Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card Review: 5% Back at Amazon

primecreditChase and Amazon have rolled out the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card, a new credit card (not store card) available only to Amazon Prime members. I’m surprised how much mainstream press coverage this card received. Highlights:

  • 5% back at Amazon.com for Amazon Prime members. If you stop your Prime membership, you’ll be downgraded to 3% back.
  • 2% Back at restaurants, gas stations, and drugstores.
  • 1% Back on all other purchases.
  • Sign-up bonus of variable amount based on each person’s account. I was offered a $70 Amazon Gift Certificate. Click on the “Apply Now” link to see your personalized offer, you’ll have time to stop the application.
  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • No annual fee.
  • Extended warranty protection. Extends the time period for the U.S. manufacturer’s warranty by an additional year, on eligible warranties of three years or less.
  • Purchase Protection. Covers your new purchases for 120 days against damage or theft up to $500 per claim and $50,000 per account.

Existing Amazon Rewards Visa Signature cardholder? If you have the original card and are an Amazon Prime subscriber, you should be “upgraded” to this new card automatically. You may see the change online first (your linked purchases will start earning 5% back instead of just 3% back) before you actually receive a new physical card.

Commentary. I recently did a Amazon Store Card review, about a retail card issued by Synchrony Bank that was only valid at Amazon.com. My overall opinion of this credit card is similar, except for the extended warranty protection. If you use gift cards to buy things at Amazon, you will forgo the extended warranty protection and purchase protection that many other credit cards offer. With this card, you will get the extended warranty protection and 5% cash back. How much is an extra year’s warranty worth? Depends on how many big-ticket items you buy at Amazon and how likely you’ll actually remember to use this benefit.

My rough rule of thumb is that a “hard” credit check can reliably net me at least $500 in value, usually from “try me! try me!” credit card incentives but also potentially from bank bonuses and higher interest. It is very rare that I shop at any specific retailer enough to get $500 in savings. For example, it would take $10,000 of Amazon purchases at 5% back to net me $500 in cash back. If the sign-up bonus gets high enough, then I may take another look.

(2% back at restaurants, gas stations, and drugstores only draws a yawn when I can get that much cash back on everything. 1% cash back on everything else… zzzz.)

For the casual Amazon shopper, 5% rotating category credit cards often have Amazon or a place that sells Amazon gift cards as an eligible category. Other cards like the American Express Blue Cash Preferred offer 6% back at grocery stores (that sell Amazon gift cards) or Chase Ink Business cards offer 5% back at office supply stores (that sell Amazon gift cards). Basically, there are other ways that I can stock up on Amazon gift cards at 5% off without having this card.

In the end, if you are a loyal Prime member that spends a lot of money at Amazon and prefer simplicity, then this card can make sense. Link it to your Amazon account, and don’t use it for anything else. You’ll then track all your Amazon spending on one card, and also get extended warranty protection and purchase protection. As with any rewards credit card, you should always pay off your bill in full as the annual interest rate on balances is significantly higher than 5%.

Spare5 App Review: Earn Less Than Minimum Wage In Your Spare Time

sp5app0Find yourself bored on this holiday break? Spare5 is a new entrant in the world of “earn money in your spare time”. You sign up and do short tasks on either their smartphone app or desktop web browser. They pay cash via PayPal weekly or donate to a charity of your choice.

What kind of tasks? The problem they are solving is that certain things are very hard for machines to do, but are easy for humans to do. Examples are assessing the tone of a conversation or separating elements of a photos. You’re basically creating an “answer sheet” to help compare against and train machine learning algorithms. (Help train the robots that will take over the world!) Some tasks were mildly amusing, while others were quite tedious.

How much money do they pay per task? As far as I can tell, very little. The tasks that I was offered ranged from zero to $0.10 per task. Most were around a penny each. It took me roughly an hour to reach the minimum payout of $1. I know that they want you to prove yourself before offering higher-value tasks, but from my experience it will take a while to even reach $5 an hour on average.

sp5app3   sp5app2

Is Spare5 legit and do they actually pay out? Yes, they paid me via PayPal. Here’s a screenshot:

sp5app1

Bottom line. Like most “earn money in your spare time” options like paid surveys or mystery shopping, the per-hour wage is low. I doubt the average user makes even close to minimum wage. Honestly, if you are a motivated person I would invest your time into improving your skill set so you can eventually make $25, $50, or $100 a hour.

That said, I think this app is going to be successful. Machine learning is growing, and they’ll need to test it against real human intelligence. While I won’t be a regular user, there will be more than enough people who are willing to do the work. Of course, I also fail to see why people spend hours playing games on their phones. If you just want something to cure boredom, I suppose getting paid $1 an hour is better than paying someone else $1 for a virtual axe or something.

