Best Value for Citi ThankYou Points Redemptions

If you have a Citi credit card or a Citibank account with the ThankYou points rewards system, you have a wide array of options to redeem your points at ThankYou.com. But while that fancy coffeemaker may look nice, chances are the cash equivalent value for your points is quite poor. I’ve covered this in bits and pieces before, but here’s a complete guide to getting the most value out of your points.

Eligible ThankYou accounts (* are the ones I have linked to my account):

  • Citibank Checking Accounts – Varies, historically 10,000 to 40,000 bonus ThankYou points for opening an account.
  • Citi ThankYou® Preferred Card– Low Intro APR’s – 0% APR fo 15 months on balance transfer and purchases. No annual fee.
  • Citi ThankYou® Preferred Card – Earn up to 20,000 Bonus Points – Earn 20,000 bonus points after $1,500 in purchases in the first 3 months of account opening. No annual fee.
  • Citi ThankYou® Premier Card – 50,000 bonus ThankYou® Points, Travel redemption bonus, see application for details.
  • Citi ThankYou® Preferred Card for College Students – Earn 2,500 Bonus Points - 2,500 bonus ThankYou Points After you spend $500 in purchases within 3 months of account opening.
  • CitiBusiness ThankYou® Card* – 15,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after $3,000 in purchases within 3 months of account opening. 3X points in rotating categories. No annual fee.

Best Value Option #1: Limited Time Offers

If you have either patience or luck, Citi does offer “sales” on gift card redemptions which can reduce the cost of a reward by up to 25%. For example, right now until 3/31 you can get a $50 Home Depot gift card for 4,500 points. Normally, you’d need 5,000-6,000 points. That equates 1.11 cents in gift card value per point. If you wanted cash, you could sell a Home Depot gift card at PlasticJungle.com for 87% of face value in cash, 91.35% in Amazon.com gift certificates. That equates to 0.967 cents per point in cash.

Previously ThankYou point sales have involved gift card to other popular retailers like Wal-mart, Lowe’s, Kohl’s, Best Buy, Gap, and Macy’s. The regular price is usually 1 cent in gift card value per point.

Best Value Option #2: Student Loan & Mortgage Rebate Checks

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Capital One 360 Savings Account Review

Capital One bought ING Direct USA back in early 2012, and has finally completed their transition and re-branding. Their new savings account product is called Capital One 360 Savings. Since I’ve had an account with them for over a decade (September 2001, as they remind me every time I log in), here’s an updated review of my 2nd oldest bank account meant for both new and existing customers.

User Interface

At first glance, the only thing that really changed was that the primary colors went from orange and blue to Capital One’s red and blue. However, there are a few other tweaks that I noticed were different from the ole’ ING Direct days.

Login. This is still a little unique amongst online savings accounts. You login with either a username/account number and a PIN number (not an alphanumeric pA$sW0rd). If you have an old 4-digit PIN, they’ll ask you to change the PIN to a 6-digit number for better security. In addition, while the default entry method is via mouse clicks to avoid keystroke loggers stealing your password, you can also use a keyboard to enter the PIN with a creative key-to-number conversion that changes each time. See screenshot below:

Main account screen. The home screen is simple and straightforward, as always. There is better integration with their brokerage arm, Sharebuilder, with your balance automatically showing and the ability to perform same-day transfers between accounts. So if you have a Sharebuilder account, you essentially have a high-interest sweep option instead of a money market fund paying zero interest. Screenshot:
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Ally Bank Mobile eCheck Deposit via iPhone App

Ally Bank has updated their new mobile banking apps to add mobile check deposit and more. You can now do the following:

  • Mobile eCheck Deposit – Deposit a check just by snapping a picture of it with your camera phone.
  • Bill Pay – Pay your bills from your phone or tablet. Payees need to be set up on the website first.
  • Non-Ally Bank-to-Bank Transfers – Transfer money to and from your other banks for free. Very handy if you’re like me with many bank accounts.
  • Instant phone access. Tap a button on the app and it’ll call an Ally human by phone 24/7. The estimated wait time is even shown beforehand.
  • Built-in ATM locator with GPS. Not really needed much as I can use any ATM with their fee reimbursements. I did notice that the locator includes drugstores and grocery stores that offer cash back with purchase.

