Alliant Credit Union Visa Signature Card Review: 2.5% Cash Back + 1st Year Promo

alliantccAlliant Credit Union, the 5th largest US credit union by assets, has launched their new Alliant Visa Signature Credit Card. This cash back rewards card is targeted towards high spenders, with a headline feature of 2.5% cash back with a $59 annual fee. As a first year promotion, they offer 3% cash back and the annual fee is waived. Here are all of the highlights:

  • 3% cash back in year one & 2.5% cash back after.
  • No limit to the cash back awards you can earn.
  • $59 annual fee, waived the first year.
  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • Works with Android Pay, Apple Pay and Samsung Pay.
  • You must be an Alliant Credit Union member to apply for this card.

Cardholders can choose to receive cash back rewards via a credit card statement credit (appearing within one billing cycle) or as a deposit into your Alliant checking or savings.

If you have an existing Alliant credit card, you can ask for it to be converted to this card. If the conversion is accepted, you will also receive the first year promotion of 3% cash back and no annual fee.

Comparison numbers against a 2% cashback card with no annual fee and no sign-up bonus. Instead of a flat sign-up bonus, with this card you are basically getting a 1% boost to your cash back in the first year. If you charge $1,000 a month, 1% more is $120 more cash back over a year. If you charge $4,000 a month, 1% more is $480 more cash back over a year.

After the first year, with this card you’ll get 0.5% more cash back and also pay the $59 annual fee. That makes the breakeven point $11,800 per year in annual spending (roughly $1,000 per month). If you spend more than that, the extra cashback will offset the annual fee. If you spend less, you will have more rewards with the 2% card.

Comparison numbers against a 1.5% cashback card with no annual fee and no sign-up bonus. Instead of a flat sign-up bonus, with this card you are basically getting a 1.5% boost to your cash back in the first year. If you charge $1,000 a month, 1% more is $180 more cash back over a year. If you charge $4,000 a month, 1% more is $720 more cash back over a year.

After the first year, with this card you’ll get 1% more cash back and also pay the $59 annual fee. That makes the breakeven point $5,900 per year in annual spending ($492 per month). If you spend more than that, the extra cashback will offset the annual fee. If you spend less, you will have more rewards with the 1.5% card.

Competition. The following cards currently offer a competitive level of cash back rewards. Please read my card-specific reviews for details.

Notably, the USAA card offers 2.5% cash back with no annual fee but also adds a direct deposit requirement. Perhaps more importantly, USAA membership is limited to members of the U.S. military and their immediate families.

Alliant CU membership eligibility. If you start the online membership application, it does a good job of walking you through their various eligibility options. The good news is anyone that is willing to donate $10 to Foster Care to Success is able to join. Here are their membership groups:

  • Any employee or retiree of a Qualifying Company.
  • Any member of a Qualifying Organization.
  • Any immediate family member of an existing Alliant member.
  • Anyone who lives or works in a Qualifying Chicagoland Community.
  • Anyone who is willing to make a one-time $10 donation to the Foster Care to Success charity group.

Bottom line. The Alliant Visa Signature Credit Card offers 2.5% flat cash back on all purchases with a $59 annual fee. As a first year promotion, they offer 3% cash back and the annual fee is waived. The annual fee makes it best for people that make a high amount of purchases on their credit cards, with the breakeven being $1,000 a month when compared against a 2% cash back card. Alliant Credit Union membership is open to anyone willing to donate $10 to Foster Care to Success.

H&R Block Desktop Tax Software Discounts: Free $20 Nike Gift Card

hrb2016Updated with new deal. If you are still looking for downloadable desktop tax software that doesn’t require your Social Security Number and financial details to be stored in the cloud, here’s a limited-time deal on H&R Block Tax Software 2016.

NewEgg has H&R Block Deluxe Federal + State for $29.99 plus a free $20 Nike Gift card. If you can actually use that $20 Nike gift card, your net cost would be close to $10. The lowest price ever so far for the same H&R Block software on Amazon was $19 during a flash sale.

H&R Block Deluxe includes guidance for stock gains and losses, home mortgage interest deduction, and other itemized deductions. Compare that against TurboTax Deluxe Download which makes you upgrade to TurboTax Premier to get guidance for stock sales and dividends.

Keep in mind that for these products 5 Federal e-Files are included but State e-File is extra ($19.95 for all I believe). I would personally just print the (usually shorter) state return out and snail mail it in if you don’t have a free State e-File option.

Free State Income Tax E-File Options For All 50 States (Updated 2017)

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Links checked and updated for 2017 (Tax Year 2016). With commercial tax prep software, it is always wise to note the cost of your state return and e-File as it may actually cost more than your federal return (especially if you wait until April to file). As such, you may wish to do your state return separately. Based on their current, regular published prices at time of writing:

* Got a simple return? TaxAct will let you file Fed + State + eFile for $0 if you file Form 1040A or 1040EZ (amongst other things, you must be claiming the standard deduction rather than itemizing deductions).

* New for 2017: CreditKarma Tax. This is a new option that promises free Federal + State + eFile for all users with no income restrictions, although their business model is to use your information to show you targeted advertising. See my CreditKarma Tax Prep review for details.