This is far from a glowing recommendation, but if you do sign up there is a referral bonus that offers new users a 10% bonus on up to $100 in earnings in your first 180 days with a my referral link. That’s an extra $1 for every $10 in earnings. Thanks if you use my link, I will get $2 for every $10 you earn with Spare5 (up to $20).

Andrews Federal Credit Union Application and Account Opening Review

afcu_logo

I keep a portion of my cash reserves in certificates of deposit. As I had some Ally Bank CDs maturing this month, I decided to open a share certificate from Andrews Federal Credit Union during their 2016 Holiday Promotion. Please see my separate post on their 84-month 3% APY CD for details on the specific offer (there is still time!). The review information below should apply to anyone trying to open any deposit account at Andrews FCU.

Joining an eligible group for membership. Here is their page on membership eligibility:

Our field of membership includes Washington, DC, civilian and military personnel of Joint Base Andrews, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, and military installations in central Germany, Belgium, and The Netherlands; as well as over 200 employer groups throughout Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey. We also have nationwide membership eligibility through the American Consumer Council.

As I do not live the in DC area and do not qualify otherwise, I joined the American Consumer Council (ACC), a non-profit organization dedicated to consumer education, advocacy and financial literacy. Sounds like something worth supporting! You can join through the website. I believe the cost is a one-time $8, although there is a promo code “consumer” that has worked to get the membership fee waived. You can make additional donations as you wish. They will send you an e-mail shortly with your ACC membership number.

Application process. You can then proceed to the Andrews FCU website and start the application. You will need your ACC number to satisfy the eligibility question “I am a member of the American Consumer Council (ACC), and my ACC membership number is ___”.

Note: Applying for an account will result in a hard credit inquiry. At least for me, they checked my TransUnion credit report. If you have TrueIdentity and have your TransUnion report secured using their free lock feature, you will want to unlock it before submitting this application. (This delayed my application because they are pretty busy right now and did not notify me immediately.) You can lock it back up again after account approval.

You will need to provide the usual personal information – name, address, SSN, driver’s license, etc. You will also need to provide them with a bank account routing and account number to fund the initial share account. The minimum amount is $5. You will need to keep $5 in your Share account for as long as you are an Andrews FCU member. I just started with $5.

Account approval. Once your account is approved, you should get the following message:

Congratulations, your account with Andrews Federal Credit Union has been opened. Your member number is XXXXXXXX. The signature card has been sent to your email address via DocuSign for you to sign electronically.

Your new account funding is being processed and will be posted to your new account once received by us from your other institution. If you requested an ATM or VISA Debit Card as part of your application, your card order has been placed. The routing number for Andrews Federal is 255074111.

You may now enroll for SmartConnect, our online banking system, by visiting our web site www.andrewsfcu.org and selecting Online Banking Enrollment. If you require further assistance, please call us at 800.487.5500.

Thank you for choosing Andrews Federal Credit Union.

It’s nice that you can do the signature card via DocuSign. That meant my entire application process was completed online. I did try to call them a few times, but had some trouble navigating their phone tree without a member number. However, if I didn’t have my TransUnion report locked, I wouldn’t have had any reason to call them at all. Other than that delay, I would say the application took only one or two days to process.

Funding your checking, savings, or certificate account. I found the easiest way to open my share certificate was to move money into my share savings account, and then fund the certificate from the share savings. I use Ally Bank as my banking hub, so I added Andrews FCU as an external account in my Ally account using my share account number and routing number (255074111). For some reason, the direct login verification didn’t work for me, so I completed the verification using two small test deposits. It took 2 business days for the test deposits, and 2 business days for the transfer from Ally to Andrews FCU.

Opening the share certificate. Once the funds arrived, I opened the share certificate online by clicking on “Open an Additional Account”. Despite the promotion stating you had to call in, the special certificates were available online. Here’s a screenshot (click to enlarge):

afcucd1

You will need to chose your dividend reinvestment and maturity options. That’s it. The share certificate now shows up on my online banking page, right next to the share savings account. The process was pretty straightforward, just be sure to remove any credit locks or freezes on your TransUnion credit report. Remember that you’ll need to fund your special certificate by any stated deadline.

$50 Refer a Friend Bonus. As part of the holiday promotion, new members can also get a $50 cash bonus if referred by an existing member. The referrer also gets $50. However, the referred person must open a checking account and set up direct deposit of $500 or more. Here are the exact terms:

Refer a friend offer available to existing Andrews Federal members who refer a new member to the credit union. New member must open a new Free or Advantage Checking account with a direct deposit of $500 or more. Direct deposit must be initiated within 30 days of opening new Free or Advantage checking account, and must be received for at least two consecutive monthly statement cycles for both members to be eligible for reward. Account must remain open and in good standing for at least 90 days; accounts closed prior to 90 days will be ineligible. $50.00 will be credited to the referring member’s and the new member’s credit union accounts within 4 weeks after the 90- day period has ended. New member must qualify for credit union membership, which includes the opening of a Base Share Savings account with a minimum balance of $5.00.

