Archives for August 2015

Free FICO Score from Citi Credit Cards

citidouble200This post provides updated information and instructions regarding the free FICO score that is available to Citibank credit card holders.

Background. While their plans were announced in late 2014, Citi started offering free FICO scores to select cardholders in January 2015.

FICO Score details.

How to find the score. You can find the free FICO score on your online account access. According to a January 2015 press release, you can also request them to mail it to you. After logging in, look for either the “View your FICO Score” link or click on the “Card Benefits” tab. See screenshot below (click to enlarge):

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Here are some example screenshots of what information is provided. Here is the latest score, a score meter, and the top two factors impacting your score:

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They also provide a score history:

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Here is a visual of the score range to help understand what each range means to lenders:

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Fine print:

Your FICO® Score is calculated based on data from Equifax using the FICO® Bankcard Score 8 model and may be different from other credit scores. FICO® Scores are intended for and delivered only to the Primary cardmember and only if a FICO® Score is available. Disclosure of this score is not available for all Citi products and Citi may discontinue displaying the score at our discretion.

Free FICO Score from Discover Credit Cards

Discover it 14 ImageThis post provides updated information and instructions regarding the free FICO score that is available to Discover credit card holders.

Background. While a pilot program started in late 2013, Discover started offering a free FICO score to all cardholders in early 2014.

FICO Score details.

  • FICO Score version: FICO Score 8, or FICO 08. This is the most widely used of the many FICO flavors. Score version is directly from TransUnion representative.
  • Credit bureau: TransUnion
  • Update frequency: Monthly
  • Limitations: Available to all Discover consumer cards. This includes:

How to find the score. You can find the free FICO score on your online account access, your paper statements, and the Discover mobile app.

Here are some screenshots from the website (click to enlarge):

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Here is a screenshot from the Discover app (click to enlarge):

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Here is a sample picture of a paper statement with the FICO score on it (click to enlarge):

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Fine print:

FICO® Credit Score Terms: Your FICO® Credit Score and key factors are based on data from TransUnion and may be different from other credit scores. This information is intended for and only provided to Primary cardmembers who have an available score. See Discover.com/FICO about the availability of your score. Your score is provided on the statement for individual accounts and on Discover.com with key factors for individual and joint accounts. You will see up to a year of recent scores starting when you become a cardmember. Discover and other lenders may use different inputs, such as a FICO® Credit Score, other credit scores and more information in credit decisions. This benefit may change or end in the future. FICO is a registered trademark of the Fair Isaac Corporation in the United States and other countries.

Stock Investing: Taking Your Money Off The Table Until Things Calm Down?

Like most articles you’ve seen about about the recent market gyrations, I think people with long-term investments should act like it and not do anything special. But really, the past several days was nothing compared to real fear and uncertainty. In early 2009, a phrase I heard often was “I’m just going to take some money off the table until things calm down. Why risk it?”

Well, here’s a chart from FiveThirtyEight.com comparing the results of a “cautious, play-it-safe” investor and the “do-nothing” investor:

538_markets

Imagine two people who each invested $1,000 in the S&P 500 at the beginning of 1980. The first one buys once and never sells. The second one is slightly more cautious: He sells any time the market loses 5 percent in a week, and buys back in once it rebounds 3 percent from wherever it bottoms out. At the end of last week, the first investor’s holdings would be worth $18,635. The second investor would have just $10,613.

Remember, the only two possibilities for the stock market are all-time high or a drawdown. The highs you don’t really feel. The drawdowns are quite painful. Here’s a nice chart from Doug Short illustrating the drawdowns since 2009. Lots of painful drawdowns, but during that time the market is up over 200%.

538_dshort2

This is also why financial advisors tell you to create an investment policy statement. That’s where you write down ahead of time “If the markets drop 10% in a week or two, I will do [action or lack of action] because [reason].” Then when the drop actually happens, you break out that piece of paper to remind yourself what the calm, rational version of yourself would have done.

