Archives for June 2012

Paying Estimated Taxes With Chase Ink Bold Card +

After getting the Chase Sapphire Preferred card $500 in airfare bonus, I developed a taste for Ultimate Rewards (UR) points. You can cash out UR points at a flat 10,000 points = $100. You can also use them towards travel at an Expedia-like portal for 10,000 points = $125 toward airfare, hotel, and car rentals. The prices are not marked up and you can combine cash and points however you like, so I use 1.25 cents per point as a baseline value. Example of combining cash and points:

Finally, you can transfer them to United Airlines, Southwest, British Airways, Korean, Hyatt, and Marriott rewards at a 1:1 ratio. If you use United and British Airways for international and/or business-class flights, you can get closer to 2 cents per point in value.

Therefore, in my last round of application I decided to apply for the Ink Bold® Business Charge Card which was a small business card offering 50,000 bonus points – after spending $5,000 in the first 3 months your account is open. I wouldn’t mind only earning 1 UR point per dollar on most of my business spend, although they do offer 5X points per dollar in select business categories. (More details on the Chase Ink Bold Business Charge Card here.)

Spending $5,000 on a card over three months is not something I usually do and I didn’t have any large business expenses coming up, however, I do have to pay quarterly estimated taxes to Uncle Sam. As a result, I found (accepts Visa, Mastercard, and Discover) which had the lowest fee for making tax payments with a credit card at 1.89%. You can verify them as an authorized payment provider here at

The IRS deadline for quarterly payment was coming up, so I decided to make a $5,000 payment for one quarter now and another $5,000 payment on the next billing statement for the next quarter. This meant I could charge $10,000 ($5,000 x 2) which would earn me 10,000 Ultimate Rewards points ($125 value) and I would be charged a $189 fee ($94.50 x 2). However, this would satisfy the spending requirement and would get me another 25,000 UR points ($312.50 value). Still a nice net win even after taking the fee into account.

As you can see from my statement scans below, the first $5,000 tax payment and $94.50 fee went through separately with no cash advance charges or other issues.

I also received my first 25,000 points on my very first statement:

Another useful perk of Ultimate Rewards points is that you can transfer them over to any other person’s account with no fee. This is handy to transfer between family or household members for pooling points and miles. My small business Ink Bold Business Charge Card UR points are in a different account than my personal Sapphire Preferred points, so I just transferred them over and it showed up instantly.

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Provident Funding Mortgage Refinance Review

We finally signed the closing documents on our most recent mortgage refinance. We ended up going through the same local mortgage broker who linked us up with Provident Funding, which is apparently one of the largest private lenders in the country. Before going through them, I read some reviews online and the main complaint seemed to be that their underwriting was overly strict. I decided to go with them anyway because:

  1. They had the lowest rates at the time for a no-cost refi,
  2. With such high loan volume, I figured I should expect some complaints based just on the numbers (happy people rarely leave lender reviews),
  3. We are very qualified for the loan so it shouldn’t matter anyway. Our loan-to-value ratio was well under 50%, much less than the 80% that most loans require. Great credit score, good income.
  4. We trusted our broker to help guide us through the process.

So how did it go? One reviewer described the loan approval process as “cookie cutter” and a “gauntlet”, and I think that is a very apt description. The underwriting is very robotic and inflexible. For example, my wife already has plenty of stable, W-2 income to support the loan by herself. I decided to keep my name off the application explicitly to keep things simple since I have both W-2 and 1099 income. Yet, Provident still required proof that the “excess” income on our tax returns was connected to me and not my wife. Why would you care where the extra income came from?

Another example is regarding bank statements. I understand the need for historical bank statements, but any deposit or withdrawal over something like $5,000 needed full documentation as to source and reason. Never mind what our total balances were. If they don’t like the reason, it is grounds for denial. This is annoying, especially if you move money around a lot like I do. The really stupid part? I finally discovered that the bank doesn’t even need to be the deposit source for your paycheck. In that case, since they don’t care about long-term balance history but instead want the appearance of blandness, I luckily had lots of bank accounts to choose from and simply chose the “cleanest” one to finally satisfy them.

In addition, the bank account that you submit the statement for is the one that you need to fund closing costs via cashier’s check. I suppose this proves you own it? The only bad news was that my “clean” account was an online bank, so I had to pay for a $30 outgoing wire fee in place of the free cashier’s check I could have gotten from a local bank.

Recap: Provident Funding has very competitive rates, but with strict underwriting requirements that often lack common sense. You should be wary of them if you are a non-standard applicant in any way (self-employed income, recent job change). There are many complaints that people lost the house they had under contract because they were eventually denied their loan or did not close on time. The total time from loan application to closing on our refinance was approximately 45 days. If you have a great credit score and nice, stable W-2 income with good ratios, then go for it if their rates are the best and you’re willing to trade a few headaches for it.

Compare with rate quotes from:

Related mortgage refinance articles:

Exxon Mobil Speedpass Mastercard Promotion: Save 10 Cents a Gallon

Exxon Mobil and Mastercard have a promotion where if you link your Mastercard to a Speedpass, you’ll get 10 cents off per gallon from 6/1/12 to 8/31/12. Good at any Exxon or Mobil, up to 100 gallons total. Rebates will be credited in October 2012.