In practical terms, I believe that during the application process there is a question “Where Did You Hear About Us?” and you can pick “Family/Friend Referral” and you can leave your friend’s name and Andrews FCU membership number in the comments field. If you are looking to open up a checking account and set up direct deposit, I am a member now so if you want a referral please contact me.

Ally Bank CD Maturity Review: Phone and Online Redemptions

allyreview_logoUpdated with online maturity information and screenshots. If you have money in a bank certificate of deposit (CD), you should be aware that most of them will renew automatically for the same term length upon maturity. That means if you don’t specifically tell them otherwise, your 5-year CD will roll over for another 5 years if you’re caught snoozing during the grace period. Different banks set different grace period lengths and renewal instructions; the best ones in my opinion let you set the decision ahead of time (i.e. Pentagon Federal Credit Union).

I bring this up again because I have a few Ally Bank CDs coming up for renewal. Here’s a quick review of the process for other Ally Bank account holders. First, here is the official policy taken from their website:

What happens to my CD at maturity?
You’ll have a 10-day grace period starting on your maturity date to:

Change the term
Make additional deposits or withdraw funds
Close the CD

If you don’t make changes to your CD by phone or in online banking by the end of the 10-day grace period, it will automatically renew into the same term. To provide renewal instructions in online banking:

Log in to your account
Go to the Main Menu , then Manage CDs
Select Make Changes

Here’s the timeline.

Roughly 30 days before maturity. If you have chosen paperless documents, you’ll receive a somewhat vague e-mail from Ally Bank with the subject line “You have new correspondence in online banking.” This is actually your official “Certificate of Deposit Maturity Notice”, so don’t overlook it! If you have paper statements, you’ll get a separate letter from Ally via snail mail.

Between 30 days before maturity to 10 days after maturity. If you want anything besides an auto-renewal of the same term at current market rates, then you must notify the either by phone at 1-877-247-ALLY (2559) or online. (Less than 2 years ago, there was no online option.) Here’s a screenshot of where I clicked after reaching my CD page (click to enlarge).

allycd_close1

If you call them, they’ll ask you a bunch of identity verification questions, much more than other phone calls. You can also ask if they still offer a Loyalty Bonus where you’ll get an extra 0.05% APY if you renew your CD. I was not shown any such offer when renewing online. (The Ally Ten Day Best Rate Guarantee also applies.) If you want to make a withdrawal or other changes, they’ll ask you why. Nothing high pressure, but they’ll softly encourage you to renew.

I decided to withdraw my funds this time. If you have multiple CDs like I do (for minimizing penalties in case of early redemption), they will have to read you the details and disclosures for each one. You can just skip over it if you do it online. I do my daily banking at Ally so I just swept it into one of my online savings accounts while I decide what to do with it. Here’s a screenshot:

allycd_close2

Remember that the phone wait time is shown live on the top of their main website (I only call if it is around a minute). Closing two CDs over the phone took about 15 minutes. Closing three CDs online took under 5 minutes. I’m glad they added the online option, it was much faster.

Also see: Ally Bank Savings Account Review.

Access from AT&T Review: Affordable Home Internet For Low-Income Households

accessatt0Access from AT&T is an affordable internet access plan for low-income households offered in certain areas with AT&T service. The cost is either $5 a month at 3 Mbps or $10 a month for 5-10 Mbps, depending on your area. According to their FAQ and press release, other features include:

  • No deposit required
  • No activation or installation fee
  • No contract
  • Free modem + WiFi router rental
  • Free access to the entire national AT&T Wi-Fi Hot Spot network.

However, note that AT&T will run a credit check. I don’t quite understand the reasoning though, as they state it won’t affect your eligibility. From their website:

As part of standard AT&T policy, all orders for new service are subject to a credit check. Results of the credit check will not impact your ability to obtain Internet service under the Access program from AT&T.

Qualifying households must have:

  • At least one resident who participates in the U.S. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and
  • An address in AT&T’s 21-state service area, at which we offer wireline home Internet service, and
  • No outstanding debt for AT&T fixed Internet service within the last six months or outstanding debt incurred under this program.

California residents also are eligible if:

  • At least one member of your household receives SSI benefits; and
  • At least one of the Access from AT&T Internet speed tiers is available at the address where you live.

You can apply for the Access by AT&T program here. You can also learn more by calling AT&T at 1-855-220-5211 for assistance in English or 1-855-220-5225 for assistance in Spanish.

I am not applauding AT&T for this effort, just promoting its availability. AT&T agreed to offer this service as a condition of their merger with DirecTV. I think people should take advantage of it if it works economically for them. However, I see no evidence that AT&T did this for charitable reasons. They are only doing the bare minimum required by law. I think they are rightly being criticized for not offering this affordable plan in areas where they have speeds lower than 3 Mbps.