Amazon Underground: 450+ Free Android Apps with Free In-App Purchases

amazonundergroundIf you have an Android smartphone or tablet, Amazon just released Amazon Underground, which adds a collection of 450+ apps which have agreed to be 100% free, including all in-app purchases. Amazon will somehow pay the publishers based on how much time you spend use each specific app. You pay nothing.

Looking over the list of available apps, I see an Office document viewer, a photo editor, a mobile PDF scanner, and a bunch of games. I don’t play games much so I can’t tell which are good, but I recognize a few like Cut the Rope, Angry Birds, and Fruit Ninja. There are also several Disney apps for those with young children. I don’t really understand why a Goat Simulator is the #1 featured app, but hey it’s free!

Free FICO Score from American Express Credit Cards

amex_spgThis post provides updated information and instructions regarding the free FICO score that is available to American Express credit card holders.

Background. In late 2014, American Express started piloting free FICO scores to select cardholders. In late August 2015, American Express has rolled out the free FICO scores much more widely. See additional information below. In previous years, AmEx cardholders could view their Experian PLUS credit score and credit report once every 12 months.

FICO Score details.

  • FICO Score version: FICO Score 8, or FICO 08. This is the most widely used of the many FICO flavors. Score version is directly shown on the website.
  • Credit bureau: Experian
  • Update frequency: Monthly
  • Limitations: Available to all American Express consumer credit and charge cards. See details below.

How to find the score. You can find the score after logging into your online account access. In order to see it, you must be viewing the American Express website in its “new” design layout (see screenshots below). If you are still on the “old” layout, try to unlink any cards for which you are the authorized user. In many cases, this will let you revert to the new design layout. Here are some screenshots.

Look for the “My Free FICO Score” link on your sidebar (click to enlarge):

fico_amex1

You will have to opt-in:

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Here’s what your score report looks like (click to enlarge):

fico_amex2

Fine print:

The FICO® Score we provide is the FICO® Score 8 based on data from Experian and may be different from other credit scores. FICO® Scores and educational content are delivered only to Primary card members who get a monthly statement and have an available score. This information is intended only for the Primary card members own review purposes. American Express and other lenders may use different inputs like a FICO® Score, other credit scores and more information in credit decisions. Because it is continuously updated, your FICO® Score may not reflect the most current data on your credit report. This benefit may change or end in the future.

The Many Flavors of FICO Credit Scores

fico_brEvery week it seems there is a new way to get a free FICO score. Over the last 10 years, I’m pretty sure I’ve only paid for a FICO score once when I was paranoid about my first mortgage application. Why aren’t they charging us $15 a pop anymore? My opinion is that FICO realized that:

  1. If they didn’t start making FICO scores more accessible, the government would force them offer free FICO scores to everyone like they did with free annual credit reports. Nowadays, I think we take for granted that we get a free credit report every year. Before the 2003 FACT Act, we had to pay to view our own credit report data.
  2. The alternative free credit score providers were getting very cozy directly with the credit bureaus, and their free FAKO scores and partial reports were getting good enough and popular enough that people might stop caring about FICO scores if they didn’t start marketing directly to consumers. Nowadays the FICO brand has much more publicity.

Anyhow, I was doings some research on their website when I noticed that they provided the following chart about the various versions of FICO:

fico_flavors

While these flavors have been around for a long time, they’ve only been well-known to industry insiders (and credit card afficionados). I had never seen FICO actually share all of these versions in the name of “consumer education”. If people actually knew there were so many different credit score flavors, they would have been less willing to pay big bucks for a single score that their lender may not even use. I guess now the game is that you get a single free “vanilla” FICO score from select credit cards, but you can buy all 19 FICO flavors for a $60 one-time snapshot from all 3 bureaus, or $30 a month for an ongoing subscription. If you get all these scores, you’re at least likely to see what the lender sees. Nicely done.

My own scores always hover in the upper 700s but rarely goes far above 800 because I am constantly “using” them to try out new credit card perks and take advantage of attractive sign-up bonuses. There is definitely a happy range where I can do this while not experiencing any ill effects like a higher auto insurance premium. However, I still don’t see the need to pay $360 a year to track my FICO scores. I’d rather spend my money at Baskin Robbins and pick from their 31 delicious flavors.

