Cash Reserves & Best Interest Rates Update – June 2014

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

Interest rates are still depressingly low, and I haven’t made any changes to how I hold my cash reserves in the past 12 months. However, I figured an update is in order as some of you may not be aware of the many options besides your too-big-to-fail megabank savings account paying 0.000001%.

My Cash Reserves
First, a quick recap of how I have our cash reserves split up. Keep in mind that most of the rates that I locked in are no longer available, but I did blog about them at the time.

  • Ally Bank Online Saving (0.87% APY of 6/24/14) as a no-fee overdraft backup to my Ally Interest Checking (0.10% APY on balances under $15k, 0.60% APY over $15k of 6/24/14), that way I can keep minimal balance in checking. Ally checking also has unlimited ATM fee rebates and no fees. I know there are some savings accounts paying a tiny bit more, but not worth the trouble for less than 0.1% difference on $10,000.
  • Ally Bank CDs earning between 1.84% and 3.09% APY. These are old 5-year CDs with a short 60-day interest penalty. Current CD rate of 6/21/14 is 1.60% APY with 150-day early withdrawal penalty.
  • PenFed CDs earning 5% APY. Long gone, although earlier this year PenFed did offer 5-year CDs at 3% APY (no longer available). Current rates are yawn-tastic.
  • I also have several US savings bonds that I now consider part of my retirement portfolio as opposed to cash reserves, as I don’t think I’ll ever want to cash them in before full maturity. More info below.

Best Currently Available Interest Rates
If I wasn’t already invested as outlined above, here are the FDIC-insured or government-backed opportunities that I would be looking into based on my needs.

  • Everbank Yield Pledge Money Market and Interest Checking account both offer 1.40% APY guaranteed (up to $50k each) for the first 6 months for new accounts. Since it is fixed, this is essentially a 6-month CD with a higher rate than any other 6-month CD rate out there and with no early withdrawal penalty to worry about.
  • “Series I” US Savings Bonds offer rates that are linked to inflation. “I Bonds” bought right now will earn 1.94% total for the first six months, and then a variable rate based on ongoing inflation after that. You must hold them for a year, and if you redeem them within 5 years you lose the last 3 months of interest. While future rates are unknown, the net rate after a year is likely to be higher than any 1-year CD. More info here.
  • Rewards checking accounts pay above-average interest rates, but only if you to jump through many hoops. Make a mistake and you’ll forfeit your interest for that month. Rates can also drop quickly, leaving a “bait-and-switch” feeling. If you’re up for it, a recent example is Consumers Credit Union where you can earn up to 5.09% APY on up to a $10k balance, although 3.09% APY is probably a more reasonable expectation (there are a lot of hoops).
  • Certificates of deposit. If you have a large cushion, it’s quite likely to just sit there for years. Why not put some money in longer-term investments where you can still take it out in a true emergency and pay an early withdrawal penalty. Synchrony Bank (formerly GE Capital Retail Bank) is offering a 5-year CD paying 2.30% APY for $25k+ balances (2.25% APY for $2k+) with an early withdrawal penalty of 180 days interest.
  • Willing to lock up your money for even longer? Tobyhanna Federal Credit Union has a 7-year CD paying 3.04% APY, however the early withdrawal penalty is a full 2 years of interest. More info here.
  • Even looooonger? “Series EE” US Savings Bonds are not indexed to inflation, but they have a guarantee that the value will double in value in 20 years, which equals a guaranteed return of 3.5% a year. However, if you don’t hold for that long, you’ll be stuck with the normal rate which is quite low (currently a sad 0.50% APY). You really want to be sure you’ll keep it for 20 years.

All rates are believed current as of writing, 6/24/14.

Chase Freedom $200 Limited Time Offer

(Update: A reminder that you can now activate your 5% cash back at Amazon.com, Zappos.com and at select department stores for 4th quarter 2014. Just did mine. Don’t forget!)

Chase Freedom CardThe Chase Freedom® – $200 Bonus has a new limited time promotion offering a $200 Bonus after you make $500 in purchases in your first 3 months from account opening. In addition, you can earn an additional $25 bonus after you add your first authorized user and make a purchase within this same 3-month period. This is the highest sign-up bonus I’ve seen for this “keeper” card.

As a rewards credit card it is better than plain vanilla 1% cashback cards with its 5% cashback on rotating categories, good for up to $1,500 in purchases each quarter. Here are the categories for the rest of 2014:

From April through June 2014:

  • Restaurants
  • Lowe’s home improvement stores

From July through September 2014 (activate starting 6/15/14):

  • Gas Stations
  • Kohl’s®

From October through December 2014 (activate starting 9/15/14):

  • Amazon.com
  • Zappos.com
  • Select Department Stores

Activate quarterly at ChaseBonus.com or call the number on the back of the card. All other purchases earn 1% back, with no tiers or expiration of rewards.