Also see:

Hanscom Federal CU Thrive Review: 3% APY High Interest Starter Account

savebuttonbank

Updated with additional $30 bonus. Hanscom Federal Credit Union (HFCU) has a CU Thrive account, which works like a certificate of deposit 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 big balances. Instead, it is meant to encourage a modest savings habit. The current interest rate of 3% APY is triple what the top high-yield savings accounts offer right now, and more than double what the top 1-year bank CDs are offering. HFCU is NCUA-insured, which is the credit union equivalent of FDIC-insured banks.

How much interest can I earn? At 3% APY, 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 $90 in interest (~$97 if you made every transfer on the 1st of the each month by my quick calculations). Not life-changing, but again federally-insured and triple what you could get at another bank. $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 in addition to the savings account required for all members. 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). For example, you could join the Nashua River Watershed Association for a one-time $35 fee and thus be eligible for HFCU membership. You must also keep $25 in the share savings account as long as you are a member.

New refer-a-friend program. They have re-activated their referral program, which allows you to join receive an additional $30 cash bonus after being an active member for 90 days. The referring member gets $30 as well. You may still be required to otherwise qualify for membership. I would recommend saying that you plan on joining the Nashua River Watershed Association but also listing yourself as being referred by an existing member. If you would like a referral from me, please me send your full name, e-mail address, the text “HFCU referral” via my contact form. I will use this information only to fill out their referral form.

Account opening process. I started the online application and said I would join the Nashua River Watershed Association for a one-time $35 fee (I didn’t know about the refer-a-friend option at the time). I had to provide the usual personal information and then answer questions based on my credit report to verify my identity. Based on my free credit monitoring, they did not perform a hard pull on my credit report. 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, but it showed up 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.

My 1-year experience. I had set the maximum $500 to be transferred every month to my CU Thrive account from my HFCU Checking account. I made 11 transfers but missed one because my checking balance was too low on the date of automatic transfer. My fault. When that happens, the account basically just skips the transfer. There is no penalty, you just don’t get to earn interest on that money. I called them but they said there was no way to replace that transfer, even if I moved more money into the checking account a day later. Other than that, everything went very smoothly and I was paid my interest as promised. At the 1-year maturity date, the funds were automatically transferred to my HFCU savings account and the CU Thrive no longer shows up on my online account page. I can now open up another CU Thrive account, if I wish.

I also discovered that Hanscom Federal has paid a Loyalty Dividend to its Credit Union members for over 15 consecutive years. For both 2014 and 2015, they paid a 2% bonus on dividends earned and consumer finance charges paid over the year. So on top my my $78.46 of interest earned, I earned another $1.57 in bonus loyalty dividends.

In addition to the CU Thrive and free checking options, 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. I’m thinking of opening one just to have around, does anyone have experience with this HELOC product?

Bottom line. The CU Thrive account is a good option for people looking to build up a savings habit, with a possible 3% APY for 12 months, $30 sign-up bonus, and free membership eligibility. However, the system really works best if you use HFCU’s free checking as your primary checking account. Juggling it as an external savings account is perfectly possible, but you have to keep on top of your transfers to avoid idle cash earning zero interest. I received all of the interest promised, the customer service was nice and polite when contacted, and any errors were my own.

Schwab Target Date Index Funds Review

schwab0

Charles Schwab has announced Schwab Target Index Funds, a new series of “all-in-one” target date mutual funds that are made up entirely of in-house Schwab Index ETFs and a Schwab cash mutual fund. Their existing offering Schwab Target Funds differs in being significantly more expensive and including a mix of passive and actively-managed funds. Each fund will have a target date between 2010 and 2060, spaced in 5-year increments. Let’s take a closer look.

What’s inside? The portfolio for any given target year is composed of 9 different asset classes. Here is a graphical illustration of their “glide path”, or how the asset allocation changes relative to the target retirement date. (Source. Click image to enlarge.)

schwabglide

Here’s a 2016 snapshot of what every fund is holding by target date (Source. Click image to enlarge.):

schwabglide2

Overall, the glide path conforms to industry norms, with high equity at younger ages and lower equity as you reach and pass retirement. Here are the ETFs and mutual funds that represent each asset class.

  • US Large Cap Equity – Schwab U.S. Large-Cap ETF (SCHX)
  • US Small Cap Equity – Schwab U.S. Small-Cap ETF (SCHA)
  • International Developed Equity – Schwab International Equity ETF (SCHF)
  • Emerging Markets Equity – Schwab Emerging Markets Equity ETF (SCHE)
  • Real Estate – Schwab U.S. REIT ETF (SCHH)
  • Short-Term Bond – Schwab Short-Term U.S. Treasury ETF (SCHO)
  • Intermediate-Term Bond – Schwab U.S. Aggregate Bond ETF (SCHZ)
  • Inflation-Protected Bond – Schwab U.S. TIPS ETF (SCHP)
  • Cash – Schwab Variable Share Price Money Fund — Ultra Shares (SVUXX)

How much do they cost? What are the investment minimums?

