Robinhood App Review: Free Stock Trades With No Catch?

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Updated review in August 2015 to include new Android app, new order types, and more.

Fintech start-up Robinhood wants to “democratize the financial markets” by creating a mobile-first brokerage that offers unlimited free trades with no minimum balance requirement. That is a pretty bold move, and I was skeptical when they started getting noticed in late 2013.

I started out as a beta user in mid-2014 with their beautiful but manually-installed iPhone app. They officially opened to the public in March 2015. As of August 2015, they have both an Apple iOS (and Apple Watch) and Android app and have processed over 2 million free trades. Here’s my updated review based on my experiences with them.

Application process. You must provide your personal information including Social Security number, net worth, income, investing experience, etc. This is the same as any other brokerage firm, but this may also be the first such account for many users. Everything was done online; there were no paper documents that required mailing or faxing.

Core features.

  • Yes, the app really gives me $0 commission trades with no minimum balance requirement. That means you could open account, put in five bucks, and buy a single share of Zynga (ZNGA) if you wanted to (maybe two on a bad day…).
  • Robinhood now supports market orders, limit orders, stop limit orders, and stop orders. Certain orders may be entered as good for the day or good till canceled (GTC).
  • You can open an individual cash or margin account.
  • Customer service is best through their e-mail support@robinhood.com, but they have added a phone number now during market hours (9:30am – 4:00pm EST) at (650) 940-2700.

Along with all the other legit brokerage firms, Robinhood Financial is a member of the SIPC which protects the securities in your account up to $500,000. Data is encrypted with SSL. Apex is their clearing firm.

Funds transfers. You can manually link any bank account with your routing number and account number, but you can also directly use your username and password at these banks: Chase, Bank of America, Citibank, Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank, Charles Schwab, PNC, Silicon Vally Bank, and USAA. ACH transfers are free and take approximately 3 business days (same as other brokerages).

Robinhood recently added an automatic deposits feature where you can schedule ACH transfers on a weekly, biweekly, monthly, or quarterly basis.

What’s missing? Getting free trades is great, but I think it’s also important to know what you won’t get, at least right now:

  • You must access your account via a mobile Apple iOS or Android device (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Android phone, Android tablet). Web interface is “coming in 2015″.
  • Broker-assisted phone trades are $10 each, according to their fee schedule.
  • Electronic statements are the default. I don’t even see an option to enable paper statements in the app, but according to their fee schedule paper statements cost $5 a pop.
  • As of August 2015, Robinhood does not support ACAT transfers, so you can’t move over your existing assets from an outside brokerage. (Or move out your assets via ACAT either, I’m guessing.)

How do they make money? For now, Robinhood will make money the same way other brokers do: collect interest on your idle cash, charge you interest for margin loans, and sell order flow. The most innovative prospect is to the plan to sell API access to other financial apps.

The fact that Robinhood sells order flow may leave you with a slightly worse execution price as compared to other brokers with more complex order routing. If you are making large value trades, then this small percentage difference may add up to something significant that matters more than commission price. With my tiny order volume, I am fine with them selling my order flow if they are giving me commission-free trades.

User interface. Over the last 10 years, I’ve opened an account at the majority of the “discount” brokerage firms. I’ve had $0 trades before, along with $2 trades, $2.50 trades, $4.95 trades and so on. What makes Robinhood special is their modern, app-centric approach. I agree with this quote from Wired:

But the app’s simplicity is meant to be about more than style. Ease of access and understanding is meant to make Robinhood compulsively engaging for a new generation of investors that don’t find the stock market very accessible from the mobile screens at the center of their lives.

Even though I don’t trade frequently, I still check the app all the time. More often than my primary Vanguard account. Why? Because it’s so easy. One tap on the Robinhood app logo, and either a quick 4-digit PIN or thumbprint with a newer iPhone. It’s a pet peeve of mine to have to type in a 16-character password on a tiny keyboard just to check a balance. I think other finance apps can learn a lot from Robinhood in this respect. I think only Mint and Robinhood support Touch ID on my phone.

Screenshots.

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Recap. Robinhood delivers on their free stock trades with no minimum balance promise. The app-only user interface is clean and intuitive. Customer service is a bit lean, but my requests were responded to within a day or so. They continue to make incremental improvements every month. I’m still skeptical about whether they can make the economics work over the long run, but they do appear to be streamlining wherever they can.

More: Fee Schedule, Official FAQ, Techcrunch, Buzzfeed

Acorns App Review: Auto-Invest Your Spare Change, Now Free For Students

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Updated review. New Android and web versions. Added details about “students invest for free” feature (anyone 24 and under). When I wrote about WiseBanyan, I remarked that now people could start investing a portfolio of ETFs with as little as 100 bucks. Well, what about investing just 57 cents at time?

Acorns is a new smartphone app that lets you invest your “spare change” into a diversified ETF portfolio of stocks and bonds. For example, if you bought something for $10.43, the Acorns app will “round up” your purchase to $11 and invest $0.57 into a brokerage account. The idea is that these small investments will make it simple and easy for folks to start saving and investing. Thanks to reader Steven for the tip.