Now, the convenience that these programs offer may be worth the extra money to you. But there may be other options available. States that levy individual income taxes fall into three categories:

  1. They offer all taxpayers free electronic filing via official state-supported software.
  2. They offer all taxpayers access to free “fillable forms” which are basically electronic versions of the paper forms where you can type in numbers and any mathematical calculations are done for you. If your state tax returns are relatively simple, this is all you really need.
  3. They allow commercial vendors via the “FreeFile Alliance” to offer free online filing for certain groups, usually through income limits, age restrictions, and/or active duty military personnel. The vendors in turn make money when some folks end up not qualifying and have to pay at the end.

Below, you’ll find free e-file information for all 50 states. See my comparison review of TaxACT, TurboTax, and H&R Block for why it may be worth it for some folks pay more for the time-saving or audit-protection features of the “brand name” products.

In alphabetical order (just click on the state):

State Restrictions
Alabama Free electronic filing using through My Alabama Taxes (MAT). No income restrictions.
Alaska (no state income tax)
Arizona File using AZ-specific fillable forms; No income restrictions. FreeFile options also available; income and/or other restrictions apply.
Arkansas Various FreeFile options; Income and/or other restrictions apply.
California Free electronic filing using through CalFile. No income restrictions. No capital gains/losses or Schedule C income allowed.
Colorado Free electronic filing using through Revenue Online. No income restrictions.
Connecticut Free electronic filing using through TaxPayer Service Center (TSC). No income restrictions.
Delaware Free electronic filing through official state website. No income restrictions.
Florida (no state income tax)
Georgia FreeFile options available; income and/or other restrictions apply.
Hawaii FreeFile options available; income and/or other restrictions apply.
Idaho FreeFile options available; income and/or other restrictions apply.
Illinois Free electronic filing through MyTax Illinois. No income restrictions.
Indiana FreeFile options available through INfreefile; income and/or other restrictions apply.
Iowa FreeFile options available; income and/or other restrictions apply.
Kansas Free electronic filing through KS WebFile. No income restrictions.
Kentucky FreeFile options available; income and/or other restrictions apply.
Louisiana Free electronic filing through Louisiana File Online. No income restrictions.
Maine Free electronic filing through Maine FastFile. No income restrictions.
Maryland Free electronic filing through their iFile service. No income restrictions.
Massachusetts FreeFile options available; income and/or other restrictions apply. WebFile for Income was shut down in 2017.
Michigan FreeFile options available; income and/or other restrictions apply.
Minnesota FreeFile options available; income and/or other restrictions apply.
Mississippi FreeFile options available; income and/or other restrictions apply.
Missouri FreeFile options available; income and/or other restrictions apply.
Montana Free electronic filing through Taxpayer Access Point (TAP). No income restrictions.
Nebraska Free electronic filing through NebFile. No income restrictions.
Nevada (no state income tax)
New Hampshire Free electronic filing through e-File New Hampshire. No income restrictions. (No state personal income tax, but there is tax on investment income.)
New Jersey Free electronic filing through NJ WebFile. No income restrictions.
New Mexico Free electronic filing through New Mexico Taxpayer Access Point. No income restrictions.
New York Free electronic filing of select forms online with New York State Income Tax Web File, but note that New York law prohibits commercial software from charging an additional charge for e-filing.
North Carolina FreeFile options available; income and/or other restrictions apply.
North Dakota FreeFile options available; income and/or other restrictions apply.
Ohio Free electronic filing through I-File from Ohio Online Services. No income restrictions.
Oklahoma Free electronic filing through Oklahoma Taxpayer Access Points (OkTAP). No income restrictions.
Oregon File using OR-specific fillable forms; No income restrictions. FreeFile options also available; income and/or other restrictions apply.
Pennsylvania Free electronic filing through PA DirectFile. No income restrictions. Free Fillable PDF Forms also available.
Rhode Island FreeFile options available; income and/or other restrictions apply.
South Carolina File using SC-specific free fillable forms; No income restrictions. FreeFile options also available; income and/or other restrictions apply.
South Dakota (no state income tax)
Tennessee Free electronic filing through state website of Hall Income Tax. No income restrictions. (No state personal income tax, but there is tax on investment income.)
Texas (no state income tax)
Utah Free electronic filing through Taxpayer Access Point (TAP). No income restrictions.
Vermont FreeFile options available; income and/or other restrictions apply.
Virginia File using VA-specific free fillable forms; No income restrictions. FreeFile options also available; income and/or other restrictions apply.
Washington (no state income tax)
Washington DC File using DC-specific free fillable forms; No income restrictions. FreeFile options also available; income and/or other restrictions apply.
West Virginia FreeFile options available; income and/or other restrictions apply.
Wisconsin Free electronic filing through Wisconsin efile. No income restrictions.
Wyoming (no state income tax)

 
Whew, that took a while. Please share this if you think it’ll help others! Also let me know if you find any errors or changed links.

