Why American Expats Overseas Should Invest With AssetBuilder


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I’ve been reading Scott Burns‘s articles for years. He’s one of America’s favorite financial writers. For more than 40 years he has brought straight-shooting coast-to-coast money columns to American breakfast tables. His syndicated column gets published in more than 80 newspapers.His no-nonsense approach led to the creation of the Couch Potato portfolio, in 1991.

He said the average investor could buy just two index funds: a stock index and a bond index. And if they did, they would beat most professional investors. The idea was simple. And he was right. Most people pay far too much money for their investment accounts.

Do-it-yourself couch potato investing is cheap. But not everybody wants to invest on his or her own.

So Scott Burns and Kennon Grose started a firm called AssetBuilder. They create low cost portfolios of index funds for clients. Best of all, they accept American expats.For expats, they build accounts with Schwab’s low cost, commission free exchange traded index funds (ETFs). Investors have a variety of portfolio models to choose from. Some are aggressive. Others are conservative.

Over long periods of time, aggressive models should reap higher returns. But investors would need strong stomachs. Returns for aggressive investors can fluctuate wildly. More conservative portfolios earn lower returns. But they don’t fall as far when stock markets crash.

AssetBuilder uses something called Mean Variance Optimization. This means they build portfolios using a broad range of asset classes. Think of it as eggs in many baskets. And they rebalance those baskets.

For example, their portfolios all contain international stock market indexes. If the international index rises a lot in value, AssetBuilder rebalances the portfolio, selling off pieces of it to add the proceeds to the lagging indexes. This sounds counterintuitive. But long term, it’s a very good strategy. Today’s winning index can be tomorrow’s loser. Today’s loser can be tomorrow’s winner. Nobody can see the future. So AssetBuilder puts together diversified portfolios and rebalances them each year.


AssetBuilder’s Eight Portfolios

The firm offers 8 portfolios. Here’s how $10,000 would have grown, in each of the eight, if it were invested in DFA index funds from January 2000 to the end of February 2015.


Hypothetical Initial Investment

$10,000 Would Have Grown To:

Model Portfolio 5



Model Portfolio 6



Model Portfolio 7



Model Portfolio 8



Model Portfolio 9



Model Portfolio 10



Model Portfolio 12



Model Portfolio 14




 A few things to note:

  • AssetBuilder doesn’t have model Portfolios 1-4. Nor does it have a Portfolio 11 or 13. It never did.
  • Past returns aren’t indicative of future returns
  • These results are with DFA funds. This is what AssetBuilder uses to build portfolios for U.S. based Americans. Results would be similar with Schwab’s ETFs. AssetBuilder uses Schwab’s products (it’s a regulatory thing) for American expatriates overseas.


To open an account, what do you need and what does it cost?

Expatriate Americans will need to use a U.S. address on their account opening forms. This could be the address of a mother, father, sister or brother.

You will need a minimum initial investment of $50,000 to open the account. But speak to Wesley Sisk: wesleys@assetbuilder.com.

There may be a way around that if you can open a Schwab brokerage account on your own. AssetBuilder may be able to then piggyback onto that account. If they can’t do it now, it’s a process that they’re working on.



Schwab based ETFs charge their own annual costs. But they’re microscopic. For example, a $100,000 portfolio would cost roughly $50 per year. You don’t see this money come out of your account. It goes directly to Schwab.  AssetBuilder then takes its cut, for the account to be built and managed. 

AssetBuilder charges the following percentages on assets, based on the account size.


This means AssetBuilder would take $225 a year to manage $50,000.

Here’s the firm’s contact page, where you could leave a message or call them on the phone.

For nearly 3 years, I wrote for AssetBuilder—for free.

I believe in the firm because they’re worth supporting.

If you’re an overseas American, give them a shout. They’re fabulous.

Andrew Hallam is the author of The Global Expatriate’s Guide To Investing (Wiley 2015) and Millionaire Teacher (Wiley 2011)






Andrew Hallam

I’m a financial columnist for Canada’s national paper, The Globe and Mail, as well as for AssetBuilder, a financial service firm based in Texas. I’m also the author of Millionaire Teacher: The Nine Rules of Wealth You Should Have Learned in School (2nd Ed. Wiley 2017) and The Global Expatriate’s Guide To Investing: From Millionaire Teacher to Millionaire Expat (Wiley 2015). My mission is to educate, motivate and inspire people on basic retirement planning and best practices for investing, using evidence-based strategies. I'm happy to comment on your questions. However, please read the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and the Comments Policy.