How does it work? You’ll need to provide them:

  • Your personal information (name, address, SSN) because this is still a real SIPC-insured brokerage account underneath.
  • Your debit or credit card login information (so they can track your transactions and calculate round ups)
  • Your bank account and routing number (so they can pull money into your investment account)

The app scans your transactions, calculates the round-ups, pulls that money from your checking account, and automatically invests it for you. You can also make one-time deposits or schedule recurring deposits on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. The app also tries to identify “found money” like rebates and rewards which it encourages you to also invest with a quick tap. Here’s a YouTube video demo:

Fees. You do not get charged any trading commissions for your investments, which can be a big factor in traditional brokerage accounts.

As of January 1st, 2015, Acorns has changed their fees to be either $1 a month (balances under $5,000) or 0.25% of assets per year (balances above $5,000). So on a $10,000 balance that would be $25 a year. No fee on $0 balances.

As of July 8, 2015, the management fees above will be waived for all students – defined as anyone under the age of 24 or you register under a .edu e-mail address and list your employment as “student”.

Withdrawals are free, but you may incur capital gains at income tax filing time. I don’t know if they will support asset transfers via ACAT.

Portfolio details. You can choose one of five target portfolios, ranging in risk level from conservative to aggressive. Mostly the popular Modern Portfolio Theory stuff that most other automated advisors offer… not surprising as their “Nobel Prize-winning economist advisor” is Harry Markowitz, who is a paid consultant.

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All portfolios are constructed using the following six index ETFs:

  • Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (VOO)
  • Vanguard Small-Cap ETF (VB)
  • Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets ETF (VWO)
  • Vanguard REIT ETF (VNQ)
  • PIMCO Investment Grade Corporate Bond ETF (CORP)
  • iShares 1-3 Year Treasury Bond ETF (SHY)

Fractional shares are used. Dividends are reinvested. Rebalancing happens automatically. Their asset allocation has much in common with most other automated portfolios, although it is probably one of the more different ones that I’ve seen in that you have no exposure to any stocks from Developed European and Asian countries like the UK, Japan, or Australia.

I’m a little concerned about all the tax lots created when buying stocks in such small amounts. Dealing with taxes when you sell might be a headache if they don’t import directly to TurboTax or similar tax software.

Availability. You can now use Acorns in either iOS/iPhone/iPad, Android, or online web-based application. The apps are also compatible with Apple Watch and Android Gear, for those so inclined.

My thoughts. My first reaction was… that it was a great idea that I wished I thought of first. I used to participate in Bank of America’s Keep The Change program, which is similar in that it also rounds up your BofA debit card transactions to the nearest dollar but instead moves the money into a BofA savings account paying essentially zero interest. Acorns takes it further by letting you use any bank and any debit or credit card, and also lets you invest it for potentially higher returns.

In addition, I agree that Acorns will lower the psychological barrier to investing because you don’t even have to commit to $25 a week or $500 a month. You know if you can afford a gizmo or meal at $15.66, you can afford it at $16, so why not invest that spare change? The hurdle can’t get much lower than that.

At the same time, we have to be realistic. With this model how much you save depends entirely on how many purchases you make, with a theoretical average of 50 cents saved per transaction. Even buying five things a day times 50 cents is $2.50 a day or $75 a month. It’s good as a kickstart, but not nearly enough to fund a retirement.

If you want to look at it purely mathematically, a monthly fee of $1 taken out of a $75 investment ends up being like a front-end load of 1.3%. Or given the target demographic of active smartphone users, you could just look at a buck a month as something you’d otherwise blow on some Candy Crush Saga app. I do think it is smart to let anyone 24 and under or a student use it for free.

Also, don’t call it a “piggy bank”. A piggy bank means you put in a quarter, and you can take out a quarter later on. A piggy bank is a bank savings account. Acorns on the other hand is a long-term investment account that you have to be ready not to touch for at least a decade. Sure the “expected” return is 4-9% but you have a good chance of a permanent loss of money if you withdraw within the next few years. If you start using this app, please remember this.

Bottom line: Neat idea, very nicely-designed app. Free for students or anyone age 24 and under. The Acorns app may not fund your entire retirement, but it can help those that need a nudge to invest. Automation helps you keep on track. I think there should an option for an FDIC-insured high-yield savings account.