Best Interest Rates on Cash Savings – April 2017

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Our family keeps a year’s worth of expenses (not income) put aside in cash reserves. Even if you think that’s too much, you still need something. There are many ways that the ROI on emergency funds can be higher than simply the interest rate on your bank statement.

If you have cash, it pays to shop around for the most highest interest rates since they are all equally “safe” as long as they are backed by the US government (FDIC-insured, NCUA-insured, US Treasury Bonds, US Savings Bonds). Chase Bank on a 1-year CD? 0.02% APY. Bank of America on a 10-year CD? 0.15% APY. Seriously, who buys these things?!? As of 4/2/2017, below is a roundup of the best safe rates available, roughly sorted from shortest to longest maturities.

High-yield savings accounts
While the huge brick-and-mortar banks rarely offer good yields, the online banks with a history of competitive rates offer online savings accounts clustered around 1% APY. An important feature to note with savings account is that their interest rates can change at any time.

  • As I’ve been “bait-and-switched” a few times and there are no lucrative rates that make it worth taking another risk, I am currently sticking with Ally Bank for their reliably competitive rates and overall good user experience. Their online savings is currently at 1.05% APY.

Short-term guaranteed rates (under 1 year)
I am often asked what to do with a big wad of cash that you’re waiting to deploy shortly (just sold your house, just sold your business, inheritance). Honestly, I wouldn’t get fancy or take unnecessary risk. Just keep it safe in a short-term CD or online savings account that in insured under the FDIC limits until you have a plan.

  • Palladian Private Bank has a 6-month promotional rate of 1.30% APY guaranteed (maximum initial deposit of $100k) for new accounts. After the first 6 months, the rate reverts back to their normal rate (currently 1.10% APY). Since the initial promo rate is fixed, this makes it the highest 6-month CD rate available.

US Savings Bonds
Series I Savings Bonds offer rates that are linked to inflation and backed by the US government. You must hold them for at least a year. There are annual purchase limits. If you redeem them within 5 years there is a penalty of the last 3 months of interest.

  • “I Bonds” bought through the end of April 2017 now will earn a 2.76% rate for the first six months, and then a variable rate based on ongoing inflation after that. While that next 6-month rate is currently unknown, at the very minimum the total yield after 12 months will be competitive with the best current 1-year CD rates. More info here.
  • In mid-April, the CPI will be announced that factors into the new fixed rate in May, which would give you a very close estimate of the rate for the next 12 months. I will have another post up at that time.

Prepaid Cards with Attached Savings Accounts
A small subset of prepaid debit cards have an “attached” FDIC-insured savings account with high interest rates. The risks are that balances are capped, and there are many fees that you must be careful to avoid (lest they eat up your interest). The other catch is that these good features may be killed off without much notice. My NetSpend card now only has an eligible balance up to $1,000.

  • Insight Card is one of the best remaining cards with 5% APY on up to $5,000 as of this writing. Fees to avoid include the $1 per purchase fee, $2.50 for each ATM withdrawal, and the $3.95 inactivity fee if there is no activity within 90 days. If you can navigate it carefully (basically only use ACH transfers and keep up your activity regularly) you can still end up with more interest than other options.

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 4.59% APY on up to a $20k balance, although 3.09% APY on a $10k balance might be easier to achieve unless you satisfy a long list of requirements. Note that the 4.59% APY requires you to apply and get approved for an additional credit card through them (other credit cards offer $500+ in sign-up bonuses). Keep your 12 debit purchases small as well, as for every $500 in monthly purchases you may be losing out on 2% cashback (or $10 a month on after-tax benefit). Find a local rewards checking account at DepositAccounts.

Certificates of deposit
If you have a large cushion, it’s quite likely to just sit there for years. One option is to keep your money in longer-term investments where you can still take it out in a true emergency and pay a reasonable early withdrawal penalty. Alternatively, you could create a CD ladder of different maturity lengths such that you have access to part of the ladder each year, but your blended interest rate is higher than a savings account.

  • Connexus Credit Union is offering a 1-year Share Certificate at 1.50% APY (90-day early withdrawal penalty) and a 3-year Share Certificate (180-day early withdrawal penalty) at 2.00% APY. Both have a $5,000 minimum deposit. Anyone can join this credit union via partner organization Connexus Association for a one-time $5 fee.
  • Mountain America Credit Union is offering a 5-year Share Certificate at 2.75% APY (365-day early withdrawal penalty). You are even allowed a one-time rate bump if the rates on this certificate rise. $500 minimum deposit. Anyone can join this credit union via partner organization American Consumer Council for a one-time $5 fee.

Longer-term Instruments
I’d use these with caution, but I still track them to see the rest of the current yield curve.

  • 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 non-callable CD that pays 2.85% APY. (Unfortunately, current long-term CD rates do not rise much higher even as you extend beyond a 5-year maturity.) Prices will vary daily.
  • How about two decades!? Series EE 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 0.10% rate). You could view as a huge early withdrawal penalty. You could also view it as long-term bond and thus a hedge against deflation, but only if you can hold on for 20 years. Too long for me.

All rates were checked as of 4/2/17.