Keep in mind that you actually earn Ultimate Rewards points. If you have a Chase Sapphire Preferred and Ink Bold/Plus small business cards which also earn those, your Ultimate Rewards points can be combined and converted to miles like United Airlines, British Airways, and Hyatt hotel points. Depending on what you redeem for (i.e. plane ticket, hotel stay), Ultimate Rewards can be worth well more than 1 cent per point this way, which means you can actually get more than 5% value back.

I’ve had this card seemingly forever as the 5% rewards often come in handy, and there is no annual fee so there’s no reason to cancel it.

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

Groupon Deal: Starbucks $10 Gift Card for $5

Groupon is selling a $10 Starbucks Gift Card for $5. Limited quantities, otherwise ends 6/13. Why is free coffee so appealing? Limit 1 per person. I’ve already loaded my eGift card onto their handy smartphone app.

Side deal: Get 15% off any local Groupon deal with promo code LOCAL15 valid 6/12/14 only.

Remember that you can save even more on your Groupon with cashback shopping sites like eBates ($10 new customer bonus), Mr. Rebates ($5 bonus), and BigCrumbs.

Amazon Student: Buy $50 in Gift Cards, Get $10

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azdadAmazon Student is running a gift card promotion where if you buy $50 or more of selected gift cards by June 15th, you’ll get a free $10 gift code by June 30th. Give them as Father’s Day gifts or use them yourself. (The $50 card with a faux wood grain box looks pretty nice, actually.) This offer is only good for Amazon Student members with a free trial or paid membership to Amazon Prime. While supplies last.

You’ll need an .edu email address to join Amazon Student. Got one? Sign up now and get a 6-month free trial of Amazon Prime 2-day shipping and then 50% off after that.

Citibank Checking Billpay and Mobile Check Deposit $100 Promotion

Citibank is running a $100 bonus promotion good for existing checking account customers. You have to first enroll in the offer by 7/31/14, and then you can earn $10 per month for doing each of the following activities from 6/1/14-12/31/14:

  • Online bill payment
  • Mobile check deposit
  • Outgoing Popmoney person-to-person money transfer

So you could technically get $30 a month, but the total possible bonus over the entire 7 month period is only $100. I don’t think this promotion is juicy enough to warrant opening a new Citi checking account, but it’s a pretty easy $100 if you already have one. Bonuses arrive within 60 days after a month with qualifying activity, and will only get reported on a 1099-MISC if you earn over $600 in miscellaneous taxable income from Citibank in a year.

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

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myinkboldUpdate: This LTO is now EXPIRED

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

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

Chase Ink Bold Card bonus link

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

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

Chase Ink Plus Card bonus link

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

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

Chase Ink Cash Card bonus link

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

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

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card Review: Two Roundtrip Flights + Companion Pass Info

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card Banner

sw50kcardSouthwest has brought back their 50,000 bonus point promo for the Southwest Airlines® Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card. That’s worth 2 Roundtrip Flights (over $700 in airfare with no limited-capacity seating hoops or $500 in Amazon.com gift cards) after you spend $2,000 in the first 3 months of opening your account. This is historically as high as their sign-up bonus gets and is a limited time offer (usually lasts for a couple of weeks). There is a $99 annual fee that is not waived the first year.

2014/2015 Companion Pass
Southwest’s Rapid Rewards Companion Pass allows you to designate one person to fly with you for free (person can be changed 3 times). To qualify, you must earn 110,000 points in a calendar year, and yes credit card points count! If you earn the status in 2014, you can use the Companion Pass for the rest of 2014 and all of 2015. The companion pass even works on award tickets!

Besides a lot of spending or flying, the small business version of this card has a 50,000 point bonus. Spend $2,000 on each of these two cards and you’ll qualify for both the 50k bonus and 50k bonus plus the 4k from spending for a total of 104,000 Rapid Rewards points. Spend a little more on the card or take some Southwest flights to make up the last 6,000 points and you’ll have 110,000. Those 110k points will be worth over $1,400 in Wanna Get Away airfare split up into however many flights you want + a free companion pass which can effectively double the value.

More Details
The huge “2 Roundtrip Flights” banner on the Southwest Airlines® Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card application page is based on the fact that an “average” round-trip $357 Wanna Get Away fare would cost about 25,000 points. In reality, the value of the bonus is $714 in Southwest airfare broken up however you like. Any Wanna Get Away fare is eligible, so this bonus is very useful for Southwest fliers. If you take shorter flights or wait for a fare sale, this could easily be worth multiple roundtrip flights. 25,000 points can also be converted to $250 in gift cards to Amazon.com, Wal-mart, and other retailers.

