Free State Income Tax E-File Options For All 50 States (Updated 2016)

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Re-checked and updated for 2016 (Tax Year 2015). 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. As such, you may wish to do your state return separately. Based on their current, regular published prices:

* Got a simple return? This year, TurboTax has an “Absolute Zero” promotion where you can get Fed + State + Fed eFile + State eFile for $0. However, you must have a simple-enough tax situation so that you can file Form 1040A or 1040EZ, including a taxable income of $100,000 or less and claiming the standard deduction rather than itemizing deductions. TaxACT also charges $0 if you file 1040A/EX.

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 lightning 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 Free electronic filing through Electronic Filing (ELF). No income restrictions.
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 Free electronic filing through WebFile for Income. No income restrictions.
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 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.

Starwood Preferred Guest American Express – 35,000 Points Limited-Time Offer

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Limited-time offer. The sign-up bonus for this SPG American Express is now 35,000 Starpoints with the annual fee waived for the first year. Ends March 30th, 2016. This is the highest level the bonus has been, which is good to know since you can only get it once – “Welcome bonus offer not available to applicants who have or have had this product.”

The travel rewards card that has been in my wallet the longest is the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express. It is quite famous in the travel junkie circles, but not very well known otherwise. Once you understand the combination of flexibility and value, you will better understand why this is my favorite hotel rewards card and also the only annual fee card that I’ve kept consistently over the last 7+ years.

Highlights:

  • Limited-time offer: Earn 35,000 bonus Starpoints® after you use your new Card to make $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months.
  • New: No Foreign Transaction Fees on international purchases.
  • New: Receive free in-room, premium internet access. Booking requirements apply.
  • New: Enjoy complimentary, unlimited Boingo Wi-Fi on up to four devices at more than 1,000,000 Boingo hotspots worldwide. Enrollment required.
  • Earn free nights at over 1,200 hotels and resorts in nearly 100 countries with no blackout dates.
  • Some hotels may have mandatory service and resort charges.
  • $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95.

My personal review:

  • When redeeming towards hotel stays, I regularly get 2-6 cents of value per point, more than often the value you’d get from airline miles. Get free stays in hotels that otherwise charge $300+ a night.
  • Rather have miles? You can convert 20,000 points to 25,000 miles, which is 1.25 miles per dollar spent, 25% more miles than most other airline-specific cards.
  • Easy transfers mean you can “top off” a frequent flier account to get to that coveted reward ticket level. Your miles aren’t worth anything until you actually use them!
  • You can convert just a few miles to keep your other miles from expiring.

Either I’ve had one, or my wife has had one, or I’ve had the business card version of this card for the last 5+ years. Transferring points within between household members is quite easy and free.

Starwood Points transfer to Frequent Flier Miles

The first reason why this card is so useful is that Starwood points (or Starpoints) can be converted to miles to major domestic airlines and several international ones. This includes Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, and United. Most transfer at a 1:1 ratio (1 Starwood point = 1 frequent flier mile), unless otherwise noted. For example, the ratio is lower for United (2:1 means 2 Starpoints = 1 United mile.

Imagine that you’re only a thousand miles short of a free ticket, but you need to buy a ticket and would really like to make it free. Although there may be other options that involve spending money, you can simply “top off” your balance by transferring as little as 1,500 miles to the specific airline programs that you want. You can even convert a specific number of points. Just need 2,854 miles here and 1,567 somewhere else? No problem.

With most airlines, your miles expire after a period of inactivity. But since any activity counts (not only flying), I could quickly transfer 1,500 miles over in order to save 20,000 hard-earned miles from expiring.

  • Aeromexico Club Premier
  • Aeroplan/Air Canada
  • Air Berlin
  • Air China Companion
  • Air New Zealand Air Points (65:1)
  • Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
  • Alitalia MileMiglia
  • All Nippon Airways (ANA) Mileage Club
  • American Airlines AAdvantage
  • Asia Miles
  • Asiana Airlines
  • British Airways Executive Club
  • China Eastern Airlines
  • China Southern Airlines’ Sky Pearl Club
  • Delta Airlines SkyMiles
  • Emirates Skywards
  • Etihad Airways
  • Flying Blue
  • Gol Smiles (2:1)
  • Hainan Airlines
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Japan Airline (JAL) Mileage Bank
  • Jet Airways
  • LAN Airlines LANPASS Kms (1:1.5)
  • Miles and More
  • Qatar Airways
  • Saudi Arabian Airlines Alfursan
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
  • Thai Airways International Royal Orchid Plus
  • United Mileage Plus (2:1)
  • US Airways Dividend Miles
  • Velocity Frequent Flier
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club

For every 20,000 points you convert, you get an additional 5,000 point bonus. So 20,000 Starwood points = 25,000 miles on the airlines listed above. That’s 25% more miles per dollar than those airline-specific credit cards (although the waived baggage fees are appealing).