Buy It Nice, or Buy It Twice: Kitchen Edition

wusthof200Reader Chris sent in the following question (edited for clarity):

I read in your website about cast iron pans and KitchenAid mixers. I want to buy a small home and have nothing. What are some must-have kitchen items that will last a long time and be used most often? So they are an “investment”.

I finally figured out why people make you register for nice things on your wedding registry. After getting married over 12 years ago, I had to stop buying Hungry Man frozen dinners and really learn to cook at home. This also meant developing an appreciation for well-made kitchen items. When you “go cheap” on certain things, you not only have to replace it down the road (“Buy It Nice or Buy It Twice”), but you also feel a bit of annoyance and regret every time you use the inferior tool. In the words of Marie Kondo, owning high-quality tools “bring me joy”.

Here’s a list of high-quality items that are actually in my kitchen as I type this. There is no order, just a quick mental inventory. Some cost a few bucks. Some cost hundreds.

mmbcastiron0

Lodge 12″ Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet
With over 10,000 reviews (!) and a 4.6 out of 5 star average rating, I know I’m not the only fan of these heavy-duty beasts. Great for searing and pan-frying, oven-safe, no worrying about scratches or dings. They will outlive you. Got a rusty one? They are easy to resurrect; here’s a quick video on how to season your cast iron.

lecreusetblue

Le Creuset Enameled Cast-Iron 5-1/2-Quart Round Dutch Oven
I cook multiple times a week with our Staub and Le Creuset enameled cast-iron dutch ovens. Cast iron isn’t a lot of maintenance, but you do have to keep it dry after each use to prevent rusting (and seasoning it again takes time). With enameling, you can just wash and leave it wet. The dutch oven shape also makes it perfect for braises, stews, and soups. (They also look nicer at dinner parties.) They do run $200-$300 but spread out over 30+ years of use it’s not that bad. But I’ll be honest, I don’t know how much better they are than this Lodge Enameled Dutch Oven which regularly runs under $80.

kitchenaid

KitchenAid Artisan 5-Quart Stand Mixer
We’ve used this machine regularly without any issues for over 10 years across multiple apartments, studios, and houses. We use it to beat eggs and knead dough for pizza, pasta, cookies, and bread. I don’t know what kind of motor is inside, but it is durable. The bowl has some small dings and there is a little rust on the exterior but nothing that prevents good operation. I notice a ton of different versions now, but I think the Artisan is the classic version.

peelersingle

Kuhn Rikon 3-Set Original Swiss Peeler, Red/Green/Yellow
These may not last forever, but they have lasted a lot longer than my previous peelers and I’m still on my first one. (I also have a serrated version that I don’t use as often.) I bought these after seeing them recommended by America’s Test Kitchen and they peel much more easily and comfortably. Note: I see some Amazon reviews that say “I love my old Kuhn Rikon peeler but this one I just bought from Amazon is horrible.” My thought? Counterfeits. I would only buy these “Ships from and sold by Amazon.com”, even if it costs a few cents more. You’re still getting the best peeler out there for ~$4.

wusthofclassic

Wusthof Classic 7-piece Knife Block Set
I remember wondering if Wusthof and Henckels were worth the price as I zapped them onto our wedding registry. Then someone actually bought us a set of Wusthof Classic knives and we proceeded to use them nearly every day for over a decade. They have been professionally sharpened a couple of times (less often than recommended), but they still work perfectly with no chips or rust spots. I bought a $40 Asian cleaver from a shop in Chinatown a couple years ago, and it only lasted a few months before large rust spots appeared. My mom told me I didn’t treat it right. I told her I’d rather spend $80 on a knife and have it last decades even after not treating it right. So I did. 🙂

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J.A. Henckels International 8-pc Steak Knife Set
We also got a set of Henckels steak knives as a wedding gift. They’ve also lasted over a decade as our family’s only set of steak knives. They still cut great. Yes, they cost about double the price of the AmazonBasics steak knives set, but I wonder if I’ll ever have to buy steak knives again.

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Zeroll 1020 Original Ice Cream Scoop, 2 Ounce
Didn’t see this coming, huh? This is the best ice cream scoop, period. Once you try it, you will wonder why all the other ice cream scoops in the world are so bad in comparison. If you walk into an ice cream shop, this is probably the brand that they use. It has conductive fluid that makes it easier to get through rock-hard ice cream. It creates the perfect ball shape for placing on cones. The 2-ounce size makes a small/medium-sized ball, but other sizes are available. Why not own the best ice cream scoop in the world for about $15?

I’m sure I’m forgetting a few things. There are also many other items I on my wish list that I haven’t bought yet. What high-quality kitchen items would you consider a good “investment”?

Shout out to Gita, Ben, Kiran, and family! Thanks for reading!

Fidelity Brokerage and IRA Bonuses for New Asset Transfers

fidelity_logoFidelity Investments has a few different bonuses if you transfer a certain levels of new assets over to them. These are handy if you want to move money out of an old 401(k) plan or are looking to try out a new broker. Besides a cash deposit, you can also do an in-kind transfer and move over your existing investments without incurring any capital gains. Please note that for some you must register soon by March 31st, 2017. You can register now and still have 60 days to move over assets.