DietBet Review: Game Tips, Final Results, Payout Details

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pact App: Cash Motivation For Exercising or Eating Healthier

gEHJgtmM_400x400I am nearing my 6-month anniversary of making a weight loss bet with HealthyWage (3 months left) and DietBet (less than a week left). My aversion to losing money has really helped me remain focused on my goals, so I have a newfound respect for this niche inspired by behavioral economics. I’m also looking forward to spending my winnings! 😉

The Pact app (Free: Android, iOS) is another way that you can use money to motivate your health-related goals. (Formerly known as GymPact.) While the betting websites above track weight loss, this one has three different goals that you can choose:

  • Gym workouts. You make a commitment to “work out” at a set frequency per week. Any gym workout, run, or bike ride over 30 minutes counts, as does walking 10,000 steps in day. Only one workout per day counts, and the app will use GPS or built-in motion sensors to track your progress. You can also link up a Fitbit or Jawbone.
  • Food diary logging. You make a commitment to log your daily food intake a certain number of times per week. A complete daily food log with at least 1,200 calories and 3 recorded meals will count as a completed day. In partnership with MyFitnessPal.
  • Eat more veggies. You make a commitment to track and eat a certain number of servings of fruits and vegetables per week. This is tracked by uploading pictures taken by your smartphone and verified by other Pact users.

Some screenshots:

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For each item that you miss, like a missed workout, you agree to a set penalty like $10. Upon starting a pact, you must provide a payment source of either a credit card or PayPal. If you complete the pact, then you will actually earn a small profit from the money taken from other users. The numbers will vary, but the reports I have found indicate that it has worked out to between 15 cents to at most $1 for each completed task, usually more towards the lower end. Pact gets their cut of the broken commitment penalties first, as that is how they make money.

In order to understand how or why such money-based incentives work, read this article from The Atlantic which summarizes recent academic research in behavioral economics:

Cash is a strong incentive, but the motivation goes away soon after the money does. That’s where those commitment contracts come in. At the end of the month-long incentive program, Royer and her team approached some of the employees with a proposal: They would hold onto your money if you committed to going to the gym once every two weeks, over a period of two months. If you met that goal, they’d give you your money back; if you didn’t, they’d give it away to charity. Not everyone the researchers approached signed on, but the ones who did—women and overweight people were the groups most likely to opt in—went 25 percent more often than those who didn’t.

[…] But it was the after-effects of the contracts—the behavioral changes that had been cemented long after the agreements expired—that most thrilled the researchers. Even two to three years after the study, those who participated in the month-long incentive program and then signed a two-month contract went to the gym at a rate that was 20 percent higher than those who weren’t entered into any program. Twenty percent may not seem like a lot, but it’s a remarkable uptick for an experimental program to maintain long after its conclusion.

Despite the hype about “getting paid to work out” or “cash rewards for health living”, this app is mostly about the human tendency of loss aversion. Losing $5 or $10 for every time you slack off and skip the gym is going to hurt a lot more than getting 50 cents if you do go. But based on my own experiences, such motivation can definitely work if you make the commitment.

I personally like this app because I don’t think I can lose another 10% of my current weight, but I can keep eating a steady stream of fruits and vegetables. I just have to consider whether I will actually remember to check-in several times a week, even if I actually do the healthy activity. Otherwise, I’ll just be losing money due to another human tendency: procrastination!

Ally Bank Savings Account Review

allyreview_logoUpdated. I’ve done a significant amount of my banking with Ally for years (checking, savings, and multiple CDs), but the “gateway drug” for me and probably most people will be their Ally Online Savings Account. This is a review specific to using the savings account as a companion account to your existing checking account. Check out my Ally Interest Checking Account Review for more about using their checking and savings products together.

The Ally Online Savings Account has no minimum balance, no monthly fees, and currently pays 0.99% APY (as of 7/14/15). Their interest rates may not be the absolute highest, but they have consistently been within 0.10% of the temporarily top banks, making it not worthwhile to move my money. (See my rate chaser calculator). Let’s go through the important factors.

User Interface. Below is a screenshot of the main page after logging in (click to enlarge). I can see all of my accounts and their balances at a glance. The overall design is clean and minimalist, and it was recently updated to be more mobile-friendly.

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Customer Service. Ally Bank differentiates itself with their customer service. First of all, they are available 24/7 at 1-877-247-ALLY (2559). When you use their smartphone app or log into their website, you can see the wait time beforehand. Even better, if you don’t want to call them you can just use their Live Chat feature.

Security. Ally Bank supports two-factor authentication with security codes sent via either e-mail or text message. They ask for a security code when you log in from a computer they don’t recognize. However, if you’ve logged into that computer before with a security code, they may not ask you again and you can’t choose to have two-factor authentication to always be in effect.

Awards. Ally Bank has won “Best Online Bank” from Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine in 2014 and “Best Online Bank” from Money Magazine from 2011-2014.

FDIC Insurance. Ally Bank is a member of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, FDIC Certificate #57803. As with other FDIC-insured banks, this means your Ally deposits are insured by the FDIC up to $250,000 per depositor, for each account ownership category.

Funds Transfers. With no physical branches, online savings accounts should have maximum flexibility as they are often secondary accounts (given most megabank checking accounts pay either no interest or a sad 0.01% APY). Ally Bank allows you to link any other external bank account using the standard routing number and account numbers. As long as you initiate the transfer before 7:30 pm Eastern Time, the transfer will take 2 business days. You can link up to 20 different accounts (it used to be unlimited; but other banks limit to 3; I have 7 myself).