Great Hotel Rewards Card

Starwood is a growing collection of over 1,000 mid-scale to very-upscale hotels in nearly 100 countries, from the business-oriented Four Points and Sheratons to the upscale W and Westin hotels. This card has come in very handy for travel to international and bigger US cities.

Short-notice and emergency stays. All room taxes are included when you use points, and there are no blackout dates unlike other hotel programs. I’ve used them in a pinch, burning just 3,000 points for a last-minute $120 a night room at the Vancouver Airport Four Points (now Category 3).

Luxury international hotels. I’m usually happy with a Holiday Inn Express by the airport for a business trip, but when traveling for leisure it can be very convenient to stay downtown near the action and sights. In a city like Paris or Rome, this can mean big bucks. With this card, I’ve stayed at $300 a night hotels like the W New York, Westin Madrid, and Westin Venice. Being able to stay up late into the night in Venice instead of having to leave was amazing. If you redeem for 4 nights in a row in a Category 3 or higher hotel, the 5th night is free.

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Cash and points option. Don’t miss “cash and points” opportunities. For example, I found a $400 room at the Westin Rome in Italy or W Hotel New York Times Square for 8,000 points + $150 a night. Run the numbers yourself using the booking engine at SPG.com and look for the “SPG Cash & Points” option. The value of 30,000 points can be easily greater than $500.

This last option is not the best value, but for the purposes of setting a last resort and baseline value, 9,500 Starpoints = $100 gift card at Amazon.com.

“Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the issuer. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the issuer. This site is compensated through the issuer’s Affiliate Program.  “The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.”

Pay with Discover Card Cash Back Points at Amazon.com ($15 First-Time Bonus)

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If you have cash back rewards accrued from Discover credit cards, you can use them to buy eligible items at Amazon.com. The redemption rate is $1 in Cash Back Bonus = $1 to spend at Amazon, which is the same rate as their statement credit redemptions. The only potential added benefit is the lack of minimum redemption amount (and any linked promotions…).

You’ll need to connect an eligible Discover credit card that earns Cash Back rewards, including:

First-time user bonus for Amazon Prime members. There is a first-time user bonus for up to $15 off your order when you use Pay with Points with Discover for the first time and are an Amazon Prime member (trial membership doesn’t count). The terms state this is a targeted offer, but I was able to use this successfully despite not being sent this offer directly. An important tip from the terms is the following:

If you are enrolling in the Shop with Points Program for the first time or have just become a Prime member, please be aware that it may take up to 72 hours before your promotional code will be accepted and applied.

Here is the page to sign up for Shop With Points using Discover. Again, you may need to wait 72 hours if you just signed up before applying this code.

Here are the directions, via FW:

  • Add products sold and shipped by Amazon.com to your Shopping cart.
  • Choose a Discover Shop with Points enrolled card as a payment method.
  • Enter the promo code DISC16EVER in the box provided on the checkout page, and pay for at least part of your order with CashBack Bonus
  • Up to $15 of savings will be reflected on the final checkout page.

Here is a screenshot of my successful application of this offer, using only $1 of Discover Cash Back (click to enlarge):

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(No, I didn’t actually buy the $500 Eero Mesh Router system, but I was just researching it as I’ve been having some WiFi coverage issues in my house. Sounds cool, but pricey.)

Netspend Card 5% APY Savings Account Review

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Prepaid debit cards are a growing niche for the “under-banked” or “un-banked” who can’t or don’t want to use traditional checking accounts to hold their cash. In order to promote the adoption of prepaid debit cards as their sole financial hub, many now offer the option of an attached high-interest savings account.