  • Individuals can buy Investor Shares with an expense ratio of 0.13%. The minimum initial investment is $100.
  • Employer-sponsored retirement plans can access the Institutional Shares with an expense ratio of 0.08%. There is no minimum initial investment.

An interesting thing to note is that the mutual funds technically have an extra layer of management fees and “other fees” on top of the expenses from the underlying ETFs and mutual funds. However, Schwab has agreed to cap the expenses at 0.13% for Investor Shares and 0.08% for Institutional Shares. This is supposed to stay in place “for so long as the investment adviser serves as the adviser to the fund”… they might want to re-word that.

In any case, even with the cap, the Investor Shares still cost more than the expenses from the underlying investments. You are basically paying 0.05% to 0.08% for some simple asset allocation. That means you could build your own portfolio using the same Schwab ETFs at a lower cost. You could also get rid of the (unnecessary in my opinion) cash component, which currently only yields 0.43% with another temporary fee waiver as of 8/26/2016. Personally, that’s what I would rather do, but I will admit that some folks will do better with an automated asset allocation.

How does it compare with Vanguard Target Retirement Funds? This is the natural comparison, as Vanguard’s target funds have the most assets and they used to be the cheapest before Schwab came along. Across the series, the expense ratio for their retail fund varies between 0.14% and 0.16%. You can now see why Schwab has priced their funds just below that at the “sale price” of 0.13%. Schwab loves to be cheaper by a basis point or two.

In terms of asset allocation and glide path, here are some side-by-side comparisons:

  • Vanguard has a equity split of 60% domestic and 40% international. Schwab has a equity split of 67% domestic and 33% international (if you consider the 4% US REITs as US stock).
  • Vanguard starts at 90% equity max and reaches 50% equity at retirement age. Schwab starts at 95% equity max and reaches 40% equity at retirement age.
  • Asset classes that Schwab includes specifically, which Vanguard does not: REITs, inflation-protected bonds (TIPS), and cash.
  • Asset classes that Vanguard includes specifically, which Schwab does not: International bonds.

Commentary. Schwab is definitely serious about index funds. They’ve built their own set of low-cost index mutual funds and index ETFs to compete with Vanguard and iShares. They already have an automated portfolio “robo-advisor” called Intelligent Portfolios, which uses these index funds as well as some “smart beta” funds. They’ve added these Target Index funds to grab the 401(k) and individual markets including IRAs. Put another way, they sell flour and butter, and they also sell pre-made pies and cakes.

This is a long-term play for Schwab, as they’ve all but admitted that the index ETFs themselves are currently losing money, while hoping to either make up the difference in other fees, services, or products somewhere down the line (like when interest rates rise again). Schwab will surely grab much more assets from employer retirement plans as a result of this move. In my limited experience with them, I have found Schwab to have solid customer service, at times in fact better than Vanguard. If they can leverage their customer service and human component, I think this is a smart move on their part.

However, if given the choice, I’d recommend my family to buy Vanguard Target Retirement funds first because Vanguard is not a for-profit company and I trust Vanguard more to keep customer interests first over the long run. (I believe that Schwab includes cash where it isn’t necessary in order to increase their future fees from money market funds, which are an important contributor to profits. This isn’t as significant here as in their robo-advisor product, but it will matter more as interest rates rise. More importantly, Vanguard doesn’t play such games.) However, big-picture-wise they are very similar. I’d gladly recommend that they buy a Schwab Target Index fund in their 401(k) or 403(b) plan as they are likely the best options if available. This is a positive development overall for individual investors.

Ting Review: Bring Your Existing Phone, Referral Discount, Now Cheaper Data

tinglogTing provides mobile phone service with a “pay-only-for-what-you-use” and “bring your own phone” structure. I recently switched my parents over to Ting from Republic Wireless so that they could use our older iPhones (easier for them, easier for us to do tech support). Ting recently updated their pricing structure to include cheaper data, so I am updating my review.

Who can save money? Ting works best for overall moderate usage, especially spread across multiple users. Why pay for unlimited minutes and texts when you don’t need them? Why pay for 5 GB every month if you often use less? Sample rates:

  • $12.00 per line ($26 total) per month for 2 lines sharing 500 minutes, 100 texts, and no data. (This is the typical bill amount with my parents.)
  • $27.50 per line ($55 total) per month for 2 lines sharing 1,000 minutes, 1,000 texts, and 2 GB data.
  • $9.50 per line ($38 total) per month for 4 lines sharing 500 minutes, 1,000 texts, and no data.
  • $16.75 per line ($67 total) per month for 4 lines sharing 1,000 minutes, 1,000 texts, and 2 GB data.

Put your own numbers into the Ting interactive rate calculator to see if you can save money. Each line is a flat $6 and all lines share a bucket of either minutes, text, and data.