This appears to be a keychain fob that links to any existing credit/debit card but allows you to purchase gas without needing to swipe. So that would be 10 cents per gallon on top of your existing credit card rewards. Thanks to reader William P for the tip.

S&P Persistence Scorecard: Don’t Pick Mutual Funds Based on Past Performance

It is very tempting to invest in an actively-managed mutual fund that has above-average returns. Why would you invest in the ones with below-average returns? However, there’s something behind the whole “past performance does not guarantee future results” fine print. While there will always be funds that outperform, it is exceedingly difficult to pick them out in advance.
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Lending Club vs. Prosper Experiment: Which Has The Highest Returns?

I’ve decided to invest $10,000 in Prosper and Lending Club to compare their performance as an investment. Putting $5,000 in each will allow me to invest in 200 loans at $25 a piece, so that each loan will only be 0.5% of each respective portfolio. The money has already been deposited:

Prosper Screenshot:

Lending Club Screenshot:

Prosper advertises returns of seasoned returns of 10.08%. Lending Club advertises rates of 5.81% to 9.43% depending on credit grade, but always with prime borrowers. I want to compare both absolute performance and the investing experience (ease of use, customer service, liquidity, etc.). However, I’m not sure exactly how I should run the experiment…

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Which Fuel-Efficient Cars Are Worth The Extra Money?

Recently, the NY Times had an article about how many models of fuel-efficient cars may take years to justify the extra cost. Here’s a graphic from the article with data from TrueCar:

(I note that the NY Times compares the Prius with the Camry. I still think the Corolla is closer in size. You can see from this side-by-side comparison that in terms of length, width, interior passenger volume, shoulder room, and leg room, the Prius is closer to the Corolla than Camry. Also, does the Lincoln MKZ hybrid really only cost $1,400 more than the regular model and is 15+ mpg better??)

Consumer Reports also had a similar article which discussed how the ultra-efficient “40 mpg” models which were upgrades to the normal versions. The Ford Focus SFE, Honda Civic HF, and Chevrolet Cruze Eco all cost between $495 and $800 more, but the breakeven time when using real-life mpg varied widely between 3 and 38 years.
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New 401k Fee Disclosure Requirement Summary

New 401(k) plan fee disclosure requirements from the US Department of Labor are coming soon. This includes defined benefit, 401(k), 403(b), profit sharing, and other retirement plans. I was getting confused myself, so I wanted to summarize some of the basic deadlines. First, there are three main parties involved:

  1. Plan service providers. For example Vanguard, Fidelity, or numerous smaller local providers.
  2. Retirement plan fiduciaries. Basically, your employer.
  3. Plan participant. The employee.

First, there is a new requirement for fee disclosure by service providers to the fiduciaries (i.e. from Fidelity to the employer). These regulations become effective on July 1, 2012. The idea is to get fiduciaries to understand the services received from providers and to determine the reasonableness of the costs incurred. You’d think that your employer would already demand to know what they’ve been paying for all these years. Why don’t they? All too often, you, the employee are the one paying for it out of your investment balances and earnings!

Which brings up the next stage, the fee disclosure requirement from plan fiduciaries to participants (i.e. from employer to employee), which becomes effective August 30, 2012. Now, your employer is legally required to tell you what fees you’re paying, including both investment management fees and administrative fees for things like record keeping, accounting, and legal services. However, this is likely be wrapped up into just an overall percentage for each investment option, or worded as dollars charged per $1,000 invested.

The basic problem remains. Employers choose 401k plans with high fees often because they it doesn’t affect their bottom line – most are smaller companies with plans that shift the cost burden onto the employees. However, by simply shining a brighter light on these fees and allowing easy comparison between employer plans, it lets employees have more information to affect change. Indeed, it appears this forced transparency is working already, as the WSJ reports:

Employers “have been polishing up their plans in anticipation of fee disclosure, making sure the fees are appropriate,” says David Wray, president of the Plan Sponsor Council of America. He says nearly two-thirds of 401(k) plans changed their investment lineup last year, and 57% did so the year before, compared with a “normal number” of about 10%.

More reading: Department of Labor, NY Times, Employee Benefits Law Report

Reflections on Fathers and Fatherhood

I’ve been thinking about fatherhood and my own father/son relationship. When I was young, my father was a comfortably-employed engineer, with two small kids and a house in the suburbs. But he decided that he wanted to go back to graduate school. All of a sudden we were a family of 4 living in a small 2-bedroom apartment with both parents working long hours and still only earning a fraction of the income. But he eventually got his PhD, became a college professor, and I always remembered how he continued working long hours but told me about how it was great because he loved it and he had no boss. Nobody told him when to go to work or what to do on a daily basis.

I understood the autonomy part, but was always bitter about the lack of time he spent at home. Still, he was my role model. So as I went off to college, I pursued the goal of being a professor as well. I did all the right things and got accepted into one of the best engineering graduate schools in the country with a full fellowship, meaning I had full tuition covered plus a small stipend. I was set. I could make him proud… except for the little discovery that I didn’t like doing research.

