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 4,700 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.

IHG Rewards Banner

“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 Card. But you know that simplicity never suits large organizations…

So they are growing again, with the addition of the new Discover it® Miles card. (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.)

H&R Block Online Review – 2014 Tax Year Features and Screenshots

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Here is my 2014 review of H&R Block Online DIY tax preparation software, to complement my TurboTax 2014 review and TaxACT 2014 review. I filed my personal tax return using each of the “Big 3″ and I will try to share the overall experience along with their specific strengths and weaknesses.

Price
H&R Block Online comes in Free, Basic, Deluxe, and Premium tiers. Due to having stock sales but no self-employment deductions, I am going with H&R Block Deluxe Online which costs $29.99 for Federal and $36.99 for State (free state options may be available separately). I am reviewing the more popular online software, not the desktop download software which may be different both in user experience and price.

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Tax Situation
Here’s a quick summary of our personal tax situation.

  • Married filing jointly, subject to state income tax
  • Both with W-2 income, as well as some simple 1099-MISC forms.
  • Interest income and dividend income from bank accounts, stocks, and bonds (Schedule B).
  • Contribute to retirement accounts (401ks and IRAs).
  • Capital gains and losses from brokerage accounts (Schedule D).
  • Itemized deductions (Schedule A), including property taxes and charitable giving.

User Interface and User Experience
In terms of overall visual feel, the 2014 user interface is clean and pleasant. If I was comparing with TurboTax and TaxACT, I would say H&R Block is a little less pleasing than TurboTax and a little more pleasing than TaxACT. All of them are perfectly acceptable, but that is my personal ranking. See screenshots throughout this review.

In terms of user experience, H&R Block also uses a question-and-answer format like other tax prep software, but I actually think they have the best layout for intermediate to advanced users (i.e. you’ve done your taxes online before). Before each major section (Income, Deductions, Credits), it present a long checklist of potential items to enter in. You just tick off the ones you need, instead of repeatedly reading a new screen for each little thing and clicking Yes, No, No, No, Yes, No, etc. It know it may sound insignificant, but it really does speed things up with everything on one screen. Here are partial screenshots to help explain:

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Importing Data From Previous Years
You can pull up all of your old tax information for free from any of the Big 3 providers (H&R Block, TurboTax, TaxACT) as long as you are using Basic, Deluxe, or Premium (no Free). You may need to have the information downloaded in PDF format. You’ll get filing status, dependents, address, DOB, SSN, etc.

Importing W-2 and 1099 Forms Directly From Providers
Similar to TurboTax, H&R Block also automatically imports many W-2 and 1099 forms. You can pull up W-2 data using your employer’s tax ID number (EIN). My data point: the same W-2 that TurboTax imported, H&R Block did successfully as well (TaxAct could not).

H&R Block does not appear to publish a list of all their 1099 import partners, but I would say it is a little smaller than TurboTax and much more than the 6 partners that TaxACT supports. You just start typing the name and it tries to autocomplete if available:

hrb2014_5

Here is a partial sampling of eligible financial institutions:

  • ADP Retirement Services
  • Alliant Credit Union
  • Ally Bank
  • Ameriprise Financial
  • Bank of America
  • Betterment
  • Charles Schwab
  • Chase Bank
  • Citibank
  • Discover Bank
  • E*Trade
  • Edward Jones
  • Fidelity
  • Gainskeeper
  • Interactive Brokers
  • Merrill Lynch
  • Navy Federal Credit Union
  • Pentagon Federal Credit Union
  • Scottrade
  • Sharebuilder
  • T Rowe Price
  • TD Ameritrade
  • TIAA-CREF
  • TradeKing
  • USAA, USAA Federal Savings Bank
  • Vanguard Brokerage, Mutual Funds
  • Wells Fargo Bank, Advisors

I’m a fan of automatic import because it both saves time and reduces data entry errors. I did have a couple of hiccups with the import, however. I suspect that the problem is the same as I had with TurboTax – that the file is not ready for electronic import yet even though it is available in physical form. Some patience may be in order?

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The Small Stuff

  • When entering charitable donations of physical goods, H&R Block did not provide any assistance as to valuing the object. (TurboTax and TaxACT did.)
  • When entering my 1099-MISC information, H&R Block quickly allowed me to indicate that it was not a business and instead a one-time event. That saved me from answering a lot of unnecessary questions.