Elizabeth Gilbert On Taking Back 30 Minutes A Day For Yourself

zen_rhodes

Right this second, there are probably 37 different things vying for your time and attention. Are you letting the right things get through? Elizabeth Gilbert is best known for her bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love. In a recent Facebook post, she credits turning off the Sopranos with giving her the time to write her seven books (and become wildly rich and successful). Here are selected parts of her post, I left out some parts for brevity:

Yesterday I posted a message about not giving up on your daydream, and a lovely follower of this page asked what you should do if you have “too much family stuff” going on in order to live your dream? […]

But what if you could find 40 minutes a day? What if you could borrow those minutes from the time that you normally spend watching your favorite TV show, or hanging out on social media?

Back in my twenties, I once complained to a successful older woman artist that I had no time to write, and she said, “What’s your favorite TV show?” I replied, “The Sopranos!” She said, “Not anymore, it isn’t. Give yourself back that time. Turn off your TV.”

She was right. So I turned off my TV. And I STILL haven’t seen the last three seasons of The Sopranos. But since that conversation, I have written seven books.

By the same token, I must admit that I always smile when somebody gets on this Facebook page to tell me that they don’t have any free time in their lives to be creative. As much as I LOVE to see you all on this page, my first reaction to such a statement is always to say, “Why don’t you start by signing off Facebook right this minute?”

If you have enough free time to get on Facebook and tell me that you don’t have any free time, then you have some free time.

What would happen if you committed yourself to that time? What if you used it to create, or to meditate, or to exercise, or to volunteer, or to dream…or even to just devote some serious single-minded attention to the process of making an escape plan — such that, five years from now, your life looks entirely different than it looks today. In other words — what could YOU make out of your life in an extra forty minutes a day? Might that be worth exploring?

She also directs people to read a beautifully-drawn Zen Pencils comic by Gavin Aung Than (shown above) that was based on an article by James Rhodes, a largely self-taught concert pianist. Here’s the original Rhodes piece and here’s a short excerpt:

What if for a couple of hundred quid you could get an old upright on eBay delivered? And then you were told that with the right teacher and 40 minutes proper practice a day you could learn a piece you’ve always wanted to play within a few short weeks. Is that not worth exploring?

(Also see: Another Zen Pencils comic about Alan Watts.)

Regular readers may recall that Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway also tells people to work for yourself for an hour each day.

The takeaway is that these are not coincidences! Not everyone has a little voice inside them, telling them something is missing. But if you do, read all the full versions above, get inspired, and take some of your time back.

Expedia+ Voyager Card from Citi Review

expediaplusvoyagerExpedia.com has revamped their in-house loyalty rewards program. Our partner Citi and Expedia have partnered on a new set of co-branded credit cards. How does the combo work out for us travelers? This review covers the Voyager version, which is the premium card for the frequent Expedia user.

Why use Expedia in the first place? If you book all of your travel through a travel shopping engine, that most likely means you would rather have the lowest price than be loyal to any specific chain. You might stay at a Holiday Inn, then a Hilton, and then a Sheraton. Or fly on American, then Delta, then United. Indeed, Expedia even offers a “Best Rate Guarantee” against booking elsewhere, for which I have successfully claimed the $50 travel coupon in the past:

Find a cheaper flight, vacation package, rental car, cruise or activity within 24 hours of booking and we’ll refund the difference, plus give you a $50 travel coupon for future travel. For hotels, we go even further: If you find a cheaper rate on your hotel reservation up to two days before your check-in, we will refund the difference and give you a $50 travel coupon for future travel. If you’re an Expedia+ rewards member, we’ll match your hotel price until midnight before check-in.