The NetSpend Prepaid Visa offers 5% APY on balances up to $5,000. For balances over $5,000, it pays 0.50% APY. Even with the balance limit, this is an attractive rate and worth a look even if you don’t need a prepaid debit card otherwise. I’ve had this card open since September 2015, but a quirk of this card is that interest is only paid quarterly, so I waited to see if the 5% APY (4.91% APR) would post correctly. As you can see in the screenshot below, the interest for all 3 months was credited as promised at roughly $20.50 per month. (The 0.50% APY on balances above $5,000 is credited on a separate line.)

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For the purposes of this review, I will not focus on most aspects of the prepaid debit card. I am primarily interested in maximizing the savings account feature and the avoidance of any fees.

Account opening process. Visit the Netspend website and enter your personal details to order a card (name, address, e-mail). No credit check. No application fee. You will eventually need to provide your Social Security number as required by law, since you’ll be opening a FDIC-insured bank account. If you are referred by an existing user (links above are mine, thanks if you use it), both get an additional $20 bonus after depositing at least $40. After signing up, you can also refer your own friend and family for more $20 bonuses.

Once the physical card arrives in about a week, follow the included directions and activate your account online. You will be provided your unique account number and a routing number, which will allow you to make electronic ACH transfers from your external bank accounts. You can also use this information to have direct deposit set up with your payroll or government benefits.

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5% APY savings account funding directions. Previously, you had to upgrade to Netspend Premier to get the 5% APY savings account option. This requirement appears to have been removed. You must use an external bank to “push” money over into the Netspend card. I used my Ally Bank savings account as the transfer agent (screenshot below). I used the account and routing numbers provided, which confirmed that the underlying FDIC-insured bank is MetaBank of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Other banks that they say may be used are BofI Federal Bank and The Bancorp Bank.

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Then, all you need to do is move over $5,000 from your external bank to your Card Balance, and then move that $5,000 over to your Savings Balance. Your Card Balance is the part that can be spent via prepaid debit card, but it will not earn any interest, so be sure to move it over to Savings Balance. They are separate buckets! Here are the before and after screenshots (click to enlarge).

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The Savings Account has no monthly minimum balance requirement and no monthly fees. Transfers between Card Balance and Savings Balance are free, but the number of withdrawals from Savings Balance are limited to 6 per calendar month by federal banking laws.

Avoiding Debit Card fees. Now, the Savings Account has no monthly fees, but the Debit Card does have a choice of plans with their own fee schedules. Since I don’t plan on making any actual purchases using this debit card, I chose the Pay As You Go plan with no monthly fee. Now, with this plan there is also an account maintenance fee of $5.95 per month:

Account Maintenance Fee $5.95 per month (fee applies if Card Account has not had any activity, that is, no purchases; no cash withdrawals; no load transactions; or no balance inquiry fee for 90 days). If enrolled in any FeeAdvantage Plan and your Card Account has had no activity as described above, this fee applies instead of the Plan Fee.

The simple solution to avoid this fee is to load a few dollars once every 90 days via your original ACH transfer source. Most banks will even let you set up an automated transfer schedule; I like every month just because it serves as a monthly reminder to check the balance, APY, etc. You could also use their mobile app and make a check deposit.

Withdrawals. The easiest way to make a withdrawal is again via “ACH pull” from your external transfer bank. Remember, you’ll have to move the funds over from “Savings” to “Card”. Another free alternative is to use the BillPay feature and pay down a credit card bill using your funds. If you have a credit card that you use regularly, you can even make an overpayment and simply hold a negative balance until it gets used up by future credit card purchases. Finally, you could just use the Visa feature to buy something or make an ATM withdrawal (subject to daily limits), but you may be subject to transaction fees.

Additional cards. If you have a spouse or partner, you could both get a NetSpend Prepaid card which would bring your 5% APY limit to $10,000. There are also other cards which offer a similar setup, including Brink’s Prepaid (I have this one as well), Ace Elite, and Western Union. If you had one of each of these (which is still allowed to the best of my knowledge), then that would bring your theoretical limit to $20,000 for an individual or $40,000 for a couple.

Recap. Yes, it really works, as long as you set it up properly and maintain an active account. As compared to a 1% APY savings account, each $5,000 balance at 5% APY would earn $200 more in taxable interest income each year. It is up to you to weigh the potential reward vs. effort, also taking into account the size of your cash balances.

