Bank of America Better Balance Rewards Card Review

bofabbrA couple of readers have asked me about the BankAmericard Better Balance Rewards credit card. It definitely has a unique rewards structure (full details):

  • Earn a $25 cash reward for each calendar quarter in which all of your monthly payments are received on or before the due date and are more than the minimum payment due. Your account must remain open and you must have a payment due in each of the monthly cycles of the calendar quarter to be eligible for the quarterly cash reward; a zero balance or a credit balance does not qualify.
  • Earn an additional $5 cash reward per quarter if you have a Bank of America checking or savings account.
  • Cash back is automatically credited to your card balance, unless otherwise directed into your BofA bank account.
  • No annual fee.

The draw is that you could charge just $5 to the card every month, wait for the statement to close, and then pay off that $5 every month, and end up with $100 a year in rewards (or $120 a year with BofA account). It would take $5,000 of total purchases at a theoretical 2% cashback rate to get to $100 in rewards.

The first catch is that you need to maintain this every single month. If you skip just one month and have a zero balance, or somehow a refund has you end up with a negative balance, or you don’t pay the minimum due on time, then you forfeit the entire $25 for that quarter. Remember that by default the $25 reward is applied to your credit card balance, so even that could put you negative in a month. You have to pay attention to this card.

The second catch is that there is no other rewards structure, not even a flat 1% cash back. There is no incentive to put any significant purchases on this card, as you won’t get any additional cash back.

In the end, this card would work best for:

  1. People who naturally charge very little on their cards, but at least something every month. Maybe you’ll miss out on a quarter here and there, but with small total purchase amounts it would still be more than you’d get from a normal rewards card.
  2. Detail-oriented folks who are willing to jump through the hoops to get that $100 to $120 per year by charging small amounts and paying them off every month. (Then put all your other charges on a 1%/5% or flat 2% cashback card or other better card.) You could try and automate this somehow with a scheduled $5 monthly charitable contribution, put Netflix bill on auto-pay, or something similar. I can’t recall if BofA lets you also automate the payment.

I think the best play here is to try and convert an existing Bank of America credit card that you don’t use anymore (cash out the rewards completely first!). Ideally you’ll get access to the benefits without an additional credit check. Otherwise, in the current environment, it is quite easy to get $500 or more value upfront out of a new credit card application. A credit pull is valuable and I’d rather have a big bonus now instead of having to jump through hoops for 4-5 years. If/when the bonuses start to drop, then this card would start to look better.

Amazon Local Register: 1.75% Credit Card Processing Fee

Amazon just announced Local Register, which allows small businesses to accept credit cards on their smartphone or tablet much like Square, Paypal, etc. The special thing is their initial promotional rate of 1.75% until the end of 2015 if you sign up by October 31st, 2014. Their standard rate is 2.5%. Square’s standard rate is 2.75%, PayPal is 2.7%. So this is a decent savings of at least 30% on your credit card processing fees. No minimum amounts or monthly fees. Via NYT Bits.

To swipe cards, you have to buy the dongle for $10 with free 2-day shipping, but it also includes $10 in free processing fees. They just don’t want people ordering it and leaving it in their desk drawer (like I did with my Square reader). The lower rates apply to swiped cards only, manually entered numbers cost 2.75%. Compatible with iPhone 4 and newer, Samsung Galaxy S3 and newer, Kindle Fire HD and newer, and all iPads.

I’ve been seeing more Square-type readers at farmer’s markets and smaller retail kiosks. If you have higher volume, you may get a better deal via Costco or other traditional merchant accounts. Individuals may speculate about the churning of cashback or rewards cards through this reader, but in my opinion it has been tried before and is not worth the hassle.

Chase United MileagePlus Explorer Card: 30,000 Bonus Miles Review

United MileagePlus Explorer Card BigThe United MileagePlus® Explorer Card is now offering 30,000 United miles after spending $2,000 in 3 months, plus 5,000 more miles for adding an authorized user and making a purchase on that additional card.