So if I initiate a transfer on Monday afternoon by 7:30pm ET, the money will be debited first thing on Tuesday, and credited to the destination account first thing Wednesday. But know that if you initiate on a Saturday, you’ll get the same result. Even bank computers really don’t like working weekends, it seems. Overall, free transfers within 2 business days during the week is about as good as it gets for online banks.

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The transfer limits are also relatively high. On my accounts, I see that I have a $150,000 daily limit outbound and $250,000 daily limit inbound, with a total monthly limit of $600,000 outbound and $1,000,000 inbound. Keeping in mind that all savings accounts from any bank are limited to six withdrawals per month.

ATM Debit Card. You don’t get a debit card with their Online Savings Account. You can get a debit card with either their Checking or Money Market accounts, but note that those have lower interest rates.

Mobile check deposit. You can use the Ally smartphone app to deposit checks using your smartphone camera. (This is in addition to using your computer scanner and/or free postage-paid deposit envelopes.) I’m not sure if this is the same for everyone, but my deposit limit is $50,000 which is higher than many other electronic deposit programs. I’ve used the app to deposit multiple checks without issue. Screenshot below.

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Mobile app. Available for iOS and Android… you can do all the important stuff – see transactions, transfer funds, deposit checks, pay bills. It can remember your username, but you must type in your password every time. I usually just use my Mint app for checking balances, as that only requires a 4-digit PIN. The overall design is acceptable, and the ATM locator is helpful if you have the Ally Checking account with free AllPoint ATMs and $10 in fee rebates each statement cycle for any ATM.

The Stats

  • Current interest rate: 0.99% APY (last checked 7/14/2015)
  • Interest Compounding: accrued daily, compounded daily, credited monthly
  • Minimum to open: $0
  • Minimum requirements to avoid monthly service charge: None
  • Number of external bank account links allowed: 20
  • Routing Number: 124003116

Bottom line. The Ally Online Savings Account is a solid offering with with no monthly fees, no minimum balance requirement, and a historically competitive interest rate. Additional features like a flexible funds transfer system and solid 24/7 customer service help differentiate themselves from the competition. It works fine on its own as a “piggyback” or companion account to your existing checking account.

You can also combine it with the Ally Interest Checking Account (my review) which offers ATM fee rebates (up to $10 per statement cycle), free online billpay, and the ability to use the savings account as a free overdraft source. Ally also has certificates of deposit which offer competitive rates at times.

Vanguard Merged Brokerage Account Review: Pros and Cons

When you open an account with Vanguard, there are two different account options. First is a mutual fund account which only holds Vanguard mutual funds. Second is a brokerage account that can hold individual stocks, ETFs, individual bonds, and non-Vanguard mutual funds. Over the past couple of years, Vanguard has been slowly rolling out a merged option where everything is moved inside the brokerage account. This for both IRAs and taxable accounts.

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Eligibility. If you are an existing Vanguard customer, you can see if you are automatically eligible for this “upgrade” via Vanguard.com/accountupgrade. If you only have Vanguard mutual funds, you will be required to open a new brokerage account. If your accounts are not listed, you can also contact Vanguard customer service and request to be upgraded manually. I am not sure how they decide whether to grant this request, but I just asked last week and was approved the next business day.

Process. The upgrade process was fast and painless, at least for me. You have to e-sign some documents approving the change and acknowledging the loss of certain features (noted below). By the next business day, all of your Vanguard mutual funds will be transferred “in-kind” into the brokerage account. Nothing is sold and there will be no tax consequences. As far as I can tell, all of my cost basis and other historical information transferred over smoothly. The cost basis calculation method should also carry over (but you may want to double-check). They’ve been merging accounts since 2013, so it appears most of the kinks have been ironed out.

Each merged brokerage account has one money market settlement fund, for example the Vanguard Prime Money Market fund. This is where you will receive the proceeds from transactions like ETF or stocks sales.

Vanguard says that for “most people” there won’t be any change in features. But there are some important changes to note, and I’ve tried to separate them into pros and cons.

Pros

  • Simplification at no additional cost. Your online account view is simplified. Your statements are simplified. There is no cost to switch. There is no change in your commission structure.
  • Less tax paperwork. For the tax year of your upgrade, you’ll receive separate tax forms for your mutual fund accounts and brokerage accounts. Starting the first full tax year after you upgrade, you’ll receive a single tax form for each brokerage account. One less 1099-B and 1099-DIV sounds good to me.
  • Possibly quicker funds availability. After the merge, you will be able to sell a brokerage asset (i.e. ETF) and then use the proceeds to buy a Vanguard mutual fund on the same day. Previously, you had to wait 4 days for the brokerage funds to settle first to be available for use in the mutual fund account.
  • SIPC coverage of Vanguard mutual funds. Vanguard mutual funds were previously not held in a brokerage account, so no SIPC coverage. (It technically wasn’t necessary for mutual funds.) Now everything is inside a brokerage account, so everything is covered by SIPC. Vanguard also has separate insurance that exceeds the SIPC maximums.