Dropping out of grad school was one of the more difficult decisions in my life. I felt I was disappointing my father, as I wouldn’t be able to “do better” than him. At least I had employable skills. Still, I was unhappy. That led to starting this blog and learning about how managing your money properly gave you more freedom to do what you wanted. I was afraid, but I still felt I had to switch gears yet again and try something new, and today I work on my own terms and am well on the path to financial freedom and being able to live off investment income.

It took me a while to understand some of these things that my dad’s experiences taught me, but late is better than never. Happy Father’s Day!

  • A son always wants to make his dad proud, even if he won’t admit it to anyone including himself.
  • Sometimes you just know something is missing, and you have to take a risk. My father quit a safe job and took a long, cloudy road but eventually found the key ingredients to a satisfying career: autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward.
  • Being frugal and having the ability to live well on less money is a skill that allows you the flexibility to take on those positive risks and to weather those leaner times.
  • Having a supportive spouse or partner in your life is priceless.
  • As a soon-to-be father, I recognize the desire of having your kids exceed your own achievements. However, all I can do is provide them whatever life skills I can, and eventually let go and allow them take their own path. At least, I’ll try.

Zipcar $25 Free Driving Credit Offer

ZipCar is a membership-based car-sharing company that lets you rent cars by the hour (gas + insurance included) in many metro areas and college campuses. It can be good deal for those thinking about having one less car in your household (or who don’t have a car but occasionally want one). Right now, you can get $25 in free driving credit when you join. You’ll need a driver’s license and credit card. Plan prices vary by location.

If you don’t drive your car very much, adding up the total cost of depreciation + car insurance + maintenance + parking + gas can actually make ZipCar a much cheaper alternative (ZipCar savings calculator). Also, we were selling an old bookshelf on Craiglist once and the buyer rented a Honda Odyssey via Zipcar to pick it up.


Haggle To Lower Your Cable or Direct TV Satellite Bill

directv_newlogoI’ve written several times about the significant savings you can achieve if you haggle with your media providers like DirecTV, be it broadband internet, telephone, or cable/satellite TV. A simple phone call can save you hundreds of dollars per year. This is as true today as in past years, and below is a collection of all related tips as well as some new information.

Why does it work?
Media service is like banking. People tend to stick with who they have, and the companies make tons of money from it because they can raise prices and most people just accept it. As a result, competing companies have to offer rather juicy deals to make people switch. But since customer acquisition is so expensive, if you let your existing company know that you’re shopping around, they will gladly give you a temporary incentive to stay. Media is so profitable that they can give you a discount of $20-$40 a month and still make money.

Of course, they don’t offer this to everyone because your neighbor is probably paying full price without complaint. In behavioral finance terms, this is called price targeting.

Negotiating Tips
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Scottrade Review: Trading Experience & Tips (Updated 2012)

I’ve had an account with Scottrade for several years now, and here is an updated, in-depth review for 2012 (last one I did was in 2006!). I will focus on all the little things that make brokers different from each other, from completing your taxes to buying a stock on a moment’s notice. This review will be from the point of view of a casual private investor who does not trade daily but does mostly buy-and-hold ETF investing and also trades some individual stocks with a small portion of his portfolio (less than 5% of overall portfolio).

Unique Characteristics

  • 505 physical branches nationwide. No other discount broker has nearly the same footprint. If you like the feeling of knowing there is a physical branch with friendly humans to interact with nearby, this is the broker for you.
  • Fiercely privately-owned. The current CEO, Rodger Riney, is the same person that founded the company in 1980. He has rebuffed repeated offers to be sold to public corporations like E-Trade or Ameritrade. I kind of like this independence and unwillingness to cash-out. It helps them not have to worry about profits all the time. For example, even during both recent stock market busts, no one has ever been laid off, and no office has ever been closed. Their branch brokers don’t offer advice to customers and do not work on commission.

Commissions and Fees

  • Stock commissions are $7 a trade. No maintenance fees, no minimum balance fees, no inactivity fees. $500 minimum to open the account. Options trades are $7 + $1.25 per contract.
  • Electronic statements and trade confirmations are free, but paper ones are not. Mailed statements are $2 each, mailed trade confirmations are $1 each. It’s easy to download the statements as PDFs and print if necessary.
  • No account closing or transfer-out fee. This is rare, as nearly all the other places charge you $50+ to move your positions away to another broker.
  • No free dividend reinvestment. There is no free dividend re-investment plan (DRIP) at Scottrade. What I do is wait until enough dividends accumulate and then reinvest them along with new money, because I don’t like dealing with many small tax lots with partial shares.

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Free Priority Club Points Via Survey (Up to 500)

Here are a few short surveys that offer some free Priority Club hotel rewards points. They may not all work for everyone, but if they do work the points will post instantly to your account. You’ll need to provide your Priority Club number and last name.

Survey #1 (100 points)
Answers: 15, AOTA, Silver

Survey #2 (100 points)
Answers: AOTA, Anytime, AOTA

Survey #3 (300 points)
Answers: AOTA, AOTA, AOTA, 4,300+, and 50/60,000