Amazon Prime: Download Shows and Movies, View Offline For Free

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Amazon has announced that Amazon Prime members can download select movies and TV episodes for offline viewing, at no additional charge. This works on all Apple iPhones, iPads, and Android-based devices. You may need to update your apps to the most recent version to enable this feature (iOS / Android). Here is their announcement page and the official press release.

Most people agree that Amazon’s catalog is not as good as Netflix, but this is a perfect backup for all those times you don’t have access to WiFi or want to use up mobile data. This would include commutes on public transportation, airplane trips, car rides, or international travel. I always keep a bunch of videos for the kids on our phones and on their iPads.

Here are some sample movies that are eligible for download:

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Star Trek Into Darkness, The Captive, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and The Wolf of Wall Street, in addition to exclusives such as Life After Beth, Palo Alto, Starred Up, The Bling Ring, If I Stay, and The Spectacular Now

I am an Amazon Prime member and was happy to see that Sesame Street was eligible for download. This is much easier and cheaper than buying an episode on DVD and ripping it. I downloaded an episode and confirmed that it would play offline in Airplane mode. For the curious, a 1 hour episode at “Better” quality (the middle option) took up 600 mb of space. Here are some screenshots (click to enlarge):

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One minor concern is that the videos that you download are there forever “no matter what”. I can’t find the specific documentation, but you must reconnect the app to WiFi within a certain time period or you will eventually lose the ability to watch the videos offline. I’m guessing this is to check that you are still a paying member of Amazon Prime.

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.

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!

Expedia+ Voyager Card from Citi Review

expediaplusvoyagerExpedia.com has revamped their in-house loyalty rewards program. 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 a $100 statement credit after your first eligible Expedia purchase greater than $100 within 3 month of account opening*
  • PLUS, earn 20,000 Expedia+ rewards bonus points after $2,000 in purchases within 3 months of account opening*
  • Points redeemable for $250 in coupons at +VIP Access™ hotels or $125 at other 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*
  • Expedia+ gold status is complimentary for as long as you are a cardmember*
  • $100 Annual Air Travel Fee Statement Credit can be used toward airline incidentals on qualified airlines, Wi-Fi carries or for either the Global Entry or TSA Precheck® application fee*
  • $95 annual fee.
  • No foreign transaction fees on purchases.

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.

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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:

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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.

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 a $50 statement credit after your first eligible Expedia purchase greater than $50 within 3 months of account opening*
  • PLUS, earn 10,000 Expedia+ rewards bonus points after $1,000 in purchases within 3 months of account opening*
  • Points redeemable for $100 in coupons at +VIP AccessTM hotels or $50 at other hotels*
  • 3 Expedia+ bonus points per $1 spent on eligible Expedia purchases including flights, hotels, activities and vacation packages*
  • 1 Expedia+ bonus point per $1 spent on other purchases*
  • Expedia+ silver status is complimentary for as long as you are a cardmember*
  • 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*
  • No annual fee.

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.

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):

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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.

History of 0% APR Interest Rates + Who’s Carrying a Monthly Balance?

From 2005 to 2007, a peek at my credit report might have revealed that I had over $30,000 in credit card debt. The good news is that I borrowed it at 0% APR and then immediately stashed it in an FDIC-insured bank account earning 6% interest at times. Just recently, a US presidential candidate disclosed an “up to $15k” credit card balance at 27% APR, which prompted Quoctrong Bui of NPR Planet Money to research how interest rates on credit cards have changed over time. I converted the interactive chart into an animated picture which cycles you from 2001 to 2013:

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There’s also a chart showing the percentage of cardholders who pay off their balance in any given month, based on their FICO score.

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Some observations:

The rise of 0% APR interest rates. In 2001, nobody was getting 0% APR interest rates. In 2004, there was a huge spike and that was basically “Peak 0% APR”. Since then, 0% rates have stayed around, gradually decreasing in popularity, until 2013 when there was again a slight uptick.

This doesn’t account for the changing length of 0% APR promotional periods. In 2005, there were a lot of 0% APR offers but they were usually for 6 to 12 months. As overall interest rates have remained very low across the board, there aren’t quite as many 0% APR offers available, but the best ones are for longer terms – up to 24 months.

Right now, you can get 0% APR for 15 months with no balance transfer fee, or 0% APR at 21 months with a balance transfer fee.