Currently 70 points = $1 worth of Wanna Get Away airfare, which means you get 1.43 cents of value per point. Southwest is still offering two free checked bags, which can be a significant roundtrip savings. Here are the rest of the details:

  • Get 50,000 points for 2 ROUNDTRIP FLIGHTS after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months of opening your account. Government fees as low as $10 not included.
  • Get 6,000 points after your Cardmember Anniversary.
  • Earn 2 points per $1 spent on Southwest Airlines® and AirTran® Airways purchases made directly with the airlines and on Rapid Rewards Hotel and Car Rental Partner purchases.
  • Earn 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases.
  • Redeem points for gift cards, car rentals, cruises, hotel stays, and international flights to over 800 Destinations on 50+ global carriers.
  • No foreign transaction fees

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

Sam’s Club Membership Deal – Zulily

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Deal site Zulily has a special Sam’s Club Plus membership deal where for $45 you get over $91 of value:

  • One-year Sam’s Club Savings membership ($45 value), which includes a membership card for the primary cardholder and a complimentary membership card for a spouse or other household member.
  • $20 Sam’s Club gift card
  • Coupons good for free stuff ($26.83 total value):
    • Free Take and Bake Pepperoni or Cheese Pizza (16”, up to a $7.99 value)
    • Free Cheesecake Squares (16 count, a $11.98 value)
    • Free 5” x 7” Canvas Mini Print With Stand (a $6.86 value)

New members only, so you can’t use this to renew a current membership. Deal ends May 19th, 2014 at 6am PDT, and must be redeemed by August 17, 2014. Free stuff can be redeemed up to 30 days after joining. Valid at any Sam’s club location.

Remember that you can save a bit more on your Zulily purchases with cashback shopping sites like eBates ($5 new customer bonus) and Mr. Rebates ($5 bonus).

Too Busy To Buy Paper Towels and Soap? New Amazon, Target, and Groupon Shopping Services

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Who knew that the next big thing would be toilet paper and soap? We must be running out of things to “disrupt”, as everyone wants to deliver household and grocery products to your doorstep. What’s next, door-to-door milk delivery?

Amazon Prime Pantry. Amazon has been in the game for a while already with their Prime and Subscribe & Save services, but with Prime Pantry you can buy individual products in everyday sizes (not bulk), up to 45 lbs in a box, all for a flat $5.99 shipping fee. Must be a Prime member.

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Target Subscriptions. Target just started its own regular delivery service that offers an additional 5% off and free shipping with no minimum purchase requirement. You can still get another 5% off by paying with the Target REDcard. Newly expanded but still limited selection compared to Amazon. No membership fee.

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Groupon Basics. Groupon’s new bulk shopping service offers 100+ household products with free shipping on orders $24.99 and up within the continental US. Currently, get 5% back in the form of Groupon Bucks which can be used towards future purchases. Limited selection that is more focused on certain brands, but supposedly growing soon. No membership fee.

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Hanscom Federal CU Thrive Review: High Interest Starter Account

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savebuttonbank(Update: As of 5/11/2014 the rate is back down to 3% APY. This is still much higher than most saving accounts and it should still be worthy of consideration.)

To celebrate their 60th anniversary, Hanscom Federal Credit Union (HFCU) has increased the interest rate on their CU Thrive account to 6.0% APY (5.84% rate). The CU Thrive account is an interesting “starter CD” that rewards consistent saving. The rate is set for 12 months, and during those 12 months you can transfer up to $500 every month from a HFCU checking account. No monthly fees. However, you cannot make any withdrawals during those 12 months, or you will be subject to an early withdrawal penalty of 90 days interest.

This product is not meant for those looking to stash larger $10,000+ balances in a certificate of deposit.

More account details. If you maxed out this account and set aside $500 a month for 12 months, at the end you’d have put in $6,000 and earned about $180 in interest (~$193 if you made every transfer on the 1st of the each month by my quick calculations). The low deposit limits make this account best for people who can benefit from a little extra carrot to start saving, as you can tell yourself that you are getting 5% more or six times the interest rate on other “high yield” savings accounts. NCUA-insured! $6,000 also happens to be just about the same amount as a full Roth IRA contribution. Hint, hint.

At the end of the 12 months, all accrued savings plus earned dividends will be transferred into your primary savings account. Each member can only have one CU Thrive account open at one time, but after one 12-month period ends you can open up another one (assuming it is still offered). Full disclosure (PDF).