Cons / Concerns

  • Less flexible checkwriting. With the mutual fund accounts, you could get a separate checkbook for each of your eligible mutual fund accounts. I could get checks that withdrew directly from my Vanguard Limited-Term Muni Bond fund, or Vanguard Total US Bond fund, or any money market fund. But now, you will only get a single checkbook for each brokerage account, and it will only pull from your settlement account (plus another fund as backup).
     
    Vanguard will “do our best to honor any outstanding checks written on a Vanguard mutual fund that are presented for payment within 45 days after you’ve transferred your Vanguard funds into a brokerage account.”
  • Less flexible dividend and capital gains distributions. With a merged account, your only options for fund distributions are either automatic reinvestment into the same fund, or cash into your settlement fund. You’ll no longer be able to receive Vanguard fund distributions directly by check, by automatic transfer to your bank account, or by automatic reinvestment into another Vanguard fund.
  • Direct deposit not available. You can no longer have your paycheck direct deposited into your Vanguard brokerage account. You can still set up a manual or recurring transfer from your linked bank account to Vanguard. It just can’t come directly from your employer, so that can be a loss of convenience.
     

    I believe you can regain this feature if you sign up for a VanguardAdvantage account (their cash management option that include a debit card and online billpay). However, this is only available to clients with at least $500,000 of assets with Vanguard.

If any of these “cons” affect your current settings, Vanguard should alert you during the upgrade process. However, I think it’s good to know this stuff even if you aren’t using those features at the moment. I also tried opening a new Vanguard account from scratch, and it appears that new clients are still having two separate accounts opened for them (mutual fund and brokerage). I wonder why?

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Chase Ink Cash Business Card Review: $200 Cash Bonus, 5% Back Categories, No Annual Fee

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The Chase small business credit card that I have written the least about is the Ink Cash® Business Credit Card. The Ink Cash usually doesn’t come with as big of a sign-up incentive as its Ink Bold and Ink Plus siblings, but is also has no annual fee for the first year and all subsequent years. The Ink Cash actually offers a better combination of upfront bonus and ongoing rewards utility.

If that sounds like you, someone who want a “keeper” business card with no annual fee, read on to learn about a few lesser-known quirks.

Card highlights:

  • Earn $200 bonus cash back after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.
  • Named “Best for Rewards for Small Business” MONEY® Magazine, October 2014
  • Earn 5% cash back on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at office supply stores and on cellular phone, landline, internet and cable TV services each account anniversary year
  • Earn 2% cash back on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at gas stations and restaurants each account anniversary year
  • Earn 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
  • Free employee cards
  • No annual fee

Digging into the features:

Sign-up bonus. Now, that cash sign-up bonus actually comes in the form of Ultimate Rewards points as 1 point = 1 cent in cash. So 20,000 points = $200 cash. However, you don’t get the 25% boost in value as you would with the Ink Bold or Ink Plus cards (that’s one reason why those have an the annual fee). However, if you already have one of those cards or a Chase Sapphire Preferred consumer card, you could transfer your points between Ultimate Rewards accounts and redeem using that other card’s 25% travel bonus.

Basically, if you partner this no-annual-fee card with one of the annual-fee cards (Ink Plus, Ink Bold, Chase Sapphire Preferred) at the time of redemption, you can boost the value. (You can have an Ink Plus and an Ink Cash card for the same business.)

Leveraging the 5% back bonus categories. Putting all of your small business cell phone, landline, and internet bills on the card and getting 5% back is pretty handy. For example, even just $200 a month x 12 months x 5% back is $120 back a year without changing your spending habits. Now let’s take the office supply store category and the fact that you can buy gifts cards to Amazon.com and other retailers at such office supply stores like Staples and OfficeMax… now you can effectively discount many of your other purchasing needs by 5% as well. Putting those purchases on such gift cards upfront can also help you meet the spending requirement for the bonus.

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 these days many people are full-time or part-time consultants, freelancers, 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. This is how I got all my cards before incorporating, and how my wife gets her business cards for her small side business.

“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.”

American Express Personal Savings Account Review (Updated)

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Updated 2015. American Express has a banking division called Personal Savings through their FDIC-Insured bank American Express Bank, FSB. There are currently just two products – a high yield savings account and certificates of deposit. This is a review from my own experiences with the American Express Personal Savings Account. You don’t need to have an American Express credit or charge card to open a bank account with them.

The Basics
The savings account has no minimum balance requirement, no inactivity fees, and no monthly fees. Their current interest rate is 0.90% APY (as of 4/13/15).

As with all savings accounts, the rate is subject to change. Their rate history for the last few years has been that they consistently pay a competitive interest rate but usually not the very highest. They are usually in the mix with their competitors like Capital One Consumer Bank (0.75% APY) and Ally Savings (0.99% APY as of 4/13/15).

Like those other online savings banks, this one is designed to piggyback onto your existing checking account through online transfers. There are no checks, no ATM cards, and no online bill-pay with this account. If you really want, you can withdraw your money by having them send a check payable to you. Interest is compounded daily, and credited monthly. Interest begins to accrue on the business day the deposit is received, as long as it is by 5pm Eastern.