Here are the highlights for the card (application link):

  • Start with 30,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months
  • Check your first bag for free & save up to $100 per roundtrip
  • Enjoy priority boarding privileges and visit the United Club with two one-time-use passes every year
  • No foreign transaction fees!
  • Earn double miles on United ticket purchases, and 1 mile per $1 on all other purchases
  • Your miles don’t expire as long as you’re a Cardmember, with no limit to the number of miles you can earn
  • Use your miles for any seat, any time, on any United flight
  • $0 intro annual fee for the first year, then $95

All in all, a good card for regular United fliers with the free bags and priority boarding. Every year you spend $25,000 in purchases using your United MileagePlus Explorer Card, you’ll earn an additional 10,000 bonus miles. That means at 25k of spending, you’ll be getting 1.4 miles per dollar on all purchases.

Adding an authorized user is free of charge, so no reason not to get that addition 5,000 miles. Keep in mind the following terms and conditions:

This new cardmember bonus offer is not available to either (i) current cardmembers of this consumer credit card, or (ii) previous cardmembers of this consumer credit card who received a new cardmember bonus for this consumer credit card within the last 24 months.

“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.  “The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.”

United Mileage Explorer CArd

 

Credit Karma Offers Free Full Credit Reports, Updated Weekly

CreditKarma.com just announced that they will now provide members a full copy of their TransUnion credit report, free of charge and updated once a week if you log in that frequently. You should see a pop-up once you log in, otherwise navigate to My Finances > Full Credit Report (Beta).

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Here’s a summary of their offering now:

  • Free TransUnion New Account credit score. Updated once a week. Not a FICO-branded score, but can still be use to track relative changes over time.
  • Free 24/7 credit monitoring of your TransUnion report. Will alert you if there are any changes, in case you’re like me and don’t really need a weekly update of your credit score. This is handy for tracking the location and timing of credit inquiries.
  • Free full credit report of your TransUnion data. Updated once a week. Nice to be able to track any changes down the smallest detail if needed.

Everything is still free with no trials and no credit card required. Either Credit Karma is making some decent money off their website advertising, or the cost of credit reports and scores continues to drop. I think the latter is definitely an overall trend.

Don’t forget the other major bureaus to get your complete credit picture. Get free non-FICO scores and 24/7 credit monitoring from all three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) here. I track and compare all of my free credit scores here.

Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card: 50,000 Bonus Points + Free Night Certificate

Marriott Rewards® Premier Credit CardAnother credit card has upped their usual sign-up bonus given all the competition recently – this time it is the Marriott Rewards® Premier Credit Card from Chase. Thanks to reader Naveen for the heads up. The offer for new Marriott cardholder includes:

  • Earn 50,000 Points after spending $1,000 in your first 3 months from account opening
  • Receive 1 Free Night Stay after account approval in Category 1-4 locations, that’s up to 7 Free Nights
  • Receive 1 additional free night stay at a Category 1-5 location every year after your account anniversary date!
  • Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, thereafter $85
  • For every $1 spent, earn 5 points at 3,800 Marriott locations, 2 points on airline ticket purchases directly with airlines, at car rental agencies & restaurants and 1 point everywhere else
  • Receive 15 credits guaranteeing Silver Elite Status or better
  • Unlimited Point Accumulation
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees and global Chip and Signature technology

We’ve been getting the itch to travel again as a family, so I looked through Marriott’s redemption offerings. Marriott properties include Ritz-Carlton, Renaissance Hotels, Courtyard, Residence Inn, and Fairfield Inn & Suites. You can view their redemption chart here. Hotels on their PointSavers list have temporarily reduced redemption costs. Redeem 4 nights and get the 5th night free.

70,000 points is enough to get you a night at any Ritz-Carlton in the world. Or, 70,000 points can get you two nights at any Category 6, Category 7, or Ritz-Carlton Tier 1 hotel. The free night award can be used for up to a Category 4 hotel. In the top right corner of the redemption chart link, you can view a comprehensive list of what hotels are in any specific category. Here are the options that caught my eye.