The Expedia®+ Voyager Card from Citi is meant to help regular Expedia users earn and redeem travel rewards faster. Although it doesn’t show on the front of the card, it is a MasterCard. Here are the highlights:

  • Earn 25,000 Expedia+ bonus points after $2,000 in purchases within 3 months of account opening*
  • Points redeemable for $350 towards your stay at a +VIP AccessTM hotel
  • 4 Expedia+ bonus points per $1 spent on eligible Expedia purchases including flights, hotels, activities and travel packages*
  • 2 Expedia+ bonus points per $1 spent on dining out and entertainment*
  • 1 Expedia+ bonus point per $1 spent on other purchases*
  • Enjoy Expedia+ gold status each year of cardmembership*
  • $100 Annual Air Travel Fee Statement Credit can be used toward airline incidentals or for either the Global Entry or the TSA Pre ?® application fees*

Expedia+ points fuel the revamped free rewards program available to all Expedia customers. To apply for this credit card, you must first sign in or register for a rewards account at Expedia.com.

How do you earn Expedia+ Points?

When you book eligible travel on Expedia (including vacation packages, hotels, flights, cruises, and activities), you earn points. Note that when you book flights, you still earn frequent flyer miles as well as Expedia+ rewards points. For hotel stays, double-dipping ability varies by the chain. The following earning methods are open to all Expedia users:

  • 2 points per $1 spent on hotels or Vacation Packages that include a hotel.
  • 2 points per $1 spent on activities or select cruises.
  • 1 point per $5 spent on flights.
  • Other special, limited-time promotions, such as using their mobile apps.

By using this credit card and/or attaining elite status, you can get the following boosts:

  • 30% bonus on your base points earned with +Gold status (+Gold is free with this card)
  • +Silver and +Gold members earn an additional 250 points per booking at a +VIP Access™ hotels.
  • 4 Expedia+ bonus points per $1 spent on eligible Expedia purchases including flights, hotels, activities and vacation packages*
  • 2 Expedia+ bonus points per $1 spent on purchases for dining out and entertainment, including tickets to concerts, movies and sporting events*
  • 1 Expedia+ bonus point per $1 spent on other purchases*

Since you earn based on your total amount spent, this works out well for people booking for entire families or other groups of people.

How do you redeem Expedia+ Points?

Here’s a breakdown of the redemption options for Expedia+ points. There are no “blackout dates”.

Discounted hotel stays. 3,500 points will get you a $25 hotel coupon valid at any Expedia Rate hotel. Alternatively, 3,500 points will get you a $50 coupon valid at +VIP Access hotels. So the conversion rate is either 0.7 cents per point or 1.4 cents per point. The minimum redemption is 3,500 points, but you can do multiples of it up to a $1,000 coupon.

expedia_redeem_reg

expedia_redeem_vip

To get an idea of what the hotel types mean, you can run any search on Expedia and look for “Expedia Rate” or filter by “+VIP Access” under the More button. Here are some results for Honolulu, HI on a random date:

expedia_hotel_reg

expedia_hotel_vip

In general, +VIP Access™ hotels tend to be more luxurious, although not always. Here are the common rules for both Expedia Rate and VIP Access coupon types:

Coupons can be used once. Any leftover value is void. A coupon can be applied to only one hotel room per booking. Coupon values don’t apply to taxes or fees. Once a coupon is claimed, it can not be refunded. A coupon is valid for one year from the date you create it. Coupons can only be used on reservations paid for at time of booking.

Free flights. You can redeem your Expedia+ points for any flight on Expedia. Just search for flights and it will quote you the price in points. In general, you will receive a value of approximately 0.6 cents per point when redeeming for flights.

Charitable donations. You can donate your points to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Every 3,500 points you redeem equals a $25 donation, 100% of which Expedia gives to St. Jude. That is a rate of 0.7 cents per point.

What does Expedia+ Silver and +Gold Status include?

With this card, you automatically have +Gold status as long as you are a cardmember. If you didn’t have this card, you would either have to book 15 nights or spend $10,000 in calendar year to achieve +Gold status.

Here’s a big chart that outlines the benefits between all three tiers:

expedia_tiers_small

I would say the primary benefit is that with +Gold you get a 30% bonus on your base points earned on travel booked through Expedia. Also, only +Gold members can get free room upgrades at +VIP Access™ hotels (based on availability). Another benefit is “exclusive perks” at select ++VIP Access™ hotels, such as a free mini-bar access, free parking, or resort credits. Finally, +Silver and +Gold members earn an additional 250 points per +VIP Access booking.