The big difference between the average cardholder with a 700 FICO and a 800 FICO score. I’ve always felt that anything above roughly 700 to 740 FICO was a “good enough” score with which I was rarely, if ever, denied credit. From the second chart above, you can flip the numbers to state that:

  • 77% of folks with a 700 FICO carry a balance each month.
  • 64% of folks with a 740 FICO carry a balance each month.
  • 27% of folks with a 800 FICO carry a balance each month.

On the other hand, even 27% is higher than I though it would be. A lot of people with “good” and even “excellent” credit carry balances each month.

How many people are carrying balances after the 0% introductory period ends? Obviously, there is a reason that 0% APR offers are still around. But that reason isn’t completely explained above. Does 0% APR encourage “new” debt from people who wouldn’t otherwise carry a balance? For example, is it possible to look at 6 or 12 months after the 0% intro period ends, and see if that marks an increase in balances? Or are 0% APRs mainly a tactic to attract balances already held at other card companies?

If you DO pay your balances in full, you can still reap the benefits of your good credit score without paying interest. It’s now been a while since I was earning thousands of dollars in “free money” from 0% balance transfers. But the silver lining is that back in 2007 a “good” sign-up bonus was $100 while nowadays you can easily find credit card bonuses with $500 value. I would say it is even less work to manage a few new cards a year vs. juggling 0% balance transfers which required making last-minute payments to maximize interest earned, and thus worrying about missing a payment deadline.

A quick smartphone snapshot of credit cards in my wallet shows well over $2,000 of accrued bonus value – 2 free nights at any Hilton hotel for which I got over $1,000 value, $800 in American Airlines airfare (separate $500 in airfare credits offset the annual fee), 40,000 Ultimate Rewards points good for $500 in travel, and 40,000 American miles (former US Airways card). This is addition to any cash back/miles/points for purchases, free checked bags, or extended warranty perks.

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Motif Investing Review – Be Your Own Fund Portfolio Manager, Even Get Paid By Others

motifnew0(Updated review, added new features. Motif is also offering a Free Trade Day on Friday, August 21st where all customers can get a free market order trade for a single stock/ETF.)

Ever wanted to manage your own mutual or ETF? A new brokerage company called Motif Investing will let you do just that. One of their pitches is that you can invest in a group of up to 30 individual stocks that fit into a motif or theme like “Housing Recovery” or “Lots of Likes” (companies that have the most Likes on Facebook). You can buy the entire basket of stocks with just one $9.95 commission, with no ongoing management fees. The minimum motif investment amount is $250.

My initial impression was that it felt a bit too trendy and gimmicky to recommend as a long-term investment. Indeed, I don’t really care how many Facebook Likes a company has, and I doubt I would buy stocks based on my love of pets or my political views. It’s just not my style.

Since they let you customize the basket, anyone could essentially make their own ETF or mutual fund with ZERO expense ratio. You can’t track a broad index like the S&P 500, but if you do have a basket of stocks that you buy regularly, this would be a very cost-efficient way of doing it. You can add or remove stocks, and adjust the relative weighting of each stock in the motif. Here’s a screenshot (click to enlarge):

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Horizon Motifs are preset “target date” motifs which are commision-free and with zero management fee. There are 9 different Horizon Motifs – you pick one of three time horizons (1 year, 5 year, or 15 year) and one of three risk levels (conservative, moderate, or aggressive). Kind of like a Target Date 20XX mutual fund, kind of like a roboadvisor. If you buy these specific portfolios, they waive their $9.95 commission. More information at this post: Horizon Motif Review: Commission-Free, No Advisory Fee, Index ETF Portfolios.

You can even make money when others use your Motif Portfolio with the Creator Royalty Program. Every time a client makes a $9.95 trade using your Motif, you’ll get a $1 royalty fee. For example, after reading an article about the Voya Corporate Leaders Trust Fund which bought 30 stocks in 1935 and then never sold them (but still charges a 0.52% management fee every year), I created the Depression Survivors Motif which does basically the same thing except it has zero management fees.

So far, I’ve made one entire dollar! :) Recent performance has been abysmal due to recent oil price drops, as Chevron and ExxonMobil are significant holdings.

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My plan is to someday create a custom basket of dividend-oriented stocks that hopefully will provide a long-term stream of growing income. For example, look at the SPDR S&P Dividend ETF (SDY) that holds 60 highest-yielding stocks of the S&P 1500 that have raised their dividends every year for the past 25 years. It’s a nice idea, but it leaves out some good companies and the 0.35% expense ratio eats up 10% of the original yield of the underlying companies. Why not hold most of these directly, remove some of the ones you don’t like, and keep the 0.35% as extra return for yourself?