Here’s a screenshot of their NEW rate breakdown:

tingnewdata

Here’s a screenshot of their OLD rate breakdown. You can see that their data used to be much more expensive, working out to $19 for the first GB, $29 for 2GB, and then $15 per extra GB of data (billed pretty much down to the penny). As of 8/5/2016, the numbers are $16 for the first GB, $20 for 2 GB, and now $10 per extra GB of data (billed in $10 increments). The price drop applies to everyone and pretty much no matter what, the new data plan is cheaper than the old data plan.

Ting realized that they were being known as “good if you don’t use a lot of data”.

Ting uses both Sprint CDMA and T-Mobile GSM networks, so you can bring over any used Sprint phone, used T-Mobile phone, or any unlocked GSM phone. Use their Ting phone compatibility checker tool. If you bring your own GSM phone, you’ll need a SIM card. Prices change with time and promotions, but they currently cost $9 + free shipping via USPS Priority Mail.

Bring Your Own Phone. You can buy a refurbished iPhone 5 directly from Ting for about $200, but you can also buy a used iPhone 5 for about $109 from Swappa. A used Samsung Galaxy S4 from Ting costs about $180, but they are about $100 on Swappa.

Being able to bring over the same phone you’ve already been using is the best way to save money. We had an old Verizon iPhone 5, which is also GSM unlocked. We just bought a SIM card, popped it in, and starting using the service immediately.

Refer-a-friend discount. New Ting customers get a $25 credit with a referral link (that’s mine). Thanks in advance if you use it, you’ll be saving my parents some money on their next bill.

Bottom line. Ting’s strengths are transparent, metered monthly plans and a flexible bring-your-own-phone policy. They recently dropped their data prices. “Pay for what you use” means that you don’t need to pay for 3 GB tier every month if most months you only use 1 or 2 GB. The math works out best for shared plans. You can bring over any used Sprint, used T-Mobile, or unlocked GSM phone. Not everyone will save money, so use their rate calculator to compare your own situation.

Republic Wireless Review: New $20/Month Plan, Phone Options, SIM Cards

rwlogo

Republic Wireless provides mobile phone service, specializing in making phone calls seamlessly over WiFi. They are not afraid to make big changes and take risks in trying to be more competitive in their offerings. While their 2.0 Refund plans received a mixed response (we switched out during this transition), they recently announced their new 3.0 Clear Choice plans with the T-Mobile network and a wider selection of phone options. Here’s a look at the changes.

Who can save money? Republic Wireless still works best for heavy talk and text users with frequent WiFi coverage. Data usage can be anywhere from none to relatively heavy (10 GB). The plans are priced per person, so they work well for individuals that can’t take advantage of family or shared plans. Here are all of their newest Clear Choice plan options:

rw3_plans3

In their opinion and mine, the sweet spot of their plan is the $20/month offering, which includes unlimited talk, unlimited text, and 1 GB of 4G LTE data. For $15 a month, you can get unlimited talk and text with zero data.

Phone options. One of the weak spots of Republic Wireless was that they need to use special software to run their WiFi voice calls, so they restricted you to specially-modified phones. You had to either buy a new phone from them, or try to find another RW-modified phone on the secondary market.

With their 3.0 structure, they have introduced a large list of GSM phone options. You can either buy a phone from them or bring your unlocked phone and use their SIM card. There are still no Apple phones on the list (hopefully this changes one day).

  • Google Pixel
  • Google Pixel XL
  • Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge
  • Samsung Galaxy S7
  • Samsung Galaxy J3
  • Samsung Galaxy S6
  • Nexus 6P by Huawei
  • Nexus 6 by Motorola
  • Nexus 5X by LG
  • Moto X Pure Edition
  • Moto G4
  • Moto G4 Plus
  • Moto G4 Play
  • Moto Z
  • Moto Z Play

Bottom line. Republic Wireless is making some big changes, so it’s worth taking another look at them. The cell network is now T-Mobile for new customers, not Sprint. The $20 a month plan for unlimited talk, text, and 1 GB of LTE data is very competitive. There are 9 new Android GSM phones available starting at $199, a new SIM card option, but still no Apple phones.

New Fidelity Rewards Visa Credit Card Review: 2% Flat Cash Back

new_usbank_fido_visa_200Updated with new info for both new and existing customers. Fidelity has (mostly) converted their rewards credit card line-up to a single version – a Visa Signature issued by Elan Financial Services (subsidiary of US Bank). For new customers, the new Fidelity® Rewards Visa Signature® Card will receive a flat 2% cash back when directed to an eligible Fidelity Investments account. Here is a different link which includes a $100 bonus after you make at least $1,000 in purchases within the first 90 days. Here are the new card highlights:

  • Unlimited 2% cash back, when redeemed into an eligible Fidelity account.
  • No annual fee.
  • Visa Signature benefits, like Concierge service.
  • Chip-enabled and works with Apple, Android, and Samsung Pay.