Application Process
The application process can be done completely online. You provide the usual personal information, as well as the routing number and account number of the checking account you wish to link and fund your account with. There is no minimum opening amount. AMEX Bank will then send two small verification deposits of under $1 to your checking account (and then withdraw them as). They’ll also send a verification code to your e-mail address. With this information, you can activate your account and initiate the funding transfer. They’ll send you a welcome packet in the mail, but there is no paper to sign or send in.

Website User Interface
In the beginning, AmEx used a 3rd-party backend service but now the entire bank website is hosted at personalsavings.americanexpress.com. Here are some screenshots of my bank account after logging in with some captions (click to enlarge).

The overall interface is pretty minimalist and straightforward. Here is the main page:

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Here is the Transfer tab:

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Here is the Alerts tab:

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Funds Transfers, Customer Service, E-mail Alerts, and Statements
You can link up to 3 external bank accounts, and you can remove and add accounts online as needed. Online transfers to/from your external accounts take the usual couple of business days to complete. However, I wasn’t thrilled about this note on the transfer page: “Funds from electronic deposits to your account that you have initiated through us will generally be available for withdrawal on the sixth business day after the deposit is initiated.” This is likely for protection against fraud, but could be inconvenient and discourages me from using this account as a central transfer hub.

Customer service is available by phone only – no secure online message or live chat. Call 1-800-446-6307, available 24/7. Although you have to navigate the usual phone tree, once you do reach a human they are as courteous as the reps from AmEx credit cards, which is to say very courteous.

You can set up free, automated e-mail alerts in case of your balance reaching a certain threshold or the arrival new deposits and/or withdrawals. Text messages are not directly supported but you can usually find an e-mail version of your cell number (ex. 5551234567@txt.att.net).

Finally, one unique thing about American Express Personal Savings is that they give you free paper, snail-mail, monthly statements. Many online savings accounts only include you electronic statements and will charge you for paper statements. Of course, you can opt out and just stick to e-statements, but I can see paper statements as being attractive for some folks. A commenter below noted that if you elect paper statements, then AmEx limits the amount of transactions you can view online to the last 30 days.

Other Handy Stuff
American Express Bank, FSB Routing Number: 124085066
Customer Service: 1-800-446-6307, available 24 hours a day. I haven’t had to call in yet, but American Express does have good customer service on their credit cards in my experience.

Chase IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card Review: What Does 60,000 Points Get You?

ihgcardThe Chase IHG® Rewards Club Select Credit Card has a promotion where you can get 60,000 bonus IHG points after you spend $1,000 within the first 3 months of account opening.  This card also has the annual fee waived for the first year. So the question is what will 60,000 of these lesser-known IHG points get you? Put another way, how much should I value a single IHG point?

Here are the card highlights plus my notes from the fine print:

  • Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months of account opening. “After qualifying, please allow 6 to 8 weeks for bonus points to post to your account. This new cardmember bonus offer is not available to either (i) current cardmembers of this consumer credit card, or (ii) previous cardmembers of this consumer credit card who received a new cardmember bonus for this consumer credit card within the last 24 months.”
  • Enjoy a free night of card membership at over 4,900 hotels worldwide. “Anniversary Free Night is valid at hotels in the IHG® Rewards Club Family of Brands and must be redeemed, and stay must be completed, within 12 months from date of issue. Anniversary Free Night is valid for one standard room night rate and applicable taxes only. Rooms are limited, subject to prior sale and availability of allocated resources and may be unavailable during high demand periods.”
  • 10% rebate on all points redemptions, up to 100,000 rebated points per year.
  • Platinum Elite status as long as you remain a cardmember. Platinum elite is their highest elite tier and usually requires staying 50+ nights a year. Perks include priority check-in, free room upgrades based on availability, and bonus earning on top of base points. Everyone gets free WiFi internet as well.
  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • $0 introductory annual fee the first year, then $49.

In terms of rewards on purchases, cardmembers will:

  • Earn 5 points for each $1 spent at IHG hotels
  • Earn 2 points per $1 spent on purchases at gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants
  • Earn 1 point for $1 spent on everything else.

IHG stands for Intercontinental Hotel Group which has over 4,700 hotels including the following brands:

  • Intercontinental® Hotels & Resorts
  • Crowne Plaza®
  • Holiday Inn®, Holiday Inn Express
  • Staybridge Suites®
  • Candlewood Suites®
  • Hotel Indigo®
  • EVEN Hotels

IHG Point Value Comparisons

IHG Rewards Club puts out a new list of PointBreaks hotels every few months where you can redeem a hotel night for only 5,000 points. That means your 60,000 bonus points from this card could technically earn you 12 free nights! If those hotel rooms would otherwise cost $100 a night including taxes, you’d be getting $1,200 value from 60,000 points. Valuing the hotels at $50 a night including taxes, you’d be getting $600 value from 60,000 points. This is where you can see valuations anywhere between 1.5 cents and 2 cents per IHG point.