Final Thoughts

The Expedia®+ Voyager Card from Citi is best for people who already use Expedia regularly for booking travel (or another price comparison site and are willing to switch to Expedia). The strength of this card is similar to Expedia itself – faster rewards while picking the cheapest hotel and flight every time, instead of sometimes paying a premium because you want to maintain loyalty or “status” perks.

Here’s an example of using the card to accelerate your Expedia rewards. If you used this card to pay for a $550 hotel booking on Expedia, you could earn the base 2 Expedia+ points per $1 spent, plus another 0.6 points per $1 spent from Gold+ status (30%), plus 4 Expedia+ points from the credit card. That adds up to 6.6 points per dollar spent, or 3,630 points. That is already enough to get you a $50 +VIP Access™ hotels coupon (3,500 points). $50 is over 9% of $550.

In addition to this card, there is also a no-annual-fee version called the Expedia®+ Card from Citi. I would lean towards this Voyager version because it comes with an $100 annual air travel fee credit good towards checked bags and either the Global Entry or TSA Precheck® application fee. That $100 can be used to offset the $95 annual fee. Once you cancel those two out, you’re left with a bigger sign-up bonus, no foreign transaction fees, and the better ongoing perks of +Gold status.

However, if you do keep to a specific chain of hotels (i.e. Hilton, Marriott, Starwood) then your net rewards may work out better if you have the chain-specific cards. Personally, I just don’t use Expedia enough to justify getting this card. If you are looking for simple, cash back rewards in a Citi card, I would recommend checking out the Citi Double Cash Card.

“Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the issuer. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the issuer. This site may be compensated through the issuer’s Affiliate Program.”

Expedia+ Credit Card from Citi Review

expediaplusExpedia.com has revamped their in-house loyalty rewards program. Citi and Expedia have partnered on a new set of co-branded credit cards. What does the combination mean for the frugal traveler? This review covers the standard, no annual fee version.

Why use Expedia in the first place? If you book all of your travel through a travel shopping engine, that most likely means you would rather have the lowest price than be loyal to any specific chain. You might stay at a Holiday Inn, then a Hilton, and then a Sheraton. Or fly on American, then Delta, then United. Indeed, Expedia even offers a “Best Rate Guarantee” against booking elsewhere, for which I have successfully claimed the $50 travel coupon in the past:

Find a cheaper flight, vacation package, rental car, cruise or activity within 24 hours of booking and we’ll refund the difference, plus give you a $50 travel coupon for future travel. For hotels, we go even further: If you find a cheaper rate on your hotel reservation up to two days before your check-in, we will refund the difference and give you a $50 travel coupon for future travel. If you’re an Expedia+ rewards member, we’ll match your hotel price until midnight before check-in.

The Expedia®+ Card from Citi is meant to help Expedia users earn and redeem travel rewards faster Although it doesn’t show on the front of the card, it is a MasterCard. Here are the highlights:

  • Earn 15,000 Expedia+ bonus points after $1,000 in purchases within 3 months of account opening*
  • Points redeemable for $200 towards your stay at a  +VIP AccessTM hotel*
  • 3 Expedia+ bonus points per $1 spent on eligible Expedia purchases including flights, hotels, activities and travel packages*
  • 1 Expedia+ bonus point per $1 spent on other purchases*
  • Enjoy Expedia+ silver status each year of cardmembership
  • Earn one Elite Qualifying Hotel Night towards Expedia+ gold status for each increment of $2,500 in purchases made on the card between your January and December billing statements*

Expedia+ points fuel the revamped free rewards program available to all Expedia customers. To apply for this credit card, you must first sign in or register for a rewards account at Expedia.com.

How do you earn Expedia+ Points?