You must register first using one of the links below. Compare and pick your favorite bonus; you can only pick one per rolling 12 months. Net new assets means external new money in minus money out, and you must keep it there for 9 months or they will clawback the bonus. (This not a guarantee, but I can report that I did not receive a 1099 for my past Fidelity bonus.)

United MileagePlus Bonus Miles

  • Link: Fidelity.com/United
  • Valid for new or existing Fidelity customers.
  • Account types: Joint or individual non-retirement brokerage accounts only
  • Bonus amount: 15,000 miles for $25k+, 25,000 miles for $50k+, and 50,000 miles for $100k+ in net new assets.
  • New accounts or deposits into existing accounts must be funded within 60 days of registration (“qualification period”).
  • Must maintain the minimum qualifying account balance (minus any losses related to trading or market volatility, or margin debit balances) at Fidelity for nine months from the date on which the reward is received. Please allow 6-8 weeks after completed qualifying activity for miles to post to your account.
  • Offer expires March 31, 2017. Offer is limited to one per individual per rolling 12 months and may not be combined with other offers.

American Airlines AAdvantage® Bonus Miles

  • Link: Fidelity.com/aa
  • Valid for new or existing Fidelity customers.
  • Account types: Joint or individual non-retirement brokerage accounts only.
  • Bonus amount: 15,000 miles for $25k+, 25,000 miles for $50k+, and 50,000 miles for $100k+ in net new assets.
  • New accounts or deposits into existing accounts must be funded within 60 days of registration (“qualification period”). Please allow 6-8 weeks after completed qualifying activity for miles to post to your account.
  • Must maintain the minimum qualifying account balance (minus any losses related to trading or market volatility, or margin debit balances) for 9 months from the date on which the reward is received.
  • Offer expires March 31, 2017. Offer is limited to one per individual per rolling 12 months and may not be combined with other offers.

Delta SkyMiles Bonus

  • Link: Fidelity.com/delta
  • Valid for new or existing Fidelity customers.
  • Account types: Joint or individual non-retirement brokerage accounts only.
  • Bonus amount: 15,000 miles for $25k+, 25,000 miles for $50k+, and 50,000 miles for $100k+ in net new assets.
  • New accounts or deposits into existing accounts must be funded within 60 days of registration (“qualification period”). Please allow 6-8 weeks after completed qualifying activity for miles to post to your account.
  • Must maintain the minimum qualifying account balance (minus any losses related to trading or market volatility, or margin debit balances) for 9 months from the date on which the reward is received.
  • Offer expires March 31, 2017. Offer is limited to one per individual per rolling 12 months and may not be combined with other offers.

Cash Bonus (IRA or Taxable Brokerage Account)

  • Link: https://rewards.fidelity.com/offers/depositbonus
  • Valid for new or existing Fidelity customers.
  • Account types: Nonretirement (individual or joint) or Fidelity IRA (rollover IRA, traditional IRA, Roth IRA, SEP-IRA) brokerage accounts.
  • Bonus amount: $200 for $50k+, $300 for $100k+, $600 for $250k+, $1,200 for $500k+, and $2,500 for $1M+ net new assets. Rollovers from a former employer’s Fidelity-record kept workplace savings plan are not eligible for this offer.
  • New accounts or designated eligible accounts must be funded within 60 days (“the qualification period”). Please allow 2-4 weeks after the qualification period for the bonus award to be credited to your account.
  • Must maintain the minimum qualifying account balance (minus any losses related to trading or market volatility, or margin debit balances) for 9 months from the date on which the reward is received.
  • No stated expiration date. Offer is limited to one per individual per rolling 12 months and may not be combined with other offers.

Apple Store Gift Card

  • Link: Fidelity.com/apple
  • Valid for new or existing Fidelity customers.
  • Account types: Joint or individual non-retirement brokerage accounts only.
  • Bonus amount: $300 gift card for $75k+ and $500 gift card for $150k+ in net new assets.
  • New accounts or deposits into existing accounts must be funded within 60 days of registration (“qualification period”). Please allow 4-6 weeks after completed qualifying activity for miles to post to your account.
  • Must maintain the minimum qualifying account balance (minus any losses related to trading or market volatility, or margin debit balances) for 9 months from the date on which the reward is received.
  • Offer expires July 31, 2017. Offer is limited to one per individual per rolling 12 months and may not be combined with other offers.

Dollar Shave Club vs. Dorco USA Razor Price Comparison

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Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s are supposedly “disrupting” the shaving industry. Honestly, I don’t get it. Buying a razor is like buying shampoo, soap, or toilet paper. In other words, I buy them in bulk when Costco has a coupon for it. 😉 Last time, I bought this set for $1 per 3-blad razor and it lasted me two years. However, after doing some research, I decided to try a different product for 2017 and 2018. (I already tried Harry’s razors and decided it wasn’t for me.)

Did you know that Dollar Shave Club doesn’t even make their own razors? Well, now that they’ve been bought for $1 billion by Unilever, this might change, but for now their 4-blade and 6-blade razors are made by a company named Dorco. Dorco also sells razors directly to US consumers at DorcoUSA.com. Which is the cheaper option?