Ritz Carlton Tier 5 (Highest tier, 70,000 points a night)

Category 7 Hotels (35,000 points per night, 30,000 if Pointsaver)

Category 6 Hotels (30,000 points per night, 25,000 if Pointsaver)

Ritz Carlton Tier 1 (30,000 points per night, 20,000 if Pointsaver)

Category 4 Hotels (Eligible with Free Certificate or 20,000 points per night standard, 15,000 if Pointsaver)

  • Orlando: Courtyard Orlando Lake Buena Vista at Vista Centre
  • Orlando: Courtyard Orlando Airport
  • Orlando: Fairfield Inn Orlando Airport
  • Orlando: Fairfield Inn & Suites Orlando at SeaWorld®
  • Orlando: Fairfield Inn & Suites Orlando Lake Buena Vista in the Marriott Village
  • Orlando: Courtyard Orlando International Drive/Convention Center
  • Orlando: SpringHill Suites Orlando Airport
  • Orlando: Fairfield Inn & Suites Orlando International Drive/Convention Center

Adding up the value of two Cat 7 nights and one Cat 4 night is going to be easily over $500 of value, possibly closer to $700-$800. But as always, hotel points are only good if you can use and enjoy them. I have gotten to stay at some terrific properties thanks to such point promotions, although I tend to value location and convenience over the bling factor.

I was wrong initially as Marriott points are convertible to gift cards, but it takes 60,000 points to redeem for a $200 gift card for Marriott or retailers like Best Buy, Home Depot, or Nordstrom. That ratio isn’t all that great, you’ll definitely get the most value out of your points if you stay at Marriott hotels.

The annual fee is waived for the first year. If you are regular Marriott hotel guest, then the free Category 5 night is probably worth the $85 annual fee at the end of your first year.

“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.  “The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.”

Free FICO vs. non-FICO Credit Score Comparison

Updated with new scores. There are many free credit scores are available nowadays, but how do they compare in real life? There are three major credit bureaus – TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian – which all may have slightly different information about you in their database. Here I keep track of all of my available “free” scores (some require specific credit card or other membership) while noting the bureau data used.

  • Discover FICO (TransUnion) – FICO score available free to Discover card holders. Based on the FICO 08 scoring model. Updates monthly. I get mine from the Discover it® card that features 5% cash back in rotating categories and no annual fee.
  • Barclaycard FICO (TransUnion) – FICO score available free to Barclaycard holders. Based on the FICO 08 scoring model. Updates sporadically, usually every 1-2 months. I get mine from the Barclaycard Arrival Plus(TM) World Elite MasterCard that offers great travel rewards.
  • Credit Karma (TransUnion) – Educational credit score available free to members of CreditKarma.com. Based on the TransUnion New Account scoring model. Updates as often as once a week if you log in that frequently.
  • Capital One (TransUnion)- Educational credit score available free to Capital One card holders. Based on the TransUnion New Account scoring model, it updates monthly. I get mine from the Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards card, which offers a flat 1.5% back on all purchases, $100 sign-up bonus when making $500 in purchases during the first three months, and no annual fee.
  • Credit Sesame (Experian) – Educational credit score available free to members of CreditSesame.com. Based on the Experian National Equivalency scoring model. Updated up to once a month if you log in.
  • Quizzle (Equifax) – Credit score available free to members of Quizzle.com. Based on the VantageScore 3.0 scoring model. Updated up to twice a year if you log in.

Based on the data points I have collected so far, it does support that the two FICO scores provided by the Discover and Barclaycard are the same (both are part of the FICO Score Access program and use FICO 08 formula) and the Credit Karma and Capital One scores are also the same (both use TransUnion New Account formula).

As for FICO vs. non-FICO, even though they may be based on the same TransUnion credit report and are in the rough approximate range, the scores given can differ by up to 30-50 points. In this individual case, the other non-FICO scores from Experian and Equifax are actually consistently closer to the reported TransUnion FICO scores.