Bank of America Free Museum Tickets 2016 Dates

bofa_musBank of America runs a program called Museums on Us which offers cardholders free admissions to 150 museums, science centers, and botanical gardens nationwide on the first full weekend of every month (Saturday and Sunday). Simply present any valid Bank of America® or Merrill Lynch® credit or debit card and photo ID for free admission.

Note: Each cardholder gets one free general admission, so be sure everyone with their own cards bring them. Hmm, I wonder if my 3-year-old can be added as an authorized user?

2016 Calendar Dates (Check specific museum for actual hours)

  • January 2nd, 3rd
  • February 6th, 7th
  • March 5th, 6th
  • April 2nd, 3rd
  • May 7th, 8th
  • June 4th, 5th
  • July 2nd, 3rd
  • August 6th, 7th
  • September 3rd, 4th
  • October 1st, 2nd
  • November 5th, 6th
  • December 3rd, 4th

Here is the full list (PDF) of participating locations. One of the available museums is the Thinkery in Austin, Texas. We recently visited there, and found it to be a fun and interactive children’s science center. The admission was $9 per person (23 month and under free). That means taking advantage of this offer would have saved us $18 (or $27 if the little one had a BofA card in theory). I’ve seen other museums on their list with $20 admission prices.

While I wouldn’t open a new bank or credit card account for this feature, it is a nice perk if you already have such accounts. Here are the Bank of America credit cards that offer competitive features that I have reviewed in the past. The Travel Rewards card is my current primary rewards card.

Museum Day: Free Tickets Nationwide On Saturday, March 12th 2016

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Museum Day Live! is usually 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 for a special additional day on Saturday, March 12, 2016. Must register by March 1st. Each registration to this “special edition” of Museum Day gets you 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.

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.) Note: After poking around the site, it appears that the selection for this “special edition” is not as good as the official Museum Day. Still, free is free and your favorite museum may still be on there.

Don’t forget to add the event to your calendar! I’ve probably forgotten about this half the times that I’ve registered.

Also see: Bank of America’s Museums on Us Program.

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

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

  • Earn 40,000 Hilton HHonors Bonus Points after making $1,000 in purchases within the first 4 months of account opening*
  • Earn 6 HHonors Bonus Points for each $1 spent at any participating hotel within the Hilton portfolio.*
  • Earn 3 HHonors Bonus Points for each $1 spent on purchases at supermarkets, drugstores and gas stations.*
  • Earn 2 HHonors Bonus Points for each $1 spent on all other purchases.*
  • Enjoy the benefits of HHonors Silver status as long as you are a cardmember*
  • No annual fee.*

This card is ideal for people who at least occasionally stay at Hilton hotels (as this card is also giving you a bunch of points and complimentary Silver status to try and get you to become more loyal). Hilton HHonors points are worth the most when redeemed for a hotel stay, as there aren’t really that many great cash-equivalent redemption options.

Silver Status perks include:

  • 15% bonus on all the HHonors Base Points you earn.
  • 5th night free on Standard Room Reward stays of 5 nights or more.
  • Complimentary in-room and lobby Standard Internet access during stays at Waldorf Astoria™ Hotels & Resorts, Conrad® Hotels & Resorts, Curio – A Collection by Hilton, Hilton Hotels & Resorts, DoubleTree by Hilton™, Canopy™ by Hilton, Embassy Suites Hotels™ and Hilton Grand Vacations™
  • Two complimentary bottles of water per stay (at Waldorf Astoria™ Hotels & Resorts, Conrad® Hotels & Resorts, Curio – A Collection by Hilton, Hilton Hotels & Resorts, DoubleTree by Hilton™, Embassy Suites Hotels™, Hilton Garden Inn™ and Hilton Grand Vacations™ hotels)

Hilton points redemption varies from month to month. You can use this search tool to see how much a hotel will cost in any specific area (i.e. Honolulu or Paris). Here are some example redemptions for the months of April, May, and June:

  • Honolulu, Hawaii. Hilton Waikiki Beach is 40,000 points. Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort is 50,000 points.
  • San Francisco, California. Hilton San Francisco Union Square is 50,000 points.
  • Orlando, Florida. DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel at the Entrance to Universal Orlando is 20,000 points.
  • New York City, NU. DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel New York – Times Square South is 70,000 points. Hilton Times Square is 80,000 points.