But that’s not very realistic. There are some nice hotels on the list, but the locations are very specific and few people are sufficiently flexible with their travel to constantly take advantage of these deals.

I recently spent a week at a Staybridge Suites in Austin with my family and it was great. The room felt like an apartment with a living room, full kitchen, and separate bedroom. Every morning there was a buffet breakfast with eggs, bacon, cereal, bagels, fruit, yogurt, juice, and so on that I could grab and bring back into my suite where the kids could run around. I’ll be returning and willing to pay the going rate again, so how much would it cost me in points?

Here’s an actual rate quote for 9/16 to 9/22 for the same Staybridge Suites:

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Keep in mind that the quote doesn’t include taxes, which would make the $148 average nightly rate into $170 with taxes. The 25,000 points per night include taxes, so that would work out to roughly 0.7 cents per point in value. At that rate, 60,000 points would be worth $420.

Also note that with the 25,000 point redemption, you can cancel up until the very last minute (6pm local time the day of check-in), while the $170 rate is a non-refundable advance purchase. The true equivalent refundable room rate is $203, or $233 per night including taxes. That is more like 0.9 cents per IHG point, where 60,000 points would be worth $560.

You can perform the same calculations for hotels that fit your needs. I tried a bunch of other various combinations and always got between 0.6 cents and 1.1 cents per point equivalent value.

In terms of luxury hotel room nights, let’s try the same week at the InterContinental New York Times Square:

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You’re looking at $493 a night including taxes for non-refundable advance purchase, or $576 including taxes for refundable. Points would cost 50,000 a night, making it roughly 1 to 1.1 cents per point value. At that rate 60,000 points = $600 to $660.

Recap
While it is certainly possible to get $600+ value out of the 70k point bonus, I would stick with a more conservative estimate of $350 (~0.6 cents a point) and hope to be pleasantly surprised. But it’s an easily achievable $400-$450 value at a wide variety of hotels from budget to luxury (32 IHG hotels in Austin, TX area alone for example) with no blackout dates making it suitable for all types of travelers. The annual fee is waived for the first year, so you can enjoy the other perks of the card like 10% point rebate and complimentary Platinum Elite status. After that, you’ll have to decide based on your travel habits if the $49 annual fee is sufficiently offset by the free hotel night perk.

In terms of putting all your spending on this card, since I think an IHG point is often worth less than a cent per point on average, it is not as good an all-around rewards card as many of its competitors. I might put my IHG paid hotel stays on it, but that’s about it.

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“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.”

Citi Simplicity Card Review: 0% for 21 Months, No Late Fees, No Penalty Rates

citisimplicity175New 21 month offer (1.75 years). I usually focus on rewards-earning credit cards, but I know many folks are still carrying some balances and thus more concerned about their whopping 15% interest rate rather than a relatively puny 2% back on purchases. Our partner Citi has launched the Citi Simplicity® Card, which is uniquely suited for those that want to transfer higher rate balances to a long 0% intro period while also offering some “accident forgiveness insurance”. The highlights:

  • 0% Intro APR on balance transfers for 21 months. Balance transfers must be completed within 4 months of account opening. Balance transfer fee is 3% of balance transfer amount, $5 minimum. This is one of the longest offers out there for balance transfers.
  • 0% Intro APR on purchases for 21 months. This means you can keep charging your new purchases on this card as well and also enjoy no interest for 21 months. Also one of the longest 0% offers available for purchases.
  • No late fees. If you’re late on a payment, you won’t be dinged with a ~$40 late fee as with many other cards.
  • No penalty APR. Even worse than a late fee, a missed payment can lead to a rate hike into a “penalty” APR rate as high as 25% or more. The Simplicity does not have penalty APRs.
  • No annual fee.
  • Direct to human help. If you call in and say “representative”, you’ll be transferred directly to a human, 24 hours a day.

The Citi Simplicity card does not earn any cash back, points, miles, or free toasters; I’d open a separate card for rewards. It does include additional purchase benefits such as Citi Price Protection (price drop protection on brick and mortar purchases) and free Extended Warranty (extends manufacturer’s warranty for up to 12 months).

Alternatively, the Chase Slate® Card offers 0% APR on balance transfers for 15 months with no balance transfer fee, but does not include some of the more consumer-friendly features of this card that ensure your low rates don’t get hiked.

To summarize, the Citi Simplicity® Card is a solid card with one of the longest 0% introductory periods currently available on both purchases and balance transfers. If you are serious about paying off some credit card debt, this offer will get you no interest for 1.75 years with minimal gotchas.

Ally Bank CD Maturity and Redemption Process Review

allyreview_logoIf 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 that week. Different banks set different grace periods 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. I’ll miss that old 3.09% APY, ha. Here’s a quick review of the process for other Ally Bank account holders. First, here is the official policy taken from their website:

At maturity your CD will automatically renew, and you’ll have a 10-day grace period to make any of the following changes:

Change the term
Make additional deposits
Make withdrawals
Close the CD
Interest will accrue during the grace period; however, that interest will not be paid if the funds are withdrawn during the grace period.