Eligible Fidelity accounts. The 2% rewards value applies only to points redeemed for a deposit into the following active Fidelity accounts:

  • Fidelity Cash Management Account
  • Fidelity Brokerage account
  • Fidelity-managed 529 account
  • Fidelity Retirement account (IRA, Roth IRA, SEP-IRA, Rollover IRA)

Rewards value will be less than 2% cash back if you choose to redeem your points for other rewards such as travel options, merchandise, gift cards, and/or a statement credit.

Points redemption details. You can either choose automatic or manual redemption. With automatic redemption, once you reach $50 of rewards (5,000 points from net spending of $2,500), your balance will be automatically swept into your designated Fidelity account (or split between multiple Fidelity accounts if you wish). You can also redeem your points “on demand” either by calling in or online after you reach the same 5,000 point minimum balance.

Previous FIA Cardservices customers. You should have received your new Elan-issued cards by now, and been told what the new rewards structure is. There is no new credit check. Your credit card number will be different, but the credit card history (like age of account) should continue as before on your credit reports. Your existing rewards balance will be moved over. Re-enroll your card for online account management at FidelityRewards.com. Re-enroll your cards for rewards redemption after logging into your account at Fidelity.com / Credit Card Snapshot / Manage Rewards Points. You will need your Fidelity account numbers.

There was (understandably) some angry existing customers when they were told they would only start at 1.5% cash back and not the 2% cash back offered to new customers. Some reps told existing customers that they would have apply for a new card in order to get the 2%. However, it appears that Fidelity has softened that decision. If you call up the number on the back of your card and ask them, they should upgrade you to 2% cash back without hassle. But it won’t happen automatically; you must call.

Commentary. Overall, this move makes complete business sense. They negotiated terms that could offer a Visa card with 2% cash back without any tiers. Fidelity uses this card to encourage customers to keep all their assets within Fidelity-branded accounts. You could theoretically now have your checking account, credit card, brokerage account, IRA, 401(k), all with Fidelity.

Their previous issuer, FIA Cardservices was owned by Bank of America, which is essentially a direct competitor. You could also have a Bank of America checking account, BofA credit card, Merrill Edge brokerage account, and Merrill Lynch wealth management account under their umbrella. In fact, I recently opened up a Merrill Edge account and moved over $100,000 of assets and received (1) 100 free stock trades a month and (2) an effective 2.625% back towards any travel with the Bank of America Travel Rewards card (my review). I pay no annual account fees on either product.

Elan Financial Services is a subsidiary of US Bank, but they are less of a direct competitor. You won’t see “US Bank” mentioned anywhere on this card. Elan quietly co-brands with many other financial institutions (over 1,400) who want a credit card but don’t want to handle the back-end details.

Bottom line. I believe it remains a solid cash back card for existing Fidelity customers (or those willing to open a Fidelity account). As a self-directed investor, I also like to keep my options open. I have this new Fidelity card, but I don’t use it. I use the Bank of America card mentioned above because it offers higher rewards for my situation. I also have (but don’t currently use) the Citi Double Cash card (my review) because it is a similarly solid card with no annual fee (and doesn’t require any companion account).

Why do I have all three? My experience is that good credit cards may stop taking new applicants with no prior notice, but as an existing customer you can often continue to receive grandfathered benefits for a long time. I’ve had some version of this Fidelity co-branded card earning 2% cash back since 2004. They also all have no annual fee.

WiseBanyan Review: Free Portfolio Management Experiences & Screenshots

wb_newlogo

Updated May 2016. WiseBanyan has made some changes to their product. The highlights:

  • New logo, mobile-responsive site design, and smartphone apps.
  • Tax-loss harvesting now available as paid feature. WiseHarvesting is their first premium add-on feature, running 0.25% of assets annually with a $20/month cap.
  • Now accepting IRA, Roth IRA, and 401(k) rollovers.
  • Free financial planning software called Milestones. More thoughts below.

WiseBanyan is an online portfolio advisory service similar to better-known competitors like Betterment and Wealthfront. Differentiating feature: WiseBanyan charges no advisory fees, no trading commissions, and no minimum opening deposit. They will design, buy, hold, and rebalance a basket of low-cost ETFs for free, and all you are left with are the ETF expense ratios which you’d have to pay anyway if you DIY’ed.

Thanks in part to your interest as readers, I was able to get off their waitlist and open an account with $10,000 of my own money back in March 2014. As of May 2016, there is currently no longer a waitlist. Here is my review as an actual user for roughly a year; I have since liquidated my holdings in all robo-advisor platforms.

Application process. The account opening process was similar to other discount brokers and online portfolio managers. You must provide your personal information including Social Security number, net worth, income, investing experience, etc. No credit check. They do check identity, so they may ask for supporting documents if you just moved or something.