I’m glad these features are finally here, given that Ally is my everyday bank account and interbank transfer hub due to their lack of fees, competitive rates, and no-hassle ATM rebates. I also hold a chunk of my emergency fund in their 5-year CDs with no minimum opening amounts.

I tested out the mobile check deposit today, and overall it worked the same as other apps I’ve used. You can deposit into either a Ally checking or savings account. My eCheck deposit limit was $10,000 per day or $25,000 every 30 days, which is pretty high as these things go. Anything higher and you can still use the free postage-paid envelopes from Ally. After you take a picture of the front and back, they will send you an e-mail about your deposit status. My deposit was approved later the same day, and my $100 deposit was available the next business day for withdrawal (varies with size of deposit). They ask you to save your check for 60 days and then destroy it.

Apple iOS app (iPod Touch, iPad compatible), Android OS app.

ING Direct’s New Name: Capital One 360

ING Direct announced to customers last week that they would soon change their name to Capital One 360, effective February 2013. Goodbye big orange ball, you were the first no-frills savings account that paid high interest by piggybacking on regular checking accounts (no branches, no ATM access, no checks) and it worked brilliantly, creating an entire new banking niche. But the financial crisis happened, ING Group got a big Euro-bailout, and as part of the restructuring terms they agreed to sell their ING Direct unit for $9 billion dollars.

It was a fun ride, ING Direct. For a while, you paid me nearly 5% APY interest as I borrowed money for free using 0% APR balance transfers. Your website was unapologetically simple, but everything worked as promised. You created handy sub-accounts for savers to stash their money for specific needs. Good times. Of course, I can’t forget that you also had a nervous brainfart and bullied my webhosting company into shutting down my entire website without any warning. In the end, your interest rates also started to fade a little from the top while staying somewhat competitive, and being a rate-chaser I moved my money elsewhere. No hard feelings?

As is always the case, the new company promises to keep everything you loved about the old company, while also making additional improvements. I still keep about $100 with ING Direct to keep them from closing my account, mostly out of nostalgia I suppose. I’ll continue to wait and see how they integrate the site with the other recently-improved Capital One products like their 1.5% cash back personal cards and 2% cash back business cards. CapOne wants to join the big boys Chase/Citi/AmEx as a broad financial services company.

What are you planning to do with your ING Direct account?

Ally Bank Commercial With Nobel Prizer Winner

Ally Bank has an amusing new commercial using Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Sargent to promote their Raise Your Rate CD. Currently the 2-year CD pays 1.05% APY but has the uncommon feature that allows you to bump up the rate once during the term if rates rise. They also have a 4-year CD at 1.30% APY that allow two bump-ups during the term. Via MR, it’s short and sweet:

I actually prefer their 5-year CD with short early withdrawal penalty, which offers a higher rate but no rising rate protection.

Chase Total Checking Account Promotion – $150 Bonus

Chase Bank is offering a $150 bonus for new customers when you open a Chase Total Checking account plus deposit $100 and set up direct deposit within 60 days of account opening. You can avoid monthly service fees if you make a $500+ direct deposit each month or maintain a $1,500 minimum daily balance. Must keep account open for 6 months to keep the bonus. Expires 8/15/12.

At least in the past, you could simulate direct deposit using an ACH transfer from an online savings bank. Fine print quoted below.
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FNBO Direct Returning Customer Promo 1.35% APY

If you have a dormant FNBO Direct account, you may be interested to know that they are offering a promotional rate of 1.35% APY beginning July 1, 2012 on all the money above what your balance was on June 29th, 2012. (Only available to existing FNBO Direct customers as of June 29, 2012.) Even better, the rate is guaranteed until December 31, 2012, making it better than 6-month CDs from other banks. All rates above have expired and FNBO is now offering a standard rate of 0.85% APY.