Pentagon Federal Credit Union Free FICO Credit Score (NextGen)

Pentagon Federal Credit Union (PenFed) now offers a free credit score to select members. It may be offered only to members with a credit account with them (auto, checking overdraft, mortgage, etc.). I was offered the free FICO score and only have their Thrifty Credit Service which is just a $500 line of credit in case of an overdraft from my checking account. You can find access via a banner on the main page after logging in:

penfedfico1

The score formula is called the FICO NextGen, which has a range of 150-950 as opposed to the traditional FICO range of 300-850. FICO tried to roll out this new “improved” score several years ago but it never really took off. So while this is a “FICO score”, the number may not be as easy to understand. However, PenFed does state that this score is the actual score that they use when making credit decisions. Also included are the top two “key factors” affecting your score:

penfedfico2

As usual, some of the advice these services offer don’t make much sense. So what if I don’t have an outstanding auto or student loan? I pay cash for my cars and worked hard to paid off my student loans. Why would I voluntarily go into debt again just to bump up my credit score a few ticks? They should know that my credit is already good enough that I’ve never had a problem getting any sort of loan product.

Quizzle Review: Free Equifax Credit Score and Credit Report

Quizzle logoQuizzle.com is a website that offers a free credit score and your official Equifax credit report every six months. You can now monitor your credit scores from all three credit bureaus for free. It has been six months for me, so I just grabbed my 2nd credit report of 2014 and took the opportunity to provide a brief review of this service.

(Fun fact: Quizzle part of the Quicken Loans family and owned by Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and soon-to-be employer of Lebron James.)

Here are some website screenshots:

quizzle1

quizzle2

Your free Equifax report lists all your credit lines including credit cards and other loans, recent credit inquiries, public records, and other personal information. This is the same report that you would get if you bought one from Equifax directly or got your free government-mandated one from AnnualCreditReport.com. Get your timing right and that is three free Equifax credit reports a year.

Your free Equifax credit score is specifically the newest VantageScore 3.0 which was unveiled in 2013 and has the same scale as FICO 300-850. A little background – VantageScore was actually created directly by the three major bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) to compete with the best-known FICO score from Fair Isaac Corporation. I don’t think they’ve overcome FICO, but it appears they are the 2nd-most widely used score out there and supported by some big bucks. Unlike some FAKO scores, it is actually used by lenders in their loan decisions. However, the numerical value will probably not map directly to your FICO score. From the Quizzle site:

Quizzle features the VantageScore credit score. The VantageScore credit score is used by thousands of lenders, including the nation’s largest banks, in their credit card, auto lending and mortgage businesses.

Some additional details:

  • Yes, it is really free. No purchase or credit card required. No trial subscriptions either.
  • There is no effect on your credit score because you are checking your own credit. It is a soft pull, not a hard pull.
  • You will see advertising of various financing offers based on your information (mortgage, auto loans, credit cards, personal loans). As part of Quicken Loans, so they will likely pitch you for a mortgage. However, they state that they don’t sell your information to others.
  • Free 24/7 credit monitoring of my Experian account was also offered to me. I am not sure if this was targeted only to select users as I had to opt in, but it was clearly marked as free. I just signed up for this so I haven’t gotten a chance to see how it works.
  • Paid upgrade options. Quizzle Pro gets you monthly Equifax credit reports and scores for $8-$11 a month. The pricing appears to be customized for each user. Quizzle Pro+ gets you all that plus $1,000,000 in Identity Theft Protection and 24/7 Victim Assistance for around $18 a month. I did not purchase either option.
  • The site states you can get a free report and score every 6 months (180 days), but I was able to get mine after just 168 days (I didn’t try every day, I just remembered today and it worked… shrug). I checked on January 27, 2014 and again on July 13, 2014. It would be more competitive with other sites if they could start offering score updates every month and keep the reports every 6 months.
  • Prior to early 2014, Quizzle used to give out Experian-based credit scores twice a year, but Credit Sesame already gave Experian-based scores for free every month so it wasn’t very appealing. The change to Equifax was a welcome one.