When you book eligible travel on Expedia (including vacation packages, hotels, flights, cruises, and activities), you earn points. Note that when you book flights, you still earn frequent flyer miles as well as Expedia+ rewards points. For hotel stays, double-dipping ability varies by the chain. The following earning methods are open to all Expedia users:

  • 2 points per $1 spent on hotels or Vacation Packages that include a hotel.
  • 2 points per $1 spent on activities or select cruises.
  • 1 point per $5 spent on flights.
  • Other special, limited-time promotions, for example using their mobile apps.

By using this credit card and/or attaining elite status, you can get the following boosts:

  • 10% bonus on your base points earned with +Silver status (+Silver is free with this card)
  • 30% bonus on your base points earned with +Gold status
  • Both +Silver and +Gold members earn an additional 250 points per booking at a +VIP Access hotel.
  • 3 Expedia+ bonus points per $1 spent on this card, on eligible Expedia purchases including flights, hotels, activities and vacation packages*
  • 1 Expedia+ bonus point per $1 spent on this card, on other purchases*

Since you earn based on your total amount spent, this works out well for people booking for entire families or other groups of people.

How do you redeem Expedia+ Points?

Here’s a breakdown of the redemption options for Expedia+ points. There are no “blackout dates”.

Discounted hotel stays. 3,500 points will get you a $25 hotel coupon valid at any Expedia Rate hotel. Alternatively, 3,500 points will get you a $50 coupon valid at +VIP Access hotels. So the conversion rate is either 0.7 cents per point or 1.4 cents per point. The minimum redemption is 3,500 points, but you can do multiples of it up to a $1,000 coupon.

expedia_redeem_reg

expedia_redeem_vip

To get an idea of what the hotel types mean, you can run any search on Expedia and look for “Expedia Rate” or filter by “+VIP Access” under the More button. Here are some results for Honolulu, HI on a random date:

expedia_hotel_reg

expedia_hotel_vip

In general, +VIP Access hotels tend to be more luxurious, although not always. Finally, here are the common rules for both Expedia Rate and VIP Access coupon types:

Coupons can be used once. Any leftover value is void. A coupon can be applied to only one hotel room per booking. Coupon values don’t apply to taxes or fees. Once a coupon is claimed, it can not be refunded. A coupon is valid for one year from the date you create it. Coupons can only be used on reservations paid for at time of booking.

Free flights. You can redeem your Expedia+ points for any flight on Expedia. Just search for flights and it will quote you the price in points. In general, you will receive a value of approximately 0.6 cents per point when redeeming for flights.

Charitable donations. You can donate your points to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Every 3,500 points you redeem equals a $25 donation, 100% of which Expedia gives to St. Jude. That is a rate of 0.7 cents per point.

What does Expedia+ Silver and +Gold Status include?

With this card, you automatically have +Silver status as long as you are a cardmember. If you didn’t have this card, you would either have to book 7 nights or spend $5,000 in calendar year to achieve +Silver status. This is upped to 15 nights or $10,000 for +Gold status.

Here’s a big chart that outlines the benefits between all three tiers:

expedia_tiers_small

I would say the primary benefit is that with +Silver you get a 10% bonus on your base points earned on travel booked through Expedia (+Gold gets a 30% bonus). Another benefit is “exclusive perks” at select +VIP Access hotels, such as a free mini-bar access, free parking, or resort credits. +Gold members can get free room upgrades at +VIP Access hotels, but +Silver members do not. Finally, +Silver and +Gold members earn an additional 250 points per +VIP Access booking.

Final Thoughts

The Expedia®+ Card from Citi is best for people who use Expedia regularly for booking travel, but don’t want to pay an annual fee. The strength of this card is the same as Expedia itself – you get to pick the cheapest hotel and flight every time, instead of sometimes paying a premium because you want to maintain loyalty or “status” perks. In order to maximize your value, you should redeem your points for +VIP Access hotels at 1.4 cents per point value, which means you mostly like to redeem for “nicer” hotels. The other redemption options are okay in a pinch, but nothing special at 0.6-0.7 cents per point value.