This Citi Hilton card is the version with no annual fee, the first year or any future year. If you have this card and are looking to sign-up again, please note this fine print:

Hilton HHonors Bonus Points offer not available if you have had a Citi Hilton HHonors Visa Signature Card account that was opened or closed in the past 18 months.

There is also another card called the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card which has a $95 annual fee, but has better ongoing perks. I previously applied for the Reserve version and enjoyed nice stay in Hawaii with it, but I can understand that some people prefer no annual fee.

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

BankAmericard Travel Rewards Credit Card: Redemption Tips for 2.625% Back

bofa_travelrewards191As previously mentioned, I have switched to using the BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card as my primary catch-all rewards cards. This is because if you give them enough assets to hold onto (admittedly not possible for everyone), you can receive 2.25% or 2.625% cash back against past travel-related purchases. Please see my Bank of America Travel Rewards credit card review for details on the card structure. As I’ve made a few points redemptions already, I wanted to share my tips and experiences with that. The good news is that the process is quite simple and I found it easy to use up all of your points to maximize value.

Account setup and eligiblity. I have both a Bank of America checking account and a Merrill Edge brokerage account. The checking account doesn’t have much money in it (it pays no interest) and technically isn’t necessarily at all, but I do keep $100,000 in assets in the Edge brokerage account in order to qualify for the highest tier of Preferred status, Platinum Honors. $50,000 in combined balances will get you the Platinum tier. Vanguard ETFs trade free at Vanguard, but Edge gives me commission-free trades a month on any stock or ETF (100/month Platinum Honors, 30/month Platinum). There are no account maintenance fees for Merrill Edge. Thus, it cost me nothing to switch to Edge besides having yet another account in my life (in fact, they paid me a sign-up bonus).

When logging into BofA, this bundling also offers the convenience of viewing my bank account balance, credit card charges, and Edge investment value all on the same screen. It also tracks which tier I am on their Preferred Rewards program (Gold, Platinum, or Platinum Honors), including my exact qualifying balance:

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The official measurement is of your “3-month average combined balance”, so if you just transfer the bare minimum $100k over into an empty account, it may take a few months to reach the $100k level and officially qualify for Platinum Honors. Only after that will the 75% rewards bonus on credit card rewards kick in. (You may qualify for Gold and Platinum in the meantime.)

Earning rewards, bonus verification. Here is a screenshot taken from one of my monthly statements, which I have highlighted for clarity.

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I put $2,527.99 in purchases on my card during this statement cycle, so at 1.5 points per dollar that came out to 3,791 points. Since I am on the Platinum Honors tier, I received a 75% bonus of 2,846 points. (This appears to be off by a few points when compared to my calculator, but is very close.) Gold members would have received 25% bonus, Platinum members would have received a 50% bonus.

The total is 6,637 points, which will get me $66.37 of statement credit towards a previous travel-related charge (see below). The bonus points were calculated automatically without any additional legwork on my part.

Redemption process. Here are the rules:

  • 1.5 points for every $1 spent on all purchases. No limit to the points you can earn. Points do not expire.
  • Redeeming for Travel Credit offers the best value for your points. There are no restrictions or blackout dates. You can also get gift cards, but why bother?
  • Valid travel-related expenses include airfare, hotels, car rentals, baggage fees, and airline upgrades. (Possibly more depending on merchant categorization, for example inflight food counted for me.)
  • Minimum redemption is 2,500 points = $25 when redeemed for a Travel Credit.
  • A travel purchase is eligible to redeem for a Travel Credit up to 12 months from the date the purchase posts to your account.
  • Partial redemptions allow you to use all your points up. For example, if you have a $26.00 eligible purchase but you only have 2,500 points, you can use just those points and get $25 back. You don’t have to accrue more points to reach any specific purchase value.
  • The system will remember your partial redemptions, and allow you to apply future points redemption up the remaining balance of that purchase. So that big annual vacation bill? You can chip away at it with your rewards over a year.

You can perform all your redemptions online, no need to call anyone. Here is a screenshot of the rewards redemption website, which should provide a good idea of how it works. Click to enlarge.

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(Side tip: If you are worried about cashing out all your points, simply adjust your redemptions to keep a minimum of 2,500 points in your account at all times. Then, if for some reason you want to close the card and do one final cashout (i.e. they announce upcoming changes for the worse), you can do so and use up every last point.)