In summary, I am glad this service exists and I don’t mind being pitched a mortgage loan consultation every six months in exchange for a free official Equifax credit report and credit score. It is another step closer to gaining better access to what I consider our personal information. Credit Sesame and Credit Karma are similar services that use the other two major consumer credit databases:

Cash Is Still King, But Most People Prefer Debit Cards Over Credit Cards

The Federal Reserve recently released a report about about consumer payments [pdf], and it had some interesting results (at least to me). Via Business Insider. Here are the distilled highlights.

Cash is still the most frequently used form of payment, as measured by number of transactions. This is partly due to the fact that cash totally dominates for payments less than $10. In terms of value, electronic payments (online billpay and ACH payments using bank account numbers) have the largest share.

realdebitcards5

This next chart shows that debit card use is actually growing faster than any other form of payment:

realdebitcards6

Overall, debit cards are also the most preferred form of payment… but it does vary with income. 55% of consumers with household incomes less than $25,000 per year prefer cash over anything else, while 66% of households making more than $200,000 per year prefer credit cards over anything else.

realdebitcards4

People seem to have an either/or relationship with debit cards and credit cards. You either use one or the other predominantly.

realdebitcards3

Initially, I was surprised by the popularity of debit cards. (I prefer credit cards and am one of those people who haven’t used a debit card in years.) My hunch is that people think of debit cards as the closest thing to electronic cash. The money gets zapped out of your checking account and your balance decreases instantly. As long as you decline overdraft “protection”, if you hit zero your purchase will be declined. I admit it does have the appeal of simplicity.

Although I treat my credit card purchases the same as cash and always pay in full each month, credit cards do come with more complexity and the knowledge that the credit card company is lying in wait in case you feel like taking on a little debt. But in return I earn cash back rewards, get better consumer protection against fraud, and enough sign-up bonuses to fly me around the world once in a while.

Limited-Time Offer: 60,000 Bonus Points For Chase Ink Bold and Ink Plus, $300 For Ink Cash

myinkboldUpdate: This LTO is now EXPIRED

Chase has just boosted the sign-up bonuses on their Ink cards. The Ink Bold Card and Ink Plus Card cards now offer 60,000 Ultimate Reward points after spending $5,000 within 3 months, which are worth 60,000 United miles, $600 cash, or $750 towards travel. That is 20% or 10,000 points higher than the standard offer. I believe this matches the highest bonus ever for these three cards.

The Ink Cash Card with no annual fee and 0% interest for 12 months is offering a $300 bonus (up from $200) after spending $3,000 within 3 months.

Chase Ink Bold Card bonus link

  • For a limited time, earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $5,000 in the first 3 months from account opening. That’s $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards.
  • No interest charges because it’s a pay in full charge card.
  • Earn 5X points per $1 on the first $50,000 spent annually at office supply stores, and on cellular phone, landline, internet, and cable TV services.
  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading frequent travel programs with no transfer fees.
  • Direct access to a live service advisor anytime.
  • Free Employee Cards.

The 5X rewards on office supply stores from these two cards are handy as you can buy a wide variety of gift cards at Staples, Office Max, and Office Depot from prepaid cell phone reloads to Amazon gift cards to Home Depot and other retailers. This effectively gets you back 5X Ultimate Rewards points on a lot of your everyday spending.

Chase Ink Plus Card bonus link

  • For a limited time, earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $5,000 in the first 3 months from account opening. That’s $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards.
  • With Ink Plus, you have the cash flow flexibility with the choice to pay over time or pay in full.
  • Earn 5X points per $1 on the first $50,000 spent annually at office supply stores, and on cellular phone, landline, internet, and cable TV services.
  • Earn 2X points per $1 on the first $50,000 spent annually at gas stations and for hotel accommodations when purchased directly with the hotel.
  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • 1:1 point transfer to participating travel programs with no transfer fees.
  • Free Employee Cards.

The major difference is the Ink Bold is a charge card that you must pay in full each month and Ink Plus is a credit card where you can carry a balance. The good thing about this is that you can get both cards for the same business and thus both bonuses.