But wait, there is also a Expedia®+ Voyager Card from Citi that has a bigger sign-up bonus and better ongoing perks (and an annual fee). I can understand not wanting to pay an annual fee, but if you really are a serious Expedia user, at least consider it because there is an $100 annual air travel fee credit than can offset its $95 annual fee. The Voyager version also has bigger sign-up bonus, no foreign transaction fees, and the better ongoing perks of +Gold status.

If you do keep to a specific chain of hotels (i.e. Hilton, Marriott, Starwood) then your net rewards will probably work out better if you have the chain-specific cards. Personally, I just don’t use Expedia enough to justify getting this card. If instead you are looking for simple, cash back rewards in a Citi card, I would recommend checking out the Citi Double Cash Card.

“Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the issuer. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the issuer. This site may be compensated through the issuer’s Affiliate Program.”

CoPatient: Helping You Answer “Is This a Reasonable Medical Bill?”

copatient0High-deductible health plans are still growing in popularity. While these can be a great way to save on your monthly premiums, it also means that when you do have to visit the emergency room, you get to tackle nearly the entire bill instead of a small co-pay. The problem is that most medical bills cannot be understood by mere mortals. Likely, the doctors and nurses themselves have no clue how that $6,344 bill for a broken arm got generated.

Right now there are honest people that just got their bill, but they are frantically doing internet research because they have no idea if their huge bill is correct or what is “reasonable”. It would be nice for this problem not to exist, but until then I wanted to point out a service called CoPatient. They are made of health insurance company veterans and hire their own medical billers and coders.

You send them your unpaid medical bills, and they review it for free to determine if there are any errors or overcharges. They will send you a free estimate of what they think they can do for you. If you allow them to negotiate on your behalf, they work on a contingency basis and keep 35% of the actual savings. If they don’t save you money, you pay nothing.

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Here’s an example patient flowchart (click to enlarge):

copatient3small

The legwork that the consumer needs to do is request a detailed, itemized bill from the hospital providers. Some tips from ABC News:

Ask what services are covered under your room and facility charges
Ask what treatments were provided
Identify the date and time of when you were admitted
Clarify medical terminology that is confusing
Specifically look for erroneous double charges, for mischarges, and for situations where a charge defies common sense (e.g., a $22 Q tip).

Here are some quick stats, taken from their website and marketing materials:

More than 80 percent of the medical bills that CoPatient analyzes provide opportunities for meaningful savings. On average, CoPatient saves its customers 40 percent on their medical bills. Since its launch in 2014, CoPatient has saved consumers more than $1 million.

According their iPhone app page, CoPatient finds errors on 80% of all bills it reviews and saves folks an average of $3,000. Their FAQ states that it usually takes ~5 days for the review (more for complicated cases), and 3-6 weeks for the appeals and negotiation process. There is no minimum bill size, they will investigate that $500 unpaid bill.

I’ve never used CoPatient myself, but I would definitely consider it if I was faced with a $5,000+ bill that I didn’t understand. I mean, what would I have to lose?

On a related note, this is yet another consumer service that offers to save money on a contingency basis. That is, they only make money if they save you money. A few others:

  • AutoSlash: Helps you track price drops on rental cards. They make money when you rebook at a lower price with them.
  • Paribus: Helps you automatically request price adjustments on all your online retail purchases. They take a cut of the price drop savings.
  • AirHelp, Refund.Me, AirTaxBack: Get fees refunded for certain cancelled or missed flights to/from Europe. They take a cut of the refund.

Data Breach Counter Tool: Exactly What Personal Information Has Been Exposed?

The New York Times has come out with another neat interactive tool that provides a sobering count of both how many and what types of your personal information has been exposed to hackers. I like that they break things down as exposing your e-mail address is very different than your Social Security Number.

Half of American adults had their personal information exposed to hackers last year alone. In a recent attack at the federal Office of Personnel Management, hackers stole the most sensitive personal data for 21.5 million people.

