acorns: Minimum investment

Both Acorns and M1 Finance have low minimums compared to working with a human financial advisor, some of whom require $250,000 or more.

M1 Finance asks you to deposit $100 into your account to start building pies. The minimum goes up to $500 for IRAs.

Although Acorns has no minimum, it will start investing your money when you have at least $5 in your account.

💰 The winner: Acorns. You can start investing with only $5.

M1 Finance vs. Acorns: Management fees

Unlike full-service robo-advisors, M1 Finance doesn’t charge a management fee. M1 Finance makes money on lines of credit and optional extras like Plus memberships. (However, accounts with less than $20 and no trading activity for over 90 days are charged a $20 maintenance fee.)

M1 Finance Plus memberships cost $125 per year and offer access to perks like an extra trading window and discounted borrow rates. Plus accounts also let you set up Smart Transfers, a service that sweeps excess cash into your investing account. As a Plus member, you also earn interest and get cash back on your M1 Spend account.

Acorns has two membership plans that cost $3 or $5 a month. As of September 2021, Acorns Lite ($1/month) is no longer offered. The two plans offered today are:

  • Acorns Personal ($3/month), which includes personal investment, retirement and checking accounts plus a metal debit card
  • Acorns Family ($5/month), which includes all the Personal features plus Acorns Early, which offers investment accounts for kids

The fees are competitive for higher account balances. However, $3-$5/month may be expensive if you have very little invested. If you only have $1,000 in your account and sign up for Acorns Family, you are paying 6% each year. (You could argue that it’s still worth it because Acorns helps you save money you would have spent otherwise.)

💰 The winner: M1 Finance. M1 Finance doesn’t charge fees (unless you choose the Plus membership), though, to be fair, they are not a full-service robo-advisor that will create a balanced portfolio for you.

M1 Finance vs. Acorns: Fund expenses

When you invest through a robo-advisor, you also need to pay the fees of the funds in your portfolio. (They are deducted automatically.) The money goes to the fund manager, not to the robo-advisor company.

M1 Finance lets you create your own pies, so your all-in fund expense ratio will vary.

If you are interested in M1’s premade Responsible Investing Pies, the funds in those pies cost between 0.35% and 0.40%. All-in, the Responsible Investing Pie costs 0.38% ($38 annually on a $10,000 investment). The International Responsible Investing Pie costs 0.39%. These pies are more expensive than ESG portfolios from most other robo-advisors.

However, higher fund expenses are offset by no management fee from M1 Finance. All-in, M1’s Responsible Investing Pies are one of the cheapest ESG options. And, of course, nothing prevents you from designing even cheaper pies.

The funds in the Acorns ESG Portfolio cost from 0.05% to 0.25% annually (so that, if you have $10,000 invested you pay $5 to $25 to the fund managers each year.) The expense ratio of your combined portfolio will depend on the risk profile you select. For comparison, the Moderately Aggressive Portfolio, which is 80% in stocks and 20% in bonds, costs 0.16% annually.

💰 The winner: Tie. Acorns ESG portfolio is cheaper than M1’s Responsible Investing Pies, but M1 Finance lets you choose any funds you want (you can even pick the ones in the Acorns ESG Portfolio.)

M1 Finance vs. Acorns: ESG (Socially Responsible) Portfolio

Both M1 Finance and Acorns offer sustainable investing options. Broadly speaking, ESG portfolios score better on environmental, social, and governance metrics like carbon emissions, worker treatment, diversity and governance.

🔔 Read our ESG investing guide to learn more.

M1 Finance Responsible Investing Pies

M1 Finance comes with two premade Responsible Investing Pies, though you can design your own.

The International Responsible Investing Pie includes seven Nuveen ETFs. International “slices,” split between developed and emerging market ETFs, are 30% of the pie. The remainder is made up of large, mid, and small-cap U.S. stock ETFs.

Here are the funds in the International Responsible Investing Pie:

  • U.S. large-cap growth stocks: Nuveen ESG Large-Cap Growth ETF (NULG)
  • U.S. large-cap value stocks: Nuveen ESG Large-Cap Value ETF (NULV)
  • U.S. mid-cap growth stocks: Nuveen ESG Mid-Cap Growth ETF (NUMG)
  • U.S. mid-cap value stocks: Nuveen ESG Mid-Cap Value ETF (NUMV)
  • U.S. small-cap stocks: Nuveen ESG Small-Cap ETF (NUSC)
  • International developed markets stocks: Nuveen ESG International Developed Markets Equity ETF (NUDM)
  • Emerging markets stocks: Nuveen ESG Emerging Markets Equity ETF (NUEM)

The Responsible Investing Pie has the same U.S. stock ETFs as the International Responsible Investing Pie. It doesn’t include any international ETFs. The pie splits the portfolio into five “slices,” including large-cap growth and value stocks, mid-cap growth and value stocks, and small-cap stocks.

M1’s Responsible Investing Pies do not include bonds.

🔔 Read the full review of M1 Responsible Investing Pies.

Acorns Sustainable (ESG) Portfolio

The first notable difference is that the Acorns ESG Portfolios invest in more funds. Here are the funds Acorns chooses for its ESG Portfolios:

  • U.S. large-cap stocks: iShares ESG Aware MSCI USA ETF (ESGU), iShares MSCI USA ESG Select ETF (SUSA)
  • U.S. small-cap stocks: iShares ESG Aware MSCI USA Small-Cap ETF (ESML)
  • International developed markets stocks: iShares ESG Aware MSCI EAFE ETF (ESGD)
  • Emerging markets stocks: iShares ESG Aware MSCI EM ETF (ESGE)
  • Short-term corporate bonds: iShares ESG Aware 1-5 Year USD Corporate Bond ETF (SUSB)
  • Long-term corporate bonds: iShares ESG Aware USD Corporate Bond ETF (SUSC)
  • Short-term Treasury bonds: iShares 1-3 Year Treasury Bond ETF (SHY) (not ESG)
  • Long-term Treasury bonds: iShares US Treasury Bond ETF (GOVT) (not ESG)
  • Long-term Treasury bonds: iShares MBS ETF (MBB) (not ESG)
  • U.S. aggregate bonds: iShares ESG Aware US Aggregate Bond ETF (EAGG)

Some of the bond funds are non-ESG because there aren’t enough large funds for each type of asset.