Dorco USA has regular sales and coupons. There’s always some sort of sale or coupon, so you should never pay full price. You can sign up for their newsletter for updates, although it is a bit annoying to get weekly e-mails when you only buy razors once a year. You can also check the usual coupon sites. In my opinion, I would wait until I see a discount of 40% to 50% off with free shipping. (Maybe I’ll refresh this post once a year when a good sale hits.)

Use a cashback shopping portal too. You can also stack additional savings via cashback shopping portals. Specifically, both BeFrugal and TopCashBack offer 10% cashback at the time of this writing and I can confirm that I got the cash back credited through TopCashBack.

Example deal with 4-blade razors. Right now until 3/25/17, you can get $20 off $50 order with free shipping with code MMadness20. Here’s an example of what you could put together. I’m doing Men’s razors but they have equivalent Women’s razors as well.

The Pace 4 Starter set includes 1 handle and 2 cartridges for $6. The Pace 4 refill set has 4 cartridges and costs $7.15. Buying 1 starter set + 7 refill sets = $6.50 + $50.05 – $20 coupon = $36.05. That’s 30 cartridges total at $1.20 per Dorco 4-blade razor. If you use a 10% cashback portal, that’s $1.08 per razor.

The Pace 4 looks nearly identical (see top image) to the “4X” blade from Dollar Shave Club, which runs $6 for 4 cartridges per month. This works out to $1.50 per Dollar Shave Club 4-blade razor. If you count the $1 first month promo, over a year you’d pay $1.40 per razor.

Example deal with 6-blade razors. The Pace 6 Plus has 6 blades + beard trimmer blade. The Pace 6 Plus starter set with 1 weighted handle and 2 cartridges cost $6.50. Pace 6 refill sets are $9.65 for 4 cartridges. Buying 1 starter set + 5 refill sets = $6.50 + $48.25 – $20 coupon = $34.75. That’s 22 razor cartridges total at $1.58 per 6-blade Dorco razor. If you use a 10% cashback portal, that’s $1.42 per razor.

The Pace 6 Plus looks nearly identical to the “Executive” blade from Dollar Shave Club, which runs $9 for 4 cartridges per month. This works out to $2.25 per 6-blade Dollar Shave Club razor. If you count the $1 first month promo, over a year you’d pay $2.08 per razor.

The specific numbers may change as the promotions vary, but the Dorco razors usually still come out ahead. You may see $10 off $30, $20 off $40, Buy 1 Get 1 Free, etc.

Bottom line. If you are okay buying in bulk (20+ razors), buying directly from Dorco USA can be cheaper than getting what appears to be the same razor from Dollar Shave Club. In the examples above using frequent sale pricing, the savings were roughly 30% off. You also avoid a recurring subscription (always try to automate savings, not spending).

(How are the Pace 4 razors? In my non-fussy opinion, they are fine. They are slightly nicer than my 3-blade razors from Costco, but that’s about it. So far, it appears they will last about the same length of time as well.)

Groupon Deal: Sam’s Club Membership + $10 Gift Card for $30

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Groupon has a Sam’s Club Plus membership deal where for $30 you get the following:

  • One-year Sam’s Club Savings membership ($45 value)
  • Complimentary membership card for a spouse or other household member
  • $10 e-gift card valid online or in-club. Allow 5-7 days for delivery of e-gift card.

If you subtract the $10 gift card value, you are getting a 1-year membership for $20 net. Not bad. I don’t see a hard expiration date. There is also an alternative option where you pay $15 more and get a package of coupons “worth $100” including a free rotisserie chicken ($4.95 value), free dinner rolls ($5.95 value), and free croissants ($5.95 value). Seems a bit too vague for me, but if you love Sam’s Club food items it might be worth it.

They are getting a bit more strict on what it means to be a “new member”:

Offer valid for new Sam’s Club Members only; not valid for those with a current membership or those who were Sam’s Club members less than 6 months prior to March 13, 2017. If you need to check your renewal date, call 1.888.746.7726 and choose option #2, then option #1. Please have your membership card or statement on hand. Offer valid for U.S. Sam’s Clubs only; not valid in Puerto Rico locations.

Remember that you can save even more on your Groupon with a cashback shopping portal. Many offer new customers bonuses if you make a qualifying purchase, including eBates ($10 bonus), TopCashBack ($10 bonus, you see it after entering e-mail), and BeFrugal ($10 bonus). I have cashed out of all of these before.

USAA Limitless Cashback Rewards Visa Signature Card Review: 2.5% Cash Back

usaa_limlessUSAA, which serves members of the U.S. military and their immediate families, has a new cash back rewards card called the USAA Limitless™ Cashback Rewards Visa Signature® Card. This card is currently in an online pilot program and is only available for residents in (a growing number of) eligible states. To check your eligibility, visit the USAA credit cards page and select your state of residence. If you see the card listed at the top, your state is eligible. If not, the list has been gradually expanding, so check again later.