Chase Ink Cash Card bonus link

  • For a limited time, earn $300 bonus cash back after you spend $3,000 in 3 months from account opening.
  • 5% cash back on the first $25,000 spent annually at office supply stores, and on cellular phone, landline, internet, and cable TV services.
  • 2% cash back on the first $25,000 spent annually at gas stations and restaurants.
  • 1% cash back on all other card purchases with no limit to the amount you can earn.
  • 0% introductory APR for 12 months on purchases and balance transfers.
  • No annual fee.

Many people aren’t aware of the fact that they can apply for business credit cards, even if they are not a corporation or LLC. The business type is called a sole proprietorship, and you may be a consultant, freelancer, or other one-person business. This is the simplest business entity, but it is fully legit and recognized by the IRS. On a business credit card application, you should use your own legal name as the business name, and your Social Security Number as the Tax ID.

Citi Simplicity Card Review: 0% for 18 Months, No Late Fees, No Penalty Rates

citisimplicity175I usually focus on rewards-earning credit cards, but I know many folks are still carrying some balances and thus more concerned about their whopping 15% interest rate rather than a relatively puny 2% back on purchases. The Citi Simplicity® Card is uniquely suited for those that want to transfer higher rate balances to a long 0% intro period while also offering some “accident forgiveness insurance”. The highlights:

  • 0% Intro APR on balance transfers for 18 months. Balance transfers must be completed within 4 months of account opening. Balance transfer fee is 3% of balance transfer amount, $5 minimum. This is one of the longest offers out there for balance transfers.
  • 0% Intro APR on purchases for 18 months. This means you can keep charging your new purchases on this card as well and also enjoy no interest for 18 months. Also one of the longest 0% offers available for purchases.
  • No late fees. If you’re late on a payment, you won’t be dinged with a ~$40 late fee as with many other cards.
  • No penalty APR. Even worse than a late fee, a missed payment can lead to a rate hike into a “penalty” APR rate as high as 25% or more.
  • No annual fee.
  • Direct to human help. If you call in and say “representative”, you’ll be transferred directly to a human, 24 hours a day.

The Citi Simplicity card does not earn any cash back, points, miles, or free toasters; I’d open a separate card for rewards. It does include additional purchase benefits such as Citi Price Protection (price drop protection on brick and mortar purchases) and free Extended Warranty (extends manufacturer’s warranty for up to 12 months).

Alternatively, the Chase Slate® Card offers 0% APR on balance transfers for 15 months with no balance transfer fee, but does not include some of the more consumer-friendly features of this card that ensure your low rates don’t get hiked.

To summarize, the Citi Simplicity® is a solid card for those in the midst of the debt payoff process looking to pay no interest for 18 months with minimal gotcha fees compared to the competition.

Citi® Hilton HHonors™ Visa Signature® Card – 40,000 Bonus Points

citihilton180emvThe Citi® Hilton HHonors™ Visa Signature® Card is their no-annual fee co-branded card and comes with the following perks:

  • Earn 40,000 Hilton HHonors Bonus Points after spending $1,000 within 4 months of account opening*
  • Earn 6 HHonors Bonus Points for each $1 spent at a participating hotel within the Hilton portfolio.*
  • Earn 3 HHonors Bonus Points for each $1 spent on purchases at supermarkets, drugstores and gas stations.*
  • Earn 2 HHonors Bonus Points for each $1 spent on all other purchases.*
  • No annual fee.*

This card is really only ideal for people who at least occasionally stay at Hilton hotels (as this card is also giving you a bunch of points and complimentary Silver status to try and get you to become more loyal). Hilton HHonors points are worth the most when redeemed for a hotel stay, as there aren’t really that many great cash-equivalent redemption options. You can use this search tool to see how much a hotel will cost in any specific area (i.e. Honolulu or Paris).

This card has no annual fee. If you are willing to pay an annual fee in exchange for a bigger bonus and better ongoing perks, check out the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card.