Acorns ESG Portfolios are offered in partnership with iShares, the largest provider of low-cost, sustainable ETFs. ESG Portfolios are designed to perform in line with conventional, Core Portfolios.

🔔 Read the full review of the Acorns ESG Portfolio.

M1 Finance International Responsible Investing Pie vs. Acorns ESG Portfolio (100% stocks)

Robo-Advisor
Expense Ratio% of Assets in ESG Funds
% of Assets in Energy
MSCI ESG Score
Sustainalytics ESG Rating
Acorns0.18%
100%
5.5%
7.3 / 103.8 / 5
M1 Finance 0.39%
100%
4.0%7.8 / 10
4.6 / 5

Data as of 9/30/2021

We’ve compared the all-stock M1 Finance International Responsible Investing Pie to Acorns’ riskiest ESG Portfolio, the Aggressive Portfolio, which is 100% invested in stocks.

As you can see, M1’s portfolio is less invested in oil and gas stocks, and its ESG scores from rating agencies Sustainalytics and MSCI are higher. However, the Acorns ESG Portfolio is much cheaper, though that is before the monthly $3 – $5 fee is added. How much you pay in total as a percentage of assets depends on what your balance is at Acorns.

🔔 We’ve created an ESG investing pie that is fossil free and costs only 0.11%. Check it out here or read more about the ESG investing pie.

💰 The winner: Tie. M1 Finance lets you create custom portfolios, but their premade Responsible Investing Pies are not bad either. You get less flexibility with Acorns, but Acorns will take care of building the portfolio for you.

M1 Finance vs. Acorns: Automatic savings

Acorns lets you save more through automatic round-ups. When you buy something with your Acorns debit card or another linked card, Acorns rounds up your transaction to the nearest dollar and invests the change into your Invest account portfolio. According to Acorns, the average user invests over $30 a month through round-ups.

You can also set up recurring transfers starting with as little as $5 so that you don’t forget to invest.

💰 The winner: Acorns. M1 Finance doesn’t offer round-ups.

M1 Finance vs. Acorns: Tax-loss harvesting

Tax-loss harvesting is a tax minimization strategy that involves selling funds or stocks at a loss to offset capital gains from investments that have made money.

Neither Acorns nor M1 Finance offers tax-loss harvesting.

💰 The winner: None. If you are interested in offsetting your taxable gains, you can get stock-level tax-loss harvesting from Personal Capital.

M1 Finance vs. Acorns: Human financial advisors

Neither Acorns nor M1 Finance offers human financial advisors, though both provide some educational resources.

💰 The winner: None. If you are looking for human advisors, you can get advisor access from Personal Capital, or you can find a human financial advisor.

M1 Finance vs. Acorns: Individual Stocks and Fractional Shares

M1 Finance lets you add individual stocks and fractional shares to your pies.

Fractional shares allow you to buy a piece of a share if buying the entire thing is more than you would like to spend. For example, one share of Tesla (TSLA) stock costs $800, but if you only want to spend $100, you can buy 1/8 of that share. Buying fractions of shares limits how much cash is sitting in your account unspent.

Acorns doesn’t let you buy individual stocks or fractions of them.

💰 The winner: M1 Finance.

M1 Finance vs. Acorns: Margin lending

M1 Finance lets you borrow against the value of your investments.

M1 Finance gives margin loans to customers with over $5,000 in their investment account. The platform charges 3.5% interest (2% for M1 Plus members), and you can borrow up to 35% of the value of your account.

💰 The winner: M1 Finance. Acorns targets beginner investors (who probably shouldn’t be borrowing to invest.)

M1 Finance vs. Acorns: Automatic rebalancing

Both M1 Finance and Acorns will automatically rebalance your portfolio. Automatic rebalancing means that the robo-advisors will buy or sell investments to get to your optimal asset allocation, like 80% stocks and 20% bonds.

Sometimes when one asset class, like stocks, does much better than another one, like bonds, your portfolio may “drift” and become riskier (or less risky) than it should be. Automatic rebalancing solves that.

💰 The winner: Tie. Nearly all robo-advisors now offer this feature.

💰 The Overall Winner

  • There is no clear winner: the two platforms are designed for different types of investors
  • Best for beginners: Acorns. Acorns Invest is a great option for beginners, especially those who are struggling to save. Acorns will create a custom portfolio for you to suit your needs like retirement goals and help you save by rounding up and investing your change. The Acorns ESG Portfolio is a good start
  • Best for experienced, self-directed investors: M1 Finance. M1 Finance gives you more choices if you know how you want to invest. There are no management fees. You can add individual stocks and fractional shares. If you want to invest sustainably and have specific requirements (like not owning oil and gas stocks), you can create a portfolio of fossil free ETFs

🔔 Want to compare more options? Read our guide to ESG robo-advisors.

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Methodology

We compared robo-advisors with an ESG offering based on management fees, ESG portfolio expense ratios, the percentage of the ESG portfolio invested in ESG funds vs. traditional funds, ESG portfolio ratings (from Sustainalytics and MSCI), portfolio exposure to energy, transparency, features like tax-loss harvesting and automatic rebalancing, and access to human advisors.