The headline feature of this card is flat 2.5% cash back on all purchases, subject to a few hurdles. Here are the highlights:

  • Earn 2.5% cash back on credit card purchases when you have a free USAA Bank checking account with a qualifying direct deposit of at least $1,000 every month.
  • No sign-up bonus.
  • Enjoy unlimited cash back on the amount you can earn.
  • Earn 1.5% cash back on credit card purchases without a direct deposit.
  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • No annual fee.
  • You must be a USAA member to apply for this card.

Here’s the fine print regarding the $1,000 direct deposit requirement:

Within 90 days of opening your credit card account, you must establish a monthly qualifying direct deposit of at least $1,000 to your USAA Bank checking account. A qualifying direct deposit is a single electronic transfer of at least $1,000 that you initiate with your employer, a government entity or an external financial institution. Funds transfers between USAA accounts are not qualifying direct deposits.

USAA membership eligibility. USAA is focused on serving members of the U.S. military and their immediate families. Here are their membership groups:

  • Active Military. Individuals who are currently serving in the U.S. Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines or Navy.
  • Former Military. Those who have retired or separated from the U.S. military with a discharge type of Honorable.
  • Family. Widows, widowers and un-remarried former spouses of USAA members who joined USAA prior to or during the marriage and individuals whose parents joined USAA.
  • Cadets and Midshipmen. Cadets and midshipmen at U.S. service academies, in advanced ROTC or on ROTC scholarship, plus officer candidates within 24 months of commissioning.

List of eligible states. Here is the current list as stated on the application page, last updated in March 2017. The list has been growing slowly but steadily, so it appears the pilot program is going well and it will be available nationwide eventually. I currently count 26 states.

This product is currently available to members residing in the following states: AL, AR, AZ, CO, CT, FL, GA, HI, ID, IL, IN, KS, LA, MD, MI, MN, ND, NM, NV, NY, PA, RI, SC, TN, TX and WA. It will become available in additional states at a later date.

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • New Mexico
  • Nevada
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Washington

Reader experience. Reader JD shares her positive experience with this card over e-mail. Note that you can redeem with just $1 in rewards.

So far, very easy to use (just started using it 2/22/17). There is a simple button you press (view and redeem rewards), which transfers you to the rewards web page. The rewards are posted almost immediately and you can redeem the rewards at any time as long as you have at least 1 dollar in available rewards. You can then transfer the money as a statement credit or into your USAA checking account (which you must open).

Bottom line. The USAA Limitless Cashback Rewards card offers 2.5% flat cash back on all purchases, which is one of the highest flat rewards percentages currently available. Note that you must (1) be a USAA member, (2) have an open USAA checking account, and (3) maintain a $1,000 direct deposit every single month to maintain the 2.5% cash back rate. If you don’t meet the $1,000 direct deposit requirement, you default back onto 1.5% cash back. USAA membership is limited to members of the U.S. military and their immediate families.

  • USAA Limitless™ Cashback Rewards Visa Signature® Card application link

LivingSocial: BJ’s Wholesale Club Membership Discount

bjslogoLivingSocial has a new deal: $50 for a 1-Year BJ’s Membership + $20 BJ’s Gift Card & $55 in Coupon Savings. Offer expires on 3/12. New members only (you could get your spouse or partner to sign-up). Valid at all BJ’s Wholesale Club locations (East coast mostly). The $55 in coupon savings includes:

$5 off any purchase of $50 or more
$5 off any fresh produce purchase of $10 or more
$5 off any Berkley Jensen purchase of $10 or more
$5 off any fresh bakery purchase of $10 or more
$5 off any apparel purchase of $10 or more
$10 off any purchase of $100 or more
$5 off any fresh meat purchase of $10 or more
$5 off any Wellsley Farms purchase of $10 or more
$5 off any frozen purchase of $10 or more
$5 off any health & beauty purchase of $10 or more

If you count the $20 BJ’s gift card, the $50 membership price goes to effectively $30. Additionally, if you can use the $5 off any $50 purchase and $10 off any $100 purchase without changing your shopping habits, that bring the memberships down to effectively $15 a year. That’s not counting the remaining $40 in category-specific coupons.

I am not very familiar with BJ’s Warehouse so I can’t provide a comparison, but this promotion does coincide with Costco announcing a membership price hike from $55 to $60 annually effective 6/1/17.

You can also combine this offer with a cashback shopping portal bonus. Many offer new customers bonuses if you make a qualifying purchase, including eBates ($10 bonus), TopCashBack ($10 bonus, you see it after entering e-mail), and BeFrugal ($10 bonus). I have cashed out of all of these before.

T-Mobile vs. Verizon New Unlimited Data Plans Comparison

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(Update 3/31: T-Mobile’s 2 unlimited lines for $100 now no longer includes free HD video and 10 GB of LTE hotspot data.)

Competition is good. Without the popularity of the T-Mobile unlimited data plan, we wouldn’t have the reluctant, new Verizon Unlimited data plan. In turn, Verizon’s new plan features made T-Mobile improve their deal to include HD video streaming video and 10 GB of LTE tethered hotspot data. In addition, starting 2/17, T-Mobile is running a special promotion of 2 lines with Unlimited data for $100 with taxes and fees included. If you assume $5 on monthly taxes and fees, that works out to $45 + $5 taxes per line. This is nice if you’re a 2-line household like me and are unable to take advantage of the 4-line deals. T-Mobile is effectively $35 + $5 taxes per line if you have 4 lines. You can get these offers online or by calling 1-855-407-3034.

