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self-directed investing

Face-to-face contact with a financial advisor is no longer required, says Jelani Smith, a financial blogger who is based in Toronto. He writes about do-it-yourself and robo-advisor strategies.JENNIFER ROBERTS

No full-time job. No group RRSP. No pension. No problem.

If you're among the growing number of so-called gig economy workers – doing piecemeal work for a variety of employers – investing on your own for retirement and other goals has never been easier.

From app-based discount brokerages, to low-fee exchange-traded funds (ETFs), to robo-advisors, the self-employed have a number of options to get started at little cost without ever having to set foot in a financial institution.

Face-to-face contact with a financial advisor simply is no longer required, says Jelani Smith, a millennial financial blogger and Toronto-based analyst in the financial industry.

"I always recommend to my friends to use a robo-advisor or invest in ETFs [through a discount broker,]" says Mr. Smith, who frequently writes about do-it-yourself and robo-advisor strategies for millennials on his blog,

What he doesn't recommend is buying through an advisor a portfolio of mutual funds, which generally have higher fees than the aforementioned options.

Mr. Smith's advice is increasingly popular given the rise of ETFs, do-it-yourself investors and robo-advisors.

The trend is very much DIY (do it yourself) or DIFY (do it for you) through a robo-advisor, says Barbara Friedberg, the San Francisco-based editor of the financial websites and

Underpinning both strategies are low-cost ETFs, which have exploded in popularity.

In Canada, for example, ETFs have experienced double-digit percentage growth since 2012, data from the Canadian ETF Association indicate. Moreover, since 2008, ETFs' share of assets under management has grown from about 3 per cent to 8.5 per cent in June. That's about $130-billion.

Meanwhile robo-advisors are growing in number, too – though they still represent a small sliver of the overall industry.

"Today, robo-advisors' impact on the wealth management industry is minor despite the fact that robo-advisors are in the news and growing rapidly," Ms. Friedberg says.

But their market share is expected to increase dramatically, she adds, pointing to a study by BI Intelligence, the premium research service for financial Web portal Business Insider. It estimates that by 2020 robo-advisor services will manage about 10 per cent of all assets under management globally, or about $8-trillion.

What's more is that the number of self-employed – particularly young Canadian adults – is on the rise, a 2016 report by RBC Economics stated. Additionally a TD Direct Investing survey in 2015 found that young investors are more likely than other age groups to use DIY and app-based investment strategies.

All of this points to millennials and, for that matter a lot of other investors, looking more to high-tech/low-cost investment strategies to reach their savings goals, says Chris Nicola, the co-founder of WealthBar, a Vancouver-based robo-advisor.

"We are seeing a lot more people working in self-employed capacities and at younger ages in terms of our client base."

So much so that the robo-advisor recently published a blog post on its site specifically addressing investment strategies for freelancers in the gig economy.

Moreover it's a condition of employment that he can attest to have experienced in the past himself – along with the challenges of investing for retirement and other needs.

"I'm a software developer by trade, so I can tell you this likely includes a growing number of software developers who are often working on one project one year and then go on to work for another company the next," he says, adding these individuals are generally not members of workplace retirement plans.

But tech-based investment solutions do not just appeal to tech-sector workers. Many adults in general spend considerable amounts of time using mobile devices and are increasingly comfortable with the idea of using app-based software to invest.

Indeed some are highly financially literate and can easily go it on their own, buying ETFs through an online brokerage, Mr. Nicola adds.

"There are definitely the couch potato solutions with a good number of prolific financial bloggers out there that tell you how to manage very simple, usually three-fund portfolios of ETFs."

He adds investors can also look to several excellent books on the subject.

"That includes The Wealthy Barber Returns, which came out [in 2011,] for people who want to learn this stuff on their own."

For those just getting started, robo-advisors are a good option, because they offer advisor-like services, such as portfolio construction and rebalancing, based on the needs of clients – mostly using algorithm-based software.

"It's an excellent way to go for many millennials who may not understand how the markets work," says Mr. Smith, who manages some of his own investments through a discount broker with the bulk of his assets managed through a robo-advisor.

He adds most young adults may not have much interest in the markets, but they still understand that fees erode performance. And they recognize what robo-advisors can offer: investment management at relatively low cost compared with the more traditional advisor-guided mutual-fund model.

Moreover the automated investment management that robos offer is particularly welcome for anyone making a living in the gig economy – such as freelancers, contract workers and Uber drivers, says Mr. Nicola.

"If you're self-employed, you've got a lot of other finance-related things to do, like collecting and remitting GST," along with making regular CPP and income tax contributions.

So automating their retirement investment strategy means they have one less fiscal undertaking to worry about.

Certainly young investors have a lot to choose from and that, too, presents a challenge.

That's why Mr. Smith suggests individuals base their choice – be it a robo-advisor, or discount brokerage – on three criteria: user experience of the app or website, the fees, and the promotions offered when opening an account.

"Right now it's becoming more competitive, and that means you're likely to see fees come down even more, along with better promotions, so it pays to shop around."

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