Motif also uses dollar-based trades, which means every penny is invested, while they keep track of any fractional shares for you. No maintenance fees, no inactivity fees. In many ways, this is similar to the unlimited plan at Folio Investing, but Motif Investing has the potential to be a lot cheaper ($10 per motif trade with no minimum trade requirement vs. $29 every month for Folio) and is closer to a ETF in that they do real-time market trades. You can still do regular real-time trades of individual stocks for $4.95 per trade. Currently there is no automatic dividend reinvestment, the dividends go to cash and you reinvest yourself as desired.

Update: As of 8/13/15, Motif is adding the following features:

  • Dollar-based, real-time purchases of single stocks and ETFs (in addition to whole shares).
  • Stop loss orders by whole or fractional shares.
  • Create your own stock or ETF watch list.

New customer bonus. Right now, Motif Investing is offering new customers up to a $150 cash bonus when you open with $2,000+ and make 5 trades. If you make 1 trade, you’ll get $50. 3 trades will get $75.

Museum Day 2015: Free Admission Nationwide On Saturday 9/26

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Museum Day Live! is an annual event hosted by Smithsonian magazine in which participating museums across the country open their doors to anyone presenting a Museum Day Ticket…for free! This is in following the spirit of Smithsonian Museums, which offer free admission every day.

Registration is now live. Offer is valid only on Saturday, September 26, 2015. One ticket good for two people at participating museums. One ticket per valid email address. You must pick the specific museum during the ticket request process, and then download a PDF to print out as your ticket. Simple process. (I’ve done this in multiples cities and have found the selection to include many local museums.)

There are some cool museums around us that now cost $25 for adults and $10 for children, so this can be a significant savings depending on the size of your family. (Two adults and two kids should register and print out two tickets. Kids can also get their own tickets.) After printing out the tickets, I always add it to my calendar and set a reminder as I’ve forgotten about it before.

On a related note, Bank of America runs a Museums on Us program which offers cardholders free admissions to 150 museums nationwide on the first full weekend of every month. Photo ID and any valid Bank of America® or Merrill Lynch® credit or debit card must be presented. Each cardholder gets one free general admission, so if you have a joint account be sure both people bring their debit cards.

DietBet Review: Game Tips, Final Results, Payout Details

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I just completed a weight-loss challenge at DietBet.com, where I bet my own hard-earned cash that I could lose 10% of my body weight within 6 months. More specifically, a group of folks (strangers or friends) agreed on a weight loss goal, put money into a community pot, and the winners split the pot. My final results were pretty surprising to me – I ended up losing over 20% of my original weight and nearly doubled the money that I put at risk. Here’s a look back at how the process worked along with some helpful tips and detailed numbers.

Game basics. You pick from a list of available “games” that are starting soon. All of them have a goal of either losing 4% of your body weight in 4 weeks (Kickstarter), or 10% in 6 months (Transformer). I chose the 10% goal and joined The Transformer (Feb 5 – Aug 4), mostly because there were over 1,000 participants and I figured there had to be some people that would drop out. A selfish move, but Dietbet uses the poker rake model where the winners take money from the losers. This is smart because Dietbet doesn’t risk any of its own money (also doesn’t have any incentive for you to lose).

Weigh-in rules and tips. Your weight is verified each round by uploading two pictures: one with your feet on a digital scale, and another of your entire (lightly-clothed) body on the same scale. You are given a special keyword to ensure that the weigh-in is done during a 48-hour window. Here are my tips:

  1. Use the smartphone app. Having the smartphone app made it so much easier to snap the pictures and upload with a few taps. iOS and Android only.
  2. Check the dates with your work schedule. During one of my weigh-ins, I was on the road. Dietbet says digital scales are “preferred” but the only thing at my hotel’s gym was a non-digital balance scale. My submission was still accepted. If my hotel gym didn’t have a scale at all, I would have had to search for a Wal-Mart or something.
  3. Know the rules and give yourself time for rejections. One of my submissions was initially rejected because I was wearing running shoes (in that same hotel gym) and I forgot that shoes aren’t allowed in the pictures. You only get a 12-hour grace period after a rejection to re-submit a qualifying weigh-in.

Overall, I felt that Dietbet was fair and quick when judging my weigh-in pictures. You may also be “audited” and be required to submit a video verification. I did not get audited.