Here is a comparison graphic of the T-Mobile and Verizon Unlimited plans as of 2/17/17. Although created by T-Mobile, I found it fair enough. Adding in an estimated $5 per line in taxes and fees is even low in some geographic areas.

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The final comparison point remains network quality (coverage, reliability, and speed). Although T-Mobile touts their network availability is within 2% of Verizon according to OpenSignal, this still remains a local issue. If T-Mobile doesn’t have coverage in your living room or in the middle if your commute, you don’t care about the rest of the network.

Premium features with a smaller price gap. Usually the “frugal” plans I talk about are MVNOs, but these plans have features that most MVNOs don’t have like:

  • Free voice roaming. For example, the unlimited T-Mobile plan will let you roam on AT&T GSM networks in rural areas where they don’t have voice coverage. Verizon also offers voice roaming onto other networks in areas where they don’t have coverage.
  • 4G LTE hotspot tethering. Most MVNOs either ban tethering or charge extra, including Cricket and Straight Talk.
  • Unlimited high-speed data without throttling. T-Mobile will “network de-prioritize” your data after you use 28 GB in a single cycle, while Verizon will do the same at 22 GB. Basically, if the network is really busy at a specific point in time and you have exceeded those limits, your data speeds may go down. This is different than the “throttling” that other MVNOs do, for example an always-on speed limit of 128 kbps.

For travelers, T-Mobile also includes unlimited international text and 2G data in over 140 countries. While some MVNOs have poor customer service and support via e-mail only (no phone number), the major 4 carriers will at least have humans via 1-800 number.

Bottom line. T-Mobile and Verizon have both improved their Unlimited plan features and lowered the prices recently. While they still cost more than MVNO alternatives, they also offer a few premium features like hotspot tethering that MVNOs usually don’t include. You’ll have to decide if the premium features are worth it at these new price points.

Schwab Matches Mutual Fund and ETF Expense Ratios, Now $4.95 Trades

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Update: Schwab has matched Fidelity’s price cut at $4.95 per trade + $0.65 per options contract, effective March 3, 2017. See press release for details. Everyone is battling for your assets and the ability to scale. (TD Ameritrade also announced a price cut to $6.95 per trade, down from $9.99.)

Original post:

Schwab announced some changes last week regarding their index mutual fund line-up and trade commissions. Here is the press release and a table of the updated mutual fund expenses [pdf]. Here are the highlights:

  • Stock trades now $6.95. Beginning February 3, 2017, the company will reduce its standard online equity and ETF trade commissions from $8.95 to $6.95.
  • Schwab Index mutual fund expense ratios now match their Index ETFs. Starting March 1, 2017, expenses for the Schwab market cap-weighted index mutual funds will be lowered to align with their Schwab ETFs™ equivalents.
  • Schwab Index mutual funds now have no investment minimum. You don’t have to worry about Admiral shares, Premium Class shares, etc.
  • New Satisfaction Guarantee. I’m not sure how this would work in practice, but it says “Simply, if a Schwab client is not satisfied for any reason, Schwab will refund any related commission, transaction fee or advisory program fee paid to the firm.”

Here are the three mutual funds that I would care most about:

  • Schwab Total Stock Market Index Fund mutual fund expense ratio used to be 0.09% while the ETF version cost 0.03%.
  • Schwab International Stock Index Fund mutual fund expense ratio used to be 0.19% while the ETF version was 0.07%.
  • Schwab TIPS Index Fund mutual fund version used to cost 0.19% while the ETF version was 0.05%.

These were pretty big differences, which was why I felt it was rather obvious that Schwab was making their ETFs a loss-leader in order to be slightly cheaper than Vanguard and/or iShares. I’m guessing they are still selling these index products at a loss to gain market share, but it’s nice to see that they have now simplified their expense ratios across the board. The self-directed brokerage option of my 401(k) plan is through Schwab and only allows mutual funds, so this is a positive change for me.

I have been impressed by the committed strategy Schwab has undertaken towards low-cost, index investing. Schwab has an existing profit machine from its traditional services, but hasn’t been afraid to disrupt and even cannibalize itself. The key is that people seem to like Schwab customer service, whereas I would rate Vanguard as “satisfactory”. If Schwab can have top-quality index products and maintain a reputation for better customer service, that would be a great long-term position.

As an aside, you can’t buy shares of Vanguard but you can buy an ownership stake in Schwab. I don’t own any individual shares of Schwab (SCHW) stock as of this writing, but I would not be surprised if it made a good long-term holding. Once interest rates rise, Schwab will start making a lot more money on its customers’ cash balances (which it forces you to hold it their Intelligent Portfolios robo-advisor instead of charges upfront fees). It will be interesting to see how it plays out. I’m just putting this down in writing so I can check back on my prediction later in 2022 and 2027.