I should probably move a little money over… see my June 2012 Emergency Fund update for where else I stash my cash. Also see my rate chaser calculator for some real-world estimates of how much extra interest you’d get.

FNBO Direct has become just another commodity online-savings account these days, so it’s good to see they’re trying to keep things at least a little interesting. I’d be a little annoyed if I kept a lot of money in there this whole time, though! The fine print from the e-mail I received is quoted below.

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Cash Reserves & Emergency Fund Update: June 2012

Our family keeps a full year of expenses put aside in cash reserves, it provides us with financial stability with the additional side benefits of lower stress and less concern about stock market gyrations. Emergency funds can actually have a better return on investment than what you see on your bank statement.

But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t still maximize my interest earned, especially as cash is an asset class where doing some research can often increase your return without having to take on additional risk (if you stay FDIC-insured or equivalent). Things are tough these days with such low interest rates, but with low potential returns everywhere, an incremental 0.50% or 1% more can still be significant. Watch out for money market funds paying 0.05% or less. Here’s another update on what’s currently out there, with high-interest checking accounts, US savings bonds, and flexible bank CDs:

Short-Term, Flexible Certificates of Deposit

I don’t know where rates will go, so finding the best combination of high rates now plus flexibility for the future is the goal. Some top rates:

  • TIAA Direct is a new savings account with a rate of 1.25% APY, no guarantee of how long that will last though.
  • Everbank has changed the rate on their Yield Pledge Money Market and Interest Checking account to 1.10% APY guaranteed for the first 6 months for new accounts. Since it is fixed, that is better than any other 6-month CD rate out there.
  • CIT Bank has a 2-year Achiever CD that pays 1.25% APY for a 2-year term with two unique features – both a “rate bump” option if rates rise, and the ability to add more money if rates drop.
  • Ally Bank has a similar Raise Your Rate CD with the rate bump feature; the 2-year term pays 1.05% APY and the 4-year term pays 1.30% APY.

Rewards Checking Accounts

Usually through smaller credit unions with limited membership areas, these checking accounts pay a higher interest rate if you jump through several hoops. However, if you make a mistake you’ll forfeit virtually all your interest for that month, so it can be tricky. While I made a lot of interest from these accounts over the past few years, it appears the party is ending as anything above 2% APY won’t last long.
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CIT Bank CDs With Rising Rate Protection (Rate Hike Update)

Update: CIT Bank actually raised its rates on some of their CDs with a raise-your-rate feature. Rates updated in review below.

As a follow-up to my cash reserves post, I wanted to note that CIT Bank also has some very competitive rates on FDIC-insured CDs with added flexibility that makes them unique. They have a very simple website and appear to be focused on certificates of deposit, although they recently debuted a savings account with a 1.05% APY interest rate on balances above 25k.

Their Achiever CD has a current rate of 1.05% APY for 1-year term and 1.20% APY for the 2-year term with a $25,000 minimum opening deposit. The first unique feature is a “rate bump” option that allows to you raise your rate again in the future if the rate increases. The second unique feature is that you can add more money to your CD one time at any point you choose throughout the term.

You buy CDs to guarantee your rate won’t drop during the term. But these two features allow you added protection from rising rates in the future, and you already start with a competitive rate. You could match future rates, and move your other money over to match those rates as well. The primary limitation would be the higher minimum deposit requirement. Interest is compounded daily.

If you don’t have the $25,000 minimum, they also have their term CDs with a $1,000 minimum opening deposit. Those are paying 1.01% APY for 1-year term, 1.15% APY for 2-year, and 1.30% APY for 3-year. Those are nearly as good as the Achiever CD, but they don’t have the rate-bump and add-on features of the Achiever CD. The early withdrawal penalty is 3 months of interest for the 1-year CD, 6 months interest for the 2-year CD. A quick comparison table:

Name Term Minimum to open Interest rate Features
Achiever CD 1-year $25,000 1.05% APY One-time rate-bump, one-time add-on
Achiever CD 2-year $25,000 1.20% APY One-time rate-bump, one-time add-on
Term CD 6-months $1,000 0.45% APY Low minimum deposit
Term CD 1-year $1,000 1.01% APY Low minimum deposit
Term CD 2-year $1,000 1.15% APY Low minimum deposit
Term CD 3-year $1,000 1.30% APY Low minimum deposit

 

Prosper vs. LendingClub: Credit Card Debt Consolidation Loan Comparison

What is the best place to lower your interest rates and consolidate credit card debt in order to pay it all off? The first thing to try is to call up your credit card company and negotiate your existing rate down. If that isn’t satisfactory, you could switch issuers and do a balance transfer to a new card with a low introductory rate. If you have qualifying credit, you can take advantage of no fee 0% APR balance transfer offers for up to 15 months.

I would say the next option to consider is P2P lending, which in my experience has lower rates than personal unsecured loans from banks. P2P is gradually becoming an accepted source of loans as shown by announcements of new institutional money coming in from hedge funds. Prosper has been around since 2006 and has done over $300 million in loan volume since inception, and LendingClub has been around since 2007 with over $500 million in loans. Both are now registered with the SEC.

Prosper vs. LendingClub Similarities

  1. Unsecured loans. Such loans are backed only by the borrower’s promise. If there is a default, the lender can’t repossess any property or garnish wages. The primary deterrent to defaults is a poor credit score that will increase future borrowing costs and potentially other side effects including affecting employment.

    Alternatively, you may be considering paying off your credit card debt with a home equity loan. This would change your unsecured debt into a secured debt. The danger is now if you don’t pay off that loan, you could lose your house. If that added risk doesn’t make a difference to you, then a home equity loan or line of credit will probably offer you a lower rate.

  2. Flexible amounts. You can borrow more or less than your actual outstanding credit card balance, and you’re usually given a choice of amounts for the same interest rate. But remember, the purpose of consolidation is to help speed up the process of getting rid of that debt.
  3. Fixed rates over the entire term. The problem with credit cards is that the rates are often unpredictable. “Variable” rates are linked to a benchmark rate, but even “fixed” rates that aren’t guaranteed for X months can just mean they’re fixed until you get a notice that they are now “fixed” at a new, higher number. Given the current low interest rate environment, you should be wary of rising rates.
  4. No prepayment penalties. You can pay off your loan early at any time, with no fees.
  5. No application fee. There is no fee to apply for a loan. If your loan successfully funds and you get the cash, then you will be subject to an origination fee that is rolled into your monthly payments.

Prosper vs. LendingClub Differences

  1. Minimum credit scores. Prosper minimum stated credit score is 640, LendingClub minimum FICO score is 660.
  2. Maximum loan amounts. Prosper maximum loan amount is $25,000, LendingClub maximum loan amount is now $35,000. Both lower the limits depending on credit profile.
  3. Slightly different fee structures. Both companies charge an origination (closing) fee once you successfully get your loan. If you don’t get the loan, no fees. They have slightly different fee schedules, but both have origination fees ranging from about 1% to 5% for the majority of loans. Both charge $15 fees for late payments or failed payments.
  4. Different loan term lengths. Depending on your requested loan amount and other factors, each lender may offer different terms. For example, LendingClub told me that loan amounts from $1,000 to $15,975 are only available with a 36-month term, even though they do offer 1-year and 5-year loans in other cases. However, with a $10,000 loan at Prosper I was given the choice of 1, 3, or 5-year terms. In general, the longer the term, the higher the interest rate at both places.
  5. Check processing fees. LendingClub charges a $15 processing fee per payment made by check. Prosper does not. Both companies allow you to make payments via automatic ACH withdrawal from a checking account with no fees.

Prosper vs. LendingClub Interest Rates?

Their full criteria for determining what rate you’ll pay is not disclosed but is based on a number of factors. Really, the best way to see which one will give you the best deal is to ask each one for a free quote. In both cases, getting a rate quote will involve looking at your credit report, but it will not result in a credit inquiry and will not hurt your credit score. If you do decide to move forward and get the loan, only then it will show up on your credit report.