Money details. The bet amounts can vary by game, but mine was for $25 a month times 6 months. I was offered one month free ($25 discount) if I paid $125 upfront, but since this is all about the behavioral component for me, I wanted the monthly charge to show up on my credit card bill. Players who have chosen to place their bets on a monthly basis may drop out at any time and avoid being charged for future, unplayed rounds.

There is one round per month; Rounds 1 to 6. Half of the total money bet is put towards Round 1 through 5. That is $25 x 6 / 2 = $75, split across 5 rounds is $15 per round. The other half is put toward the final weigh-in round. So $75 is bet on Round 6. Here’s a screenshot that shows my actual winnings from each round:

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  • Round 1 Breakdown: $16.09 (7% ROI on $15 bet)
  • Round 2 Breakdown: $26.94 (80% ROI)
  • Round 3 Breakdown: $31.36 (109% ROI)
  • Round 4 Breakdown: $31.50 (110% ROI)
  • Round 5 Breakdown: $30.42 (103% ROI)
  • Round 6 Breakdown: $152.87 (104% ROI)

I ended up winning $289.19, for a net win of $139.18. That’s a solid 93% return on my $150 initial bet! According to their documentation, the average “win” is 50% to 100% of your contribution. I would venture to guess that the 6-month games have a higher overall payout due to a higher difficulty level.

As noted above, Dietbet makes their money by taking a cut of the gross pot before distribution, between 10% to 25%. In a previous post, I erroneously assumed that the numbers being reported above were before fees were taken out. The numbers are actually net of fees. (You are always guaranteed never to lose money if you win, which otherwise technically could happen if enough people win.)

Your winnings can be withdrawn either via PayPal or paper check, but you have to pay a $5 fee and make special request for a paper check. When withdrawing via PayPal, you won’t pay any fees, and I was sent my money within a hour. Here’s screenshot proof of my winnings payout showing no fees.

Don’t overlook this part! When signing up for a challenge, Dietbet will automatically add $20 of “Official Weigh-in Tokens” to your cart. These are not mandatory. I think using the word “Official” is misleading. They should use “Optional” or “Additional” instead. You should treat them as extra raffle tickets for prizes like Fitbits and such. If you want that, fine, but otherwise be sure to remove them.

Cheating. I’m sure there are ways to try and cheat at these Dietbet games, despite their various anti-fraud protocols. But for one thing, I now know that if you really lose 10% of your body weight, your body will look entirely different and that is hard to fake. In addition, I think that for most people, losing the weight is worth much more than winning the money. The community board for my challenge was 100% positive in supporting other people towards their weight-loss goals.

Final thoughts. Loss aversion is quite a strange thing. Even though 25 bucks a month isn’t all that much money, the prospect of losing it was a powerful motivator. Powerful enough to get me back in the same pants size and weight as 19-year-old me. But winning 150 bucks? I’ll probably forget about it in a few weeks. An additional motivator was the fact that I told people about the challenge and didn’t want to admit publicly to failure.

While Dietbet was not there to cook my healthy meals, exercise for me, or keep me away from the late-night Doritos, it was the missing catalyst that I needed to get my health back on track. For other people this might be a heart attack or other medical issue. I’m glad I didn’t have to wait for something like that.

But remember, diets don’t work. That is, if you do something special to lose that 4% or 10%, and then stop doing that something special, you’ll eventually just gain the weight back. Instead of gimmicks, you should focus on long-term changes that you can maintain for the rest of your life. I personally use portion control and moderation in place of strict rules.

In the end, Dietbet does a good job of using loss aversion as a motivational tool. The rules are clear, the app is easy to use, and the monthly check-ins are a good frequency. Even if I “lost” the challenge but also lost 5% of my body weight, that is still something. Most importantly, you get the feeling that everyone including Dietbet wants you to succeed. I am still in an ongoing 9-month challenge at a similar site called Healthywage, but so far I would recommend Dietbet over Healthwage – the financial reward ended up being higher at Dietbet, for starters.

I was hoping to never need another Dietbet challenge again, but they just announced a beta test of a new challenge type called a “Maintainer” where you just have to maintain your weight-loss. Intriguing!

Best Interest Rates for Savings Accounts and CDs – Updated August 2015

percentage2Our family keeps a year’s worth of expenses (not income) put aside in cash reserves; it provides financial insurance with the side benefits of lower stress and less concern about stock market gyrations. In my opinion, emergency funds can actually have a better return on investment than what you see on your bank statement.