Recap. I have shown that my real-world experience matches the promised rewards payout. $66.37 of reward divided by $2,527 in purchases is 2.625% back. I was able to get full reward value by offsetting a travel purchase from the last 12 months (airfare, hotel, and all those annoying airfare-related fees). The points arrived without hassle, and redemption was both easy and offered a high level of control.

I realize not everyone will have at least $50,000 of assets to move around, and so this is somewhat a restricted offer. But again it doesn’t have to be idle cash, it can be stocks or ETFs that you’re just holding elsewhere like TD Ameritrade or Vanguard. 2.625% back is a great rewards rate, assuming you charge enough travel-related stuff on the card every 12 months. For example, if you charged $1,000 a month, 2.625% back would be $315 a year. The card has no foreign transaction fees, so you can use it internationally as well.

Please see my Bank of America Travel Rewards credit card review for additional card details.

Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card: 80,000 Bonus Points Review

Marriott Rewards® Premier Credit CardMost travel cards offer an ongoing sign-up bonus, but it’s even better when you snag them during a bump-up – this time it is the Marriott Rewards® Premier Credit Card from Chase. Check out the highlights below, and remember that it is free and takes just a minute to add an authorized user:

  • Earn 80,000 Bonus Points after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.
  • Plus, earn 7,500 bonus points when you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first 3 months from account opening.
  • Enjoy 1 Free Night Stay at a Category 1-5 location every year after your account anniversary date!
  • Earn unlimited Marriott Rewards points and get free stays faster
  • Earn 5 points for every $1 spent at 4,000 Marriott locations, 2 points for every $1 spent on airline tickets purchased directly with the airlines, at car rental agencies and restaurants and 1 point everywhere else.
  • The fastest way to earn Marriott Rewards points towards free nights
  • The fastest way to earn Marriott Rewards Elite Status.  Receive 15 Elite Credits guaranteeing Silver Elite Status or better.  Plus, Earn 1 Elite Credit for every $3,000 spent on purchases.
  • All for an $85 Annual Fee

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

80,000 points is enough to get you a night at any Ritz Carlton Tier 5 hotel in the world. Or, 80,000 points can get you four nights at any Category 4 hotel. Or, it could get you eight nights at a Category 2 hotel. The free night award can be used for up to a Category 5 hotel. In the top right corner of the redemption chart link, you can view a comprehensive list of what hotels are in any specific category. Here are some options that caught my eye.

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

Category 8 Hotels (40,000 points per night, 35,000 if Pointsaver)

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

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

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

Category 4 Hotels (Eligible with Cat 1-5 Certificate or 20,000 points per night standard, 15,000 if Pointsaver)

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

As always, hotel points are only good if you can use and enjoy them. Poke around their award listings – Marriott has a lot of different hotel brands to choose from. The Courtyards I’ve stayed in have been modernized and updated, while SpringHill Suites are nice for families. I’ve also gotten to stay at some terrific properties thanks to such point promotions, although I tend to value location and convenience over the bling factor.

If you’ve gotten a bonus from this Marriott Rewards® Premier Credit Card within the last 2 years, please note the following:

This 80,000 bonus point offer is available to you as long as you have not received a new cardmember bonus for this product in the past 24 months.

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

On your account anniversary, you’ll get a certificate for a free Category 1-5 night which you can weigh against another $85 annual fee. As long as you can use that certificate for a decent hotel, getting $85 value is certainly achievable. For example, a random night at the (Category 4) Courtyard Orlando Lake Buena Vista at Vista Centre was $115 when including taxes.

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Plastiq: Pay Tuition, Rent, or Taxes With Credit Card or Debit Card

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Updated. Plastiq just upped their fee for debit card payments to 1%. Previously, there was no fee at all. Just a heads up for those people with plans for future payments. If you have a payment originally scheduled under the 0% fee structure, according to Plastiq you’re still okay as long as you don’t edit them. I’d double-check. Here is the text of the e-mail:

As you may know, at Plastiq we’re always working on ways to offer the very best service at the lowest possible price. Last year this commitment led us to offer a promotional debit card fee rate of 0%. This will be ending effective today, February 9th, at 5pm PT. However, due to the overwhelmingly positive response to reduced debit fees, we’re excited to offer an on-going reduced rate of 1% for personal debit card payments (rather than the standard 2.5%).