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24 Responses

  1. john says:


    Is there a particular advantage of investing with assetbuilder versus Vangaurd Index funds?

    Also, I am an American expat in Australia and the AUD is quite weak now – roughly $.75 to the USD. Previously I was sending back money to the U.S. to invest in my U.S. accounts when the AUD was stronger. I have maxed out my Roth for myself and my wife.

    I am in a position to invest $1000 AUD per month but do not want to take the hit on the exchange rate if I send back to my Vanguard accounts in the U.S.

    I could invest in Vanguard in Australia, although they do have much higher fees than U.S. Vanguard and a buy/sell spread. – .13% buy/sell spread and .90% annual management costs.

    I will probably live in Australia for another 18 months or so but a good chance that we will return back in the future as we have dual citizenship.

    Any thoughts how to best invest on a monthly basis?


    • Hi John,

      As I mentioned in my book, The Global Expatriate’s Guide To Investing, http://bit.ly/globalexpat
      you won’t be able to open an account with Vanguard USA while living abroad. Before 2006, you could have. So your best options are either opening a trading account with Schwab (as mentioned in my book) and buying ETFs via that platform, or using a firm like AssetBuilder, which would take you if your investable assets exceed $50,000 USD.

      As for bank currency spreads, they only impact you once: when you make the transaction to shift your money. Ongoing fees, however, drag on your account for longer periods of time. As mentioned in my book, currency spreads and commissions are not as damaging as long term fees. Those currency spread charges are worth taking, for the opportunity to get your money working effectively, in the country that sounds like it will eventually (the USA) be your long term home.


      • Carol says:

        Hi Andrew,

        I recently tried to open a Schwab commission-free ETF as an American expatriate living in the Middle East. Schwab gave me the same policy response as Vanguard. I’ve considered AssetBuilder but, per the article, they go through Schwab as well. I’m awaiting their response, but I’m quite worried they will not be able to open an account for me either. Are there any other options that you recommend for American Expats residing in the Middle East that want to invest for their retirement?

        Best Regards,

        • Carol,

          Try opening the Scwhab account online, providing a U.S. address of a friend/relative. But don’t tell them that you live in the Middle East.

          • Alex says:

            Hi Andrew,
            We lived overseas for 10 years, returned to the US and are now thinking of heading back overseas. A friend recommended your most-excellent “Global Expatriates Guide” and I am hooked! As per your recommendation I went to Charles Schwab.com but I am confused at to which “product” I should sign up for. There is a Schwab One Brokerage account or a page called “Start Trading” at http://www.schwab.com/public/schwab/active_trader/start_trading and about a dozen other options. I just want to make sure that I get signed up, but in a way that won’t cost me fees other than the expense ratio for the fund. Could you point me to the sign up you refer to in the section on page 212?
            Thanks so much!

          • Hi Alex,

            Here’s the link to the account you’ll need to open:


          • Karla says:

            Hi Andrew,

            What would be the implications of having a US address in the application? I ask this because on the application it asks about employer name and address (if applicable). Now if I don’t write anything here because it says “if applicable”…I wonder if this will result in the application being denied?


          • Hi Karla,

            Not including the employer won’t result in the application being denied.


    • John,

      When you invest in a diversified global portfolio, the currency exposure is the exposure to the entity to which you are investing. For example, assume you bought an iShares Australian stock ETF, trading in U.S. dollars on the U.S. stock exchange. Despite the fact that it would be priced in U.S. dollars, it would have ZERO exposure to the U.S. dollar. Yes, your money would be converted to USD. But that’s irrelevant. The money would truly be invested in the Australian market, in Australian dollars only.


    • John,

      You are better off going with a U.S. brokerage. See which brokerage will accept your money: AssetBuilder or Vanguard. I wrote about the nitty gritty of each brokerage in my book, The Global Expatriate’s Guide To Investing. http://bit.ly/globalexpat

      Good luck!


  2. Akane says:

    Hi Andrew,

    I am a Japanese-American teacher moving to Eastern Europe. I recently looked into opening a Saxo account, and noticed that one of the questions they ask is whether I am a US citizen, or a US resident for tax purposes. Although I haven’t lived in the US since I was 9 or even have a Social Security Number, I am still technically a citizen as I was born there to my Japanese parents. A kindly soul has alerted me to the fact that I should actually be filing annual US tax returns despite my weak ties to the country (yep, Accidental American, right here) and I’m now considering making a formal renunciation, but it’s a complicated decision to make.