Call us at 1-877-247-ALLY (2559) before your maturity date or before the end of your grace period if you would like to make changes to your CD. If you don’t contact us by the end of the 10-day grace period, we’ll automatically renew your CD for the same term.

  • Roughly 30 days before maturity. If you have chosen paperless documents like I have, 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! I’m assuming if you chose the paper option you’ll get the letter via snail mail.
  • Between 30 days before maturity to 10 days after maturity. You must call them at 1-877-247-ALLY (2559) to tell them if you want anything besides an auto-renewal of the same term at current market rates (Ally’s Ten Day Best Rate Guarantee applies). No e-mail. No website option. No online message. No smoke signals.
  • When you call them. They’ll ask you a bunch of identity verification questions, much more than other phone calls. They’ll tell you about the Loyalty Bonus where you’ll get an extra 0.05% APY if you renew your CD (as of 3/9/15). 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, but I’ll probably renew some of my other CDs that a maturing soon into a CD ladder. 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.

If you have to call Ally Bank as well, 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). The call itself lasted 15 minutes.

(Also see: Ally Bank Savings Account Review. Ally is my primary banking hub.)

Discover it Miles Card Review: 3% Cash Back During First 12 Months

Discover it Miles ImageDiscover started with one credit card. Over the years, they expanded to a bunch of different cards. Back in 2013, they nuked all of them and started fresh again with the Discover it Double Miles your first year. But you know that simplicity never suits large organizations…

So they are growing again, with the addition of the new Discover it® Miles Double Miles your first year. (Not to be confused with the old Discover Miles card… are you following?) Here are the copy-and-pasted highlights, followed by my commentary:

  • No annual fee & unlimited 1.5x Miles on every dollar you spend on purchases. 0% intro APR on purchases for 12 months-then a variable purchase APR applies, currently 10.99% – 22.99%.
  • Exclusive Double Miles Offer: At the end of your first year-when other Miles cards charge an annual fee-Discover doubles all the Miles you’ve earned.*
  • 100 Miles = $1 value. Redeem Miles in any amount toward travel purchases on your statement. Or get cash as a direct deposit to your bank account.*
  • Discover pays you back for your in-flight Wi-Fi fees-up to $30 a year-with an automatic statement credit.*
  • New Freeze It(SM) on/off switch lets you prevent new purchases, cash advances & balance transfers on misplaced cards in seconds by mobile app & online.*
  • Free FICO® Credit Score on statements, online & by mobile app.* And 100% U.S.-based service any time.
  • Free overnight shipping of replacement cards to any U.S. street address at your request. And you’re never responsible for unauthorized purchases on your Discover card.*
  • *See rates, rewards, free FICO® Credit Score terms and other info by clicking “Apply Now.” See complete Discover it® Miles details.

Effectively, this is an ongoing flat 1.5% cash back card with no annual fee and a few added perks. The rewards structure is relatively simple. The card earns 1.5 Miles on all purchases, with no special categories. There is no annual fee. 100 Miles = $1 cash direct deposited into your bank account. You can also redeem at the same value towards any travel purchases, but why bother? As long as you have a bank account, I say go with the cash. So I would call this a flat 1.5% cash back card.

But for the entire first 12 months, you can earn unlimited 3% cash back! The “sign-up bonus” here is that you get double miles at the end of your first year. Since you can convert directly to cash, that means 3% cash back for an entire year. That’s a rare offer, as 3% is probably more than Discover even rakes in through merchant fees. If you put a lot of spending on your credit cards, this can be a big deal.

At 3% back, many bill payment options that charge around 2% fee start looking much better. For example, if you pay estimated taxes to the IRS every quarter like I do and paying by credit card only costs 1.87% (Discover accepted). That means I can get 1.13% back on all my tax payments.

Perks include a $30 inflight WiFi credit and free FICO score every month. They also threw in no foreign transaction fees, and Discover card is pretty well-accepted in Asia (works as UnionPay in China, JCB in Japan). Discover continues other features from its non-Miles card like the free FICO, US-based phone reps, and no late fees on first late payment.

In terms of comparison, recall that I just wrote about the best 2% flat cash back cardsCiti Double Cash and Fidelity American Express. So for the first year this card wins with 3% vs. 2%, but on an ongoing basis you’ll fall behind at 1.5% vs. 2%. Like I said, the 2% cards offer a solid minimum baseline, but there will often be situations where you can beat 2% like this limited-time offer or specific cards with special categories.

If you are comparing against the Capital One Venture Rewards card which is another travel-oriented card that offers 2 “miles” per dollar, the major differences are that it has a $59 annual fee and no $30 inflight WiFi credit. The no annual fee version only offers 1.25 miles per dollar.

Existing Discover cardholder? Discover’s policy in the past had been to only allow one card per person, but now you can have two (i.e. you can have both a Discover it and a Discover it Miles.)