I took the quiz and here are my results:

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All in all, I would say it could be worse. My credit and debit cards all have “zero fraud liability” and I carefully go through each statement every month. The scariest part is that the worst data breaches will probably occur where you couldn’t do anything about it. For example, the recent governmental database breach involved every single person given a government background check for the last 15 years. That hack exposed Social Security Numbers, financial histories, employment records, and fingerprints.

The advice that the NYT gives is to make sure you have different passwords for every website, and to turn on two-factor authentication whenever possible. As I’ve noted, I use 1Password and I definitely love the feature set but admit it is somewhat expensive. All my accounts now have passwords that look like “j6VQDqa$oE2zYa” and I can access them with a thumbprint on my iPhone. The website TwoFactorAuth.org is a useful database of which sites offer two-factor authentication (2FA). There are still many financial sites that don’t support 2FA.

Playing “Fill-In-The-Blank” Mad Libs with Financial Buzzwords

madlibscoverAfter you spend enough time consuming financial media week after week, you start seeing patterns in the noise. I understand why of course, as creating content to feed the beast can get quite exhausting. But hopefully, by pointing out these out, you as an individual investor can realize that there may or may not be any substance behind the marketing buzzwords and short-term forecasts. Entertaining? Yes. Useful and actionable? Much less likely.

A good analogy would be with the classic word game Mad Libs, where “one player prompts others for a list of words to substitute for blanks in a story, before reading the – often comical or nonsensical – story aloud.”

Here’s how the usual “Profile of successful mutual fund manager” article usually goes. I am paraphrasing myself in 2006.

[Name of recently successful mutual fund manager] may not look the part, but at the helm of [formidable sounding firm], his [mutual fund name] has outperformed its benchmark by [big number]% annually over the past 5 years. The key is to [something skill-based like “on-the-ground” human research or complex computer algorithms] and also [something classic like “long-term perspective” or “focus on the fundamentals”]. As a result, the manager says that people should [something vague and simple for the Average Joe investor].

There are also the marketing materials coming directly from the firms themselves. Here’s an actual quote taken from a 2008 fund brochure. I’ve bolded the buzzwords for your convenience:

The OIM Core Plus Fixed Income strategy is rooted in the idea that individual security selection produces the best opportunity for risk-adjusted excess returns over time. Through an extensive, bottom-up research process, our portfolio management team focuses on optimal bond selection of investment grade corporate bonds, mortgage-backed securities, US Government Treasuries and taxable municipal bonds. The team employs a tightly controlled duration discipline and closely manages all portfolio risk factors. The portfolio management team’s objective is to produce predictable, consistent excess returns net of fees over the Barclay’s Capital Aggregate Bond Index.

The Oppenheimer Core Plus fund was supposed to be very conservative and was marketed to those with children within 5 years of college. What happened next? It proceeded to lose 38% of its value in 2008, while the fund’s benchmark actually rose 5.24%.

Barry Ritholz probably digests more financial media than 99.9% of folks out there, and in a recent WaPo article he pretty much nails the average CNBC guest who gets the question “Where’s the Dow going to be in a year?”:

“Our view is that the economy in the U.S. continues to _______, and we foresee _______ problems overseas ______. China is _______, and that has ramifications for the Pacific Rim’s ______. Greece is ______ in Europe. The commodity complex is causing _____ for emerging markets. But many sectors of the U.S. economy remain _______, and some sectors overseas are still _______. The valuation issue continues to be _____, and that means _____ for investors. That has ramifications for corporate profits that will be ______. We think the economy is going to do ______, and you know that means inflation will be _____, which will force interest rates to ______. Under these conditions, the sectors most likely to benefit from this are ______, ______ and ______. The companies best positioned to take advantage of this are ____, ____ and ____. Based on all that, we especially recommend an overweight allocation to ____, ____ and ____. Thus, we believe the Dow will be at ______ next year.”

There are good mutual fund managers, good financial reporters, and good hedge fund managers out there trying to do the right thing. But the problem is that when you see such meaningless words and phrases, you just can’t tell if they are good or bad. Next time you watch CNBC, Fox Business, or Bloomberg TV, see if you can match up the blanks and buzzwords. Thanks to reader CJ for the Ritholz article tip.