    What would be your advice to someone like me in choosing a brokerage? My husband, an avid reader of your blog, said his understanding was that Saxo perhaps would not be the most advantageous for an “American” like me. Yet I couldn’t work with a firm like AssetBuilder as I don’t have a US address. I would love to start investing in index funds and getting my financial affairs in order, especially if I’m going to have to pay Uncle Sam a whole bunch in back taxes…sigh.

    Kind regards,


    • Akane,

      Because you have U.S. citizenship, you will need to open a brokerage account in the U.S., and you will need to file each year, for U.S. taxes. Bummer, I know. You could cancel your citizenship (an extreme case, but many do it). Or you could use the U.S. address of a friend to open the account. You don’t fit neatly into the typical U.S. box. But as a citizen, the IRS is legally entitled to have a share beyond the foreign income exclusion amount.


  3. Sean says:

    Hi Andrew,

    I’ve recently read your book “The Global Expatriate’s Guide To Investing”. Gained more from that 1 book than all my meetings with Financial Advisors over the years combined. When the book came to recommending financial advisors/ investment groups, I was rather interested in AssetBuilder and decided to read up a little more regarding the firm. There are mentions of the firm opening a division for non-American expatriates in 2016. I have mailed the firm to find out more on this but unfortunately have not received any reply to date.

    Do know perhaps have any update regarding the above that you can share on the site. And secondly, do you perhaps know of anybody within AssetBuilder that I can mail who would be up to date with the latest info?

    My following book purchase is “Millionaire Teacher” and looking forward to it.

    Thanks, and keep up the good work.

  4. Karine says:

    Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for the great info. I’m interested in purchasing your book.

    I just have a question regarding setting up an investment account using a US address. I’ve been living abroad for about 8 years now, and now have dual citizenship. I’ve never had trouble opening up a US bank account in that time, and also have plenty of options for a US address. But it kind of seems like cheating to use another person’s address to open up investment accounts. If it’s fully within my rights to do so, then great…but I worry about being penalized down the road if I go this route. Is there some sort of loophole available to American citizens? I did read in a Thun Financial article that: Quoted from a Thun Financial article on the subject that it was “within their rights” for American citizens to maintain a US residential address – but can do this without living there for most of the year?

    Thanks for your time. I’m a newbie to the world of investing, but am keen to open an index fund account in the US within the next year or so. If I can use a US address to do so, then I will definitely consider that route.


    • Karine,

      The firm that will allow you to open an account is Interactive Brokers. But they will not give you advice. With such a platform, you could build a portfolio of ETFs, as I suggested in my book.


  5. Allison says:

    Hi, Andrew!
    Loved reading your books!!! But as an American expat, I still don’t know exactly know where to start since we can’t open an account with Vanguard nor do I have $50,000 . Do you have an alternate company that you could recommend?

  6. JT says:

    Hi Andrew,
    After reading your book (loved it BTW) I attempted to open a Schwab account, but do not qualify. I am in the process of opening one with interactive Brokers (just need to send the funds and wait for the approval to come through). Reading reviews online, they don’t have a good history with customer service and I should have experience before using them and that the platform is not user friendly. (looking at it, its a bit scary) I read somewhere (but can’t find it again) that you recommended someone that charged hourly for phone consultations. It would be great to find someone that could walk me through my first few transactions. I already know what I want to buy (Thanks to your book).
    Cheers, JT

  7. Kkarg says:

    Hi Andrew,
    A US expat friend of mine has recently tried to open an account with AssetBuilder and received this response:
    “Thanks for your inquiry and interest in AssetBuilder!
    While we did serve the investment needs of American expats for years, unfortunately we are currently unable to manage expat assets. This is mainly due to recent custodial restrictions at all major custodians, and this includes our custodial partner, Charles Schwab. This stems mainly from recent closures of the legal loopholes that use to allow certain advisors to work with American expats abroad. So as long as you reside outside the U.S. we are unable to open managed accounts on your behalf. However, we are always reevaluating the situation and will be sure to update our site if the circumstances change in the future.
    Please don’t hesitate to let me know if I can help in some way or answer any questions you have.
    Best regards,”

    Is this a new stance for them? Would you recommend trying to work around this latest hurdle?

    Thanks for your time!

  8. JayEl says:

    FYI As of four weeks ago, Interactive brokers and its resellers no longer offer residents of European countries the possibility to trade in US-based ETFs. (As part of implementing a directive called MiFiD II.) That includes US expats in Europe, who of course face punitive consequences from the US for trading in non-US funds (PFICs.)

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