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  • Starting in the 2014 tax year, you’ll have to have health insurance or else pay a penalty. I indicated to H&R Block that I had employer-provided coverage for the entire year, and it did not ask for further proof or documentation.

Upselling and Price Change Tricks?
I was not presented with any upsell attempts to their Premium tier and there were no price change shenanigans, which was nice. They also had no need to offer me $40 “audit protection” because it is already included in the price. H&R Block’s “Free In-person Audit Support” is definitely a differentiating factor for the audit-fearing folks out there. In the unlikely event of an audit, an H&R Block Enrolled Agent will help you communicate with the IRS, prepare for the audit, and will attend the audit with you (though they do not provide legal representation).

The only upsell was for their “Best of Both” package, which for $50 lets you have an H&R Block human discuss and review your return with you:

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H&R Block also keeps your past returns for up to 6 years for free, so there is no option to pay more for “data archiving”. Seriously, how much space on a hard drive could it possibly take?

TL;DR Recap
hrb2014_logoH&R Block did my taxes properly and covered the same topics as their competitors. I actually liked H&R Block’s Q&A format a little better than either TurboTax or TaxACT, assuming you have done your taxes online at least once or twice before; it may save you some time.

I would say that H&R Block Deluxe’s value proposition is this: it offers most of the added import conveniences of the similar TurboTax Premium, all at a fraction of the cost ($30 vs. $55 Federal, both $37 State). If you have a lot of stock sales from a specific broker, sign up for a account (they are all free to try; you only pay when you file) and go straight to the 1099 section to see if the H&R Block supports it. H&R Block also offers free in-person audit support, which costs $45 from TurboTax and $40 from TaxACT.

Bottom line: H&R Block Online offers most of the time-saving features of TurboTax for a lower price ($30 vs. $55 Federal, both $37 State), plus it includes free audit support which costs $40+ with other services.

TaxACT Review – 2014 Tax Year Features and Screenshots

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Having already done my TurboTax 2014 review, here is my review of TaxACT 2014. (H&R Block is next week.) For all three, I will be comparing the far-more-popular online versions.

Price
TaxACT come only in two basic flavors: Free and Deluxe. With the Free Edition, Federal (including e-File) is free, while State (included e-File) is $14.99. With the Deluxe Edition, Federal (including e-File) is $12.99, while State (included e-File) is $7. (The “Ultimate Bundle” is simply getting Deluxe + State for the same price of $19.99; there is no discount.) So if you do want Fed + State returns, the Deluxe bundle is only $5 more expensive than the Free bundle.

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They also have a promotion where if you import a PDF copy of your 2013 TurboTax or H&R Block return, you can get TaxACT Free Federal + State for $5, a savings of $9.99 off the regular price. Similar $5 deal for US Armed Forces with qualifying EIN.

Unlike TurboTax and H&R Block, TaxACT supposedly does not base the tiers on your tax situation – for example if you have stock sales or itemized deductions. Instead, it’s more about the level of service and convenience. Deluxe includes things like telephone support, charitable donation valuation assistance, importing from previous year TaxACT returns, and importing W-2 and 1099 forms (where available).

Accordingly, I tried my best to just use the Free version, but as you’ll see below after multiple hurdles and upsell attempts, I finally gave up and upgraded to Deluxe. Note that after you agree to upgrade, there is no way to downgrade again. You have to start over with a new account and username.

Tax Situation
Here’s a quick summary of our personal tax situation.

  • Married filing jointly, subject to state income tax
  • Both with W-2 income, as well as some simple 1099-MISC forms.
  • Interest income and dividend income from bank accounts, stocks, and bonds (Schedule B).
  • Contribute to retirement accounts (401ks and IRAs).
  • Capital gains and losses from brokerage accounts (Schedule D).
  • Itemized deductions (Schedule A), including property taxes and charitable giving.

User Interface and User Experience
The 2014 user interface for TaxACT is also cleaner than in previous years. Overall I think it is just fine, but on on a relative basis it felt a little cluttered with smaller text (you can enlarge things with your browser using Ctrl+ or Command+, but then the graphics looked a little off). Everything worked without issue, I just felt more eye strain as compared with TurboTax. There will be screenshots throughout this review.