I don’t chase rates nearly as much as I used to, but it still pays to shop around. Too many places are paying ZERO or close to it – the Megabanks, short-term US Treasuries, and money market sweep funds. Do you know what Chase offers on a 1-year CD? 0.02% APY. Bank of America on their 10-year CD? 0.15% APY. Meanwhile, the rates below vary from 1% up to over 3% annualized.

Best Currently Available Interest Rates
Here is a brief roundup of the best interest rates available on deposits backed by the full faith and credit of the US government (FDIC-insured, NCUA-insured, US Treasury Bonds, US Savings Bonds). I will try to sort them from the shortest to longest maturities.

    High-yield savings accounts

  • It seems every bank has their own online savings account, with the best accounts with long-term competitive rates earning around 1% APY. These savings accounts can change their interest rate at any time, so if you’re going to just pick the highest one, be ready to move your money.
    Short-term guaranteed rates (under 1 year)

  • Everbank Yield Pledge Money Market and Interest Checking account both offer 1.60% APY guaranteed (balances up to $150k on the Money Market) for the first 6 months for new accounts. Since it is fixed, this is essentially a 6-month CD with a higher rate than any other 6-month CD rate out there and with no early withdrawal penalty to worry about.
    Flexible Savings Bonds

  • “Series I” US Savings Bonds offer rates that are linked to inflation. Unfortunately, “I Bonds” bought right now will earn nothing for the first six months, and then a variable rate based on ongoing inflation after that. For new money, I would wait until mid-October when the next rate adjustment is announced. More info here.
    Rewards checking accounts

  • These unique checking accounts pay above-average interest rates, but with some risk. You have to jump through certain hoops, and if you make a mistake you won’t earn any interest for that month. Rates can also drop quickly, leaving a “bait-and-switch” feeling. But the rates can be high while they last. Consumers Credit Union offers up to 5.09% APY on up to a $20k balance, although 3.09% APY is easier to achieve unless you satisfy a long list of requirements. I list this one because the rate is guaranteed until December 31, 2015.
    Certificates of deposit

  • If you have a large cushion, it’s quite likely to just sit there for years. Why not put some money in longer-term investments where you can still take it out in a true emergency and pay an early withdrawal penalty. Synchrony Bank (formerly GE Capital Retail Bank) is offering a 5-year CD paying 2.25% APY $25k+ balances (2.20% APY for $2k+) with an early withdrawal penalty of 180 days interest. For example, if you withdraw from this CD after 2 years and pay the penalty, your effective rate earned will still be 1.69%. Capital One 360 also has a similar 5-year CD.
  • Other notable CDs… USAlliance FCU has a limited-time, callable 25-month CD paying 2.27% APY (anyone can donate to eligible charitable organization to gain membership). E-Loan Bank has a 5-year CD paying 2.45% APY but with a big early withdrawal penalty of two years of interest.
    Longer-term Instruments

  • Willing to lock up your money for 10+ years? Did you know that you can buy certificates of deposit via Vanguard’s bond desk? These “brokered CDs” offer the same FDIC-insurance and are often through commercial banks like Goldman Sachs. As of this writing, you can get a 10-year CD maturing 8/12/2025 that pays 3.05% APY. Prices will vary regularly.
  • How about two decades!? “Series EE” US Savings Bonds are not indexed to inflation, but they have a guarantee that the value will double in value in 20 years, which equals a guaranteed return of 3.5% a year. However, if you don’t hold for that long, you’ll be stuck with the normal rate which is quite low (currently a sad 0.50% APY). Think of it as a huge early withdrawal penalty. You really want to be sure you’ll keep it for 20 years.

How about my money? In terms of the opportunities above, I have opened an account at Everbank in the past for the promo rate and I have usually try to buy the max in US Savings I Bonds each year (no EE bonds, too long of a commitment). I don’t currently juggle any rewards checking accounts nor do I have any deposits with any other banks mentioned above. It’s just not worth it me to switch right now.

Besides some older CDs at higher rates, I keep a good chunk of my money at Ally Bank because right now they are the all-around “good enough” bank for me. Sure I could eek out 1.05% in a savings account somewhere, but Ally Online Savings is paying a 0.99% APY (as of 8/6/15) which serves as a no-fee overdraft companion to my Ally Interest Checking with ATM fee rebates. Along the same lines, I could get 2.25% in an outside bank’s 5-year CD, but Ally has 2.00% APY on their 5-year CDs and a relatively short 150-day early withdrawal penalty. A rate difference of 0.25% on $10,000 over a year is $25, and I’m not sure that’s enough to open a CD at another bank when my current Ally CDs mature.

All rates were checked as of 8/6/15.