Original post:

Plastiq.com lets you pay bills and invoices with a credit or debit card, even if they don’t usually accept them. The service fee is 2.5% for credit cards and 1% for Visa and MasterCard debit cards. However, they run limited-time promotion with lower fees. They will charge your card and send out a paper check to the payee (direct bank transfers to a few), so you’d want to plan ahead for any snail mail delays. They recommend 10 business days to be safe. More ideas from their site:

  • Rent or Mortgage
  • Homeowners Association (HOA) dues
  • Tuition
  • Childcare costs
  • Buying a car, RV, or ATV
  • Income or business taxes

(EXPIRED) The last promotion ran until November 30th, 2015 and lets you make payments with a 1.5% fee for one-time, immediate MasterCard payments.. Here is their blog announcement. No minimum amount required. Does not apply to recurring payments. No special promotional code or sign up required.

Selected fine print:

Thanksgiving is just around the corner, but why wait until then to show how thankful we are that you’ve signed up with Plastiq? To make the holiday even sweeter, we’re excited to share that today is the start of a special promotion. Get a 1.5% rate for all one-time, immediate MasterCard payments to any business! […] This promotion will expire on November 30, 2015 at 5 p.m. PT.

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Why would I want to pay a 1.5% service fee?

Sign-up bonus spending requirements. Sign-up bonuses often having spending requirements. For example, you might get a $500 value bonus but need to spend $5,000. Well, that’s effectively 10% back so if you need a little help to get over that hurdle, it’s okay to pay a 1.5% fee. Here are some recent cards with big $500 value bonuses but also spending requirements:

2% cash back credit cards, or similar. If you have a rewards credit card that offers 2% cash back (or equivalent value in points), then you can still make a slight profit by putting them on your credit card. A current example is the Citi Double Cash Card. For example, if you have a tuition bill or tax bill of $5,000 and you earned 2% cash back while paying a 1.5% fee, your net 0.5% is $25.

Combine a rewards card + 0% APR on purchases. Many credit cards offer 0% APR on purchases for an introductory period of 12 months or longer. If the card also has a half-decent rewards program on purchases, the combination of purchase rewards and spreading out the payments over a year at no interest could be attractive.

Consumers Credit Union Free Rewards Checking Review – New Rate Tiers

ccu_logo_200Consumers Credit Union (CCU) has a Free Rewards Checking account that offers a high interest rate between 3.09% and 4.59% APY if you meet certain requirements. As with similar accounts elsewhere, the catch is if you don’t jump through all of the hoops, you effectively won’t earn any interest at all that month (0.01% APY). As of February 1st, 2016, their rates, balance tiers, and requirements were changed. Let’s take a closer look at the new structure.

Membership
To open a Rewards Checking account, you must be a member. However, CCU has a very open membership policy; basically anyone nationwide can join if they do the following:

  • Join the Consumers Cooperative Association with a one-time $5 fee.
  • Open and maintain a share savings account with a minimum $5 deposit.

Earn 3.09% APY on up to $10,000 + ATM Fee Refunds if you:

  • Complete at least 12 Debit/Check Card point-of-sale purchases (transactions must be made without using your personal identification number [PIN] to count toward the minimum of 12 and must post and clear your account on or before the last day of the calendar month). In stores, select to run it as a “credit” purchase.
  • At least one of the following transactions must post and clear on or before the last day of the calendar month: direct deposit OR ACH debit OR electronic bill payment via CCU’s Free Online Bill Pay.
  • Access Online or Mobile Banking at least once each calendar month
  • Receive e-Documents (enroll and accept the disclosure)

Earn 3.59% APY on up to $15,000 + ATM Fee Refunds if you:

  • Complete all of the 3.09% Tier requirements above, plus
  • $500 or more in CCU VISA Credit Card purchase transactions

Earn 4.59% APY on up to $20,000 + ATM Fee Refunds if you:

  • Complete all of the 3.09% Tier requirements above, plus
  • $1,000 or more in CCU VISA Credit Card purchase transactions

A nice feature is that their online interface has a progress tracker, updated daily, telling you number of debit card transaction and the total spend on your CCU credit card.