My experience. I applied for a $10,000 debt consolidation loan at both places. I was offered a 1-year loan at 8.17%, a 3-year loan at 7.49%, or a 5-year loan at 10.85% annual interest rates at Prosper. I was offered a 3-year loan at LendingClub at 6.62% interest rate. For a $10,000 loan over 3-years and including all fees, my LendingClub payment was $307 per month and Prosper payment was $311 per month. So even though the interest rates seem rather different, the final monthly payments ended up closer than expected (though still a $150 difference in total payments over the whole 3 years).

SunTrust Bank & Delta Check Card – 30,000 Bonus Miles Promotion

SunTrust Bank is offering 30,000 Delta Skymiles for opening a new checking account by 6/30 with qualifying direct deposit and choosing the Delta SkyMiles World Check Card. Available in AL, AR, FL, GA, MD, MS, NC, SC, TN, WV, VA and Washington, D.C. The debit card does have a $75 annual fee but do you get 1 mile per $1 spent (for those that avoid credit cards). However, you don’t get the free checked bags or Priority Boarding of the Delta American Express credit card.

Still it’s not a bad deal, $75 for 30k miles if you live near a SunTrust branch. Some of the text suggests that you can get 15k of those miles with just the new checking account and no debit card, but it’s not entirely clear. Direct deposit must be $100 or more. The “Balanced Banking” checking account option has a $12 monthly fee, waived with a $3,000 minimum balance across Suntrust accounts. Selected fine print below:

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Chase Exclusives: 10% Extra Cash Back on Chase Freedom, 1% Cash Back on Chase Mortgage Payments

Chase Freedom ImageChase Exclusives is a program that encourages you to open a Chase checking account whenever you have any other relationship with Chase. I closed my Chase (formerly WaMu) account a while back after they slowly started making it harder to keep as a secondary account, but some of these perks actually seem pretty good. I remember hearing something about them, but never actually took a good look at the details until now.

10% Extra Cash Back on Chase Freedom
The Chase Freedom® – $100 Bonus is a popular cash back card that features 5% cash back on rotating categories and 1% back on everything else. This quarter you’ll get 5% back on all purchases at Amazon.com, Zappos.com and at select department stores (up to $75 cash back a quarter based on $1,500 in purchases). Check out my page on 5% cash back credit cards for more info.

However, if you have a Chase checking account, they will add an additional 10 points. Since 100 points is worth $1, that’s basically saying every purchase on the Chase Freedom earns 1.10% cash back and every 5% category purchase earns 5.1% cash back. For someone like me that puts everything on their credit card for easy expense tracking, that can add up especially with smaller purchases.  Currently, the Chase Freedom has a promotion offering a $100 Bonus after you make $500 in purchases in your first 3 months from account opening and an additional $25 Bonus after you add your first authorized user and make a purchase within this same 3-month period.

1% Mortgage Cash Back program
If you have both a Chase checking account and a Chase mortgage, you can earn 1% cash back on your mortgage payments (principal + interest). You have to have the checking account open before the mortgage closing, and enroll in automatic payments from said account within 60 days of closing. If you take the option of having your 1% cash back applied towards your loan principal, that works out to shortening a 30-year fixed mortgage by 9 months if you stick with it. (They really should make this an option on other mortgages, paying just 1% extra instead.)

I don’t know how good Chase mortgage rates are, but I’d probably get a quote now from Chase just to see if they are competitive. Overall though, it would probably be better to just get a better interest rate and pay extra towards your principal as if you had a higher mortgage (takes discipline).

$150 New account opening bonus
Thinking about opening a new account? You can also get a $150 bonus through this link if you open a Chase Total Checking account with $100 and set up direct deposit (new customers only). To avoid monthly service fees, you must do any one of the following each statement period:

  1. Have monthly direct deposits totaling $500 or more made to this account, or
  2. Keep the daily balance in your checking account at or above $1,500, or
  3. Keep an average balance of $5,000 or more in your checking and other types of qualifying Chase accounts.

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