Eligibility details. To open a CU Thrive account, you must first open an HFCU checking account. HFCU offers a free checking account with no direct deposit and no minimum balance requirement. To open a checking account, just must be a member. Like most credit unions, membership is open by family, employer, or by membership in a partner organization (which makes it open to nearly everyone). You must also keep $25 in a share account as long as you are a member.

(Update: Right now if you are referred by an existing member, you can get a $30 bonus after being an active member for 90 days, and the referring member gets $30 as well. If you’d like, here is my referral link. The $30 should help offset any membership fees you might pay to be eligible to join.)

Account opening process. This is just the type of thing that I would like to set up for my kids – something with a high enough interest rate that they can “feel” the compounding effect. (Their minimum age is just 7 years old with an adult joint account.) I do wonder if it would actually create a habit of saving.

I started the online application and said I would join the Nashua River Watershed Association for a one-time $35 fee. I had to provide the usual personal information and then answer questions based on my credit report to verify my identity. I don’t know if they actually did a “hard” pull on my credit report (I hope not). You can fund with an online bank transfer but they also gave me the option to fund with credit card up to $2,000. They didn’t mention if this would be considered a cash advance or not. (Update: So far it is showing as a purchase on my American Express card.) Finally, you must print out, sign, and mail in a signature card. You can also open an account in-person. All of their physical branches appear to be located in Massachusetts.

When it comes to paying a one-time fee to join a credit union, I like to see that the credit union has a history of offering member-friendly products. In addition to the free checking, HFCU also has a competitive Home Equity Line of Credit (HELoC) with no application fee, no annual fee, and no closing costs if you keep it open for 24 months.

Amazon Mom: Buy $45 in Gift Cards, Get $5 Free

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azgcAmazon Mom is running a gift card promotion where if you buy $45 or more of selected gift card packs, you’ll get a free $5 gift code by June 15th. Give them as gifts or use them yourself and essentially get 10% off $50 in gift cards. This offer is good ONLY to Amazon Mom members with a free trial or paid membership to Amazon Prime. While supplies last.

Amazon Mom is a program that has some nice perks for parents (open to anyone… mom, dad, grandparent, or caretaker). The main draw is the 20% off diapers & wipes as well as baby food and other household items (5% Subscribe & Save discount + 15% Amazon Mom discount) and the fast shipping.

If you already pay for Amazon Prime at $99 a year, you can sign up for Amazon Mom for free. New Prime/Mom members are eligible for a 3-month free trial of Prime (must not have had free trial previously on your account) where you’ll also get the free 2nd-day shipping of Prime but not the video streaming or free Kindle book borrowing. Canceling is easy, you can even cancel the trial ahead of time while still getting the remainder of your 3 months.

Also see my Amazon Mom Subscribe & Save program tips. I use Amazon Mom and get an S&S delivery every single month.

Student with .edu e-mail? Get a 6-month free trial of Amazon Prime and then 50% off after that with Amazon Student.

Flickr Photo App: 1,000 GB Storage Free + iCloud Replacement

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flickrapp2Photo site Flickr recently updated their iPhone and Android apps. This just happened to coincide with me running out of space both on my Apple iCloud and Dropbox accounts, so I took another look at the Yahoo-owned site and found it actually fit my needs at a great price point – free!

As they say, the best camera is the one that you have with you. Since the birth of our first child, we’ve quickly racked up over 20 GB of pics on our phones alone, and much more from our point-and-shoot. iCloud only gives iPhone users 5 GB of free storage, so I found myself paying $40 a year for the 25 GB upgrade (with a discounted iTunes gift card of course) but ate through that as well. Since I keep both USB hard drive and online cloud backups, I was also running out of room even on my free Dropbox account. I used to pay for an unlimited photo service called Everpix, but they shut down last year.

In comparison, Flickr offers everyone 1,000 GB of free photo and video storage at full resolution with no caps or image compression. (I figure that should last us until kindergarten…) 100 GB of space runs $100 a year on both Dropbox and iCloud – I know there are cheaper options but these have the most convenient sync software.

flickrapp4My favorite iCloud feature was the ability to automatically and continuously backup the photos on my phone. Nothing to remember, just take pictures. With their updated free app, Flickr can also auto-upload and sync your iPhone photos taken with the default Camera app. (I’m assuming the Android app has a similar feature.) It doesn’t appear to upload any of your old pictures automatically, just the ones taken after you install the app and enable the Auto Sync feature (see screenshot). Auto-uploaded pictures are always set to Private by default (viewable by you only).

The new Flickr app also has several new features like an in-app camera with Instagram-like filters, sharing feeds, and better photo editing tools. After I manually back up the old photos, I plan to downgrade my iCloud account back to the free 5 GB level.