There is then a risk questionnaire. The questions can seem mundane but take it seriously, as the 10 answers you provide will directly determine the portfolio asset allocation that they choose for you. There will be no follow-up surveys, e-mails, or phone calls. Here is a screenshot and example question (old interface):

wisebanyan1

Funding. You can fund your deposit electronically, using your bank routing and account number. (They only accept bank wires as an alternative, no paper checks.) The money gets sucked from your bank and the portfolio is bought immediately when they get the money.

Fractional shares. WiseBanyan uses FolioFN as their broker-dealer (separate company that hold your assets in the background) which means they can use their ability to keep track of fractional shares. Most discount brokers and other online portfolio managers require you to own whole shares, so you’ll often have something like $57 sitting in cash.

Recall that WiseBanyan has no required minimum deposit or portfolio balance. If you really did open account with $100, they will actually buy less than one share of several low-cost diversified ETFs and you’ll own tiny, tiny portions of thousands of companies with no idle cash. With a normal discount brokerage, that might not even buy you one share of anything (VTI is over $100 a share on its own).

Portfolio asset allocation. I was assigned a portfolio risk score of 7.7, which corresponded to a stocks/bond ratio of 70%/30%. Screenshot from the old interface:

wisebanyan4

Here is the target asset allocation that I was assigned:

wisebanyan2

My portfolio was constructed using the following seven ETFs:

  • Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (VTI)
  • Vanguard FTSE Developed Markets ETF (VEA)
  • Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets ETF (VWO)
  • iShares iBoxx $ Investment Grade Corporate Bond ETF (LQD)
  • Vanguard Intermediate-Term Government Bond ETF (VGIT)
  • Vanguard REIT ETF (VNQ)
  • iShares TIPS Bond ETF (TIP)

My general opinion is that the ETF allocations from all “robo-advisors” are at least 80% the same, and with the remaining 20% you can’t really tell who’s going to win performance-wise anyway. They are all backtested using some form of Mean-Variance Optimization (MVO) and Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT).

While not exactly what I would have chosen for myself, I personally think the portfolios they create are fine. The ETFs have low costs and come from large, respected providers in Vanguard and iShares. All of the major asset classes are covered. There are no commodities futures or natural resource ETFs, which some experts think are useful and other experts think are useless. Note that REITs are considered to be in the bond category.

Website user interface and smartphone apps. The interface has been updated to essentially look like everyone else. It is simple, clean, and mobile-responsive. I like it. There are also companion iOS and Android apps. User reviews for both apps are overall positive. Screenshot from new interface:

wb_newui

Statements and ongoing communication. Electronic statements are free, but paper statements will cost $5 each and paper trade confirmations $2 each.

New Milestones feature. WiseBanyan has a new service called Milestones which helps you direct your investments into specific goals like retirement, emergency funds, college, or vacations. Works in desktop and mobile. You can give a target number and timeframe, and it will recommend a portfolio and a monthly savings amount that theoretically should reach your goal. It will initiate recurring deposits so that things are automated. While I think such basic guidance can be helpful to get you a ballpark figure, I would also be careful on relying too closely on the forecasts as nobody really knows what the stock or bond market will return in the short-term. Screenshot from new interface:

wb_newui2

Free is nice, but how will they make money? Future concerns? According to various sources, the demographics of the average WiseBanyan client is both younger and of more modest means (opening balances under $10,000) than their competitors. They plan on offsetting the costs of maintaining free accounts with their premium add-on features, but will it work? Will enough people pay up for tax-loss harvesting? It remains to be seen if the “Freemium” model can work in this environment.

Bottom line. WiseBanyan is fully functional and delivers on its promise of free automated portfolio management. I joined them in early 2014 when they were still working out some minor kinks, but two years later they are offering a much more polished product. I would even say that their aggressive pricing has helped “nudge” many of their competitors to lower their starting minimums as well.

The main thing that would worry me is that their path to sustainable profitability is not clear. If WiseBanyan is eventually taken over in the event of a merger or takeover, a new owner may charger much higher fees. If you leave for another robo-advisor, there may also be tax consequences. On the positive side, WiseBanyan is not affiliated with any ETF sponsor and can thus invest in the “best-in-class” ETFs without conflict of interest. In the current group of robo-advisors, I would classify them as plucky underdogs.

I wouldn’t let a small sign-up incentive convince you to choose one robo-advisor over another, but new users can get a $20 bonus if they open an account with my referral link. Thanks if you use it.

Netspend Card 5% APY Savings Account Review

netspend0

(Update: On 5/31, NetSpend effectively issued a 30-day notice that the rate structure will be changed as of July 1st, 2016 such that the 5% APY will apply up to $1,000 and anything above that gets 0.50% APY. The 5% APY will apply to up to $5,000 until June 30, 2016 which is when the next quarterly interest payment will post. Thanks to all who notified me of this change.)

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.)

netspend5

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.

netspend1

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.

netspend2

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).

netspend3

netspend4

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.