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Tracking is also available via their smartphone app (Apple/Android):

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All tiers will also receive:

  • No minimum balance. No monthly service fees.
  • Free online Bill Pay.
  • Mobile check deposit via smartphone app.

Excess Balances
Note that each tier has it’s own specific APY and balance limitations. Here is a table that shows the APY if you exceed the high-interest balance limits.

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Qualifying Credit Cards
If you don’t have a CCU credit card, the best you can do is the 3.09% APY tier. Here is a list of their credit cards. It looks like the best one is their Visa Signature Cash Rebate Card, which offers a 3% cash rebate on up to $6,000 in “Grocery/Convenience Store” purchases annually, 2% cash rebate for “Gas” purchases, and 1% cash rebate for all other purchases. No annual fee.

Cost/Benefit Analysis
As a benchmark, I choose a “no hassle” high-yield savings account which would roughly yield 1% APY. You could also use a certificate of deposit, but a rewards checking account is liquid with no early withdrawal penalties.

  • $10,000 times 3.09% APY would be $309 per year, or $25.75 per month in interest. $10,000 times 1.00% APY would be $100 per year, or $8.33 per month in interest.
  • $15,000 times 3.59% APY would be $538.50 per year, or $44.88 per month in interest. $15,000 times 1.00% APY would be $200 per year, or $16.67 per month in interest.
  • $20,000 times 4.59% APY would be $918 per year, or $76.50 per month in interest. $20,000 times 1.00% APY would be $300 per year, or $25 per month in interest.

The 3.09% APY tier would be an increase of $17.42 per month over 1% APY, in exchange for tracking 12 debit card purchases a month. If you keep those debit purchases small, then you’d come out ahead by about $200 per year.

The 3.59% APY tier would be an increase of $28.21 per month over 1% APY, in exchange for tracking 12 debit card purchases a month plus $500 in credit card purchases. Let’s say you could earn 2% cash back on credit card purchases elsewhere, but only 1% on a CCU credit card. That is a loss of $5 in (non-taxable) rewards per month, for a net increase of $23.21 per month ($278 per year).

The 4.59% APY tier would be an increase of $51.50 per month over 1% APY, in exchange for tracking 12 debit card purchases a month plus $1,000 in credit card purchases. Let’s say you could earn 2% cash back on credit card purchases elsewhere, but only 1% on a CCU credit card. That is a loss of $10 in (non-taxable) rewards per month, for a net increase of $41.50 per month ($498 per year).

To qualify for the 3.59% APY and 4.59% APY tiers, you’d also have to apply for a new credit card, which would entail a credit check. There is an opportunity cost here, as there are other new credit cards that offer $400 or $500 in sign-up incentives within a few months. You can apply for multiple new credit cards, but once you reach a certain number it will hurt your chances for getting the next one.

My thoughts. These types of checking accounts are not for everyone. Not only do you have to jump through hoops each month to get a reward (higher interest than no-hassle account), if you don’t you’ll actually get punished in a way (lower interest than a no-hassle account). Try to create a reliable system where you satisfy the requirements early on in the month, for example putting some automatic insurance, phone, or utility bills on the credit card. My favorite feature is their qualification tracking; I wish all rewards checking accounts had this feature.

To justify the opportunity cost of getting a new credit card, you should definitely try to reach the 4.59% APY tier. The changes have made the middle 3.59% APY tier much less attractive than before. Otherwise, the debit card-only 3.09% APY tier isn’t bad for more modest balances. Keep in mind that there is no longer any guarantee on how long these rates will last. The positive spin would be that CCU has been running a rewards checking account now for well over 5 years, so hopefully they have crunched the numbers and set the rates at sustainable levels.

Google Cloud Storage Promotion: Extra 2 GB Free w/ Security Checkup

February 9th is “Safer Internet Day”. To help celebrate, Google will add 2 GB of free Drive storage to your Google account if you complete their Security Checkup. By default, free users get 15 GB to share across Gmail, Google Drive, and Google Photos.

The Security Checkup tool is a handy feature that Google users should be running anyway. It makes sure you have covered the following bases: update recovery options in case you forget your password, verify which devices are currently connected to your account, manage access for less secure apps, and verify permissions with connected 3rd party apps and websites.

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You should instantly see an increase in your Google storage limit. Two birds, one stone!

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