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TaxACT uses the same question-and-answer format as other tax prep software. One way that they are different is that for filling out 1099-INT and 1099-DIV forms, you can use a special forms view where it looks like your actual paper form:

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I liked the idea, but in practice it wasn’t that great. 1099 forms may have the same numbers but usually have different layouts from provider to provider, and their model form has spaces for information like address that you don’t even need to enter in the normal Q&A guided format. In the end, the regular way is probably faster.

Importing Data From Previous Years
If you used TaxACT the previous year, it will pull up all of your old tax information only if you upgrade to Deluxe. You’ll get filing status, dependents, address, DOB, SSN, etc. Ironically, you can also import a previous year’s return from another provider like TurboTax or H&R Block by uploading a PDF of your old return – all without upgrading to Deluxe (I guess they don’t want to put up another hurdle for potential converts). So much for rewarding loyalty!

Importing W-2 and 1099 Forms Directly From Providers
Technically, TaxACT does support some W-2 and 1099 direct imports for Deluxe users. But in reality, this feature is very limited as compared to bigger competitors H&R Block and TurboTax. The same W-2 form that I imported successfully while using TurboTax was not available on TaxACT. I got the impression that relatively few employers were supported.

TaxACT does not support 1099-INT from any banking institutions. None.

TaxACT does now support 1099-B direct imports, but only from the following six financial institutions:

  • TD Ameritrade™
  • ShareBuilder®
  • Form8949.com
  • GainsKeeper®
  • Raymond James®
  • Betterment

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This is where I gave up and upgraded to Deluxe, as I wanted to test out this import feature. It worked fine, but you will need information from your paper 1099 form from TD Ameritrade and Sharebuilder, as opposed to just knowing your login information. Betterment import worked fine with just login information. You can also import via .CSV file as with other tax prep providers.

The Small Stuff

  • Having to input W-2 and 1099 forms manually increases the likelihood of data entry errors, and in fact I did make an error but TaxACT caught it as it didn’t make sense relative to my other numbers.
  • When entering my 1099-MISC information, TaxACT also led me down the same rabbit hole as TurboTax, asking the name and nature of my “business”, trying to determine if it was a hobby/farm/business, asking my business license number, and trying to claim various deductions like home office. I guess that’s just how it is done now by everyone.
  • Starting in the 2014 tax year, you’ll have to have health insurance or else pay a penalty. I indicated to TaxACT that I had employer-provided coverage for the entire year, and it did not ask for further proof or documentation.
  • When it came to the foreign tax credit, TaxACT’s questions made it easier to claim it as a credit rather than a deduction, as compared to TurboTax (it is more valuable as a credit).

Upselling and Price Change Tricks?
My goodness. The upsells with TaxACT Free were quite annoying this year, seemingly on every third screen. If you want to import a W-2, you’ll have to upgrade to Deluxe. If you want to import a 1099, you have to upgrade. If you want TaxACT to compare your tax refund if you file Married Joint vs. Married Separate, you’ll have to upgrade:

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If you have more than one “Life Event” like getting married, having kids, retiring, owning a home, breathing air (ok I’m kidding on that one), then you’ll have to upgrade to Deluxe. But they don’t make it very clear that this is all just “extra guidance” and not critical to finishing your return. You could easily assume that you need to upgrade if you did any two of the things on this very broad list. Here’s the page so you can see what I mean:

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The thing is, TaxACT Deluxe is still cheaper than their competitors by more than $20 if you do both Federal and State! I would say just pay the extra $5, get all the features available, and save yourself the headache of reading their spiel and saying no over and over. It’s still a good deal. If you only have a Federal return and have relatively simple needs, then out of pure cheapskate principle I might try harder to get that $0 return. 😉

The final two upsells are Tax Audit Defense for $39.99 and Data Archive Service for $6.99. I would personally decline both as I’m not sure of the quality of their subcontracted personnel and I can just save a PDF of my final return thank you very much.

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TL;DR Recap
ta200In the end, TaxACT did my taxes properly and basically asked the same questions in the same manner as their more expensive competitors. The full-featured version of TaxACT Deluxe costs at most $20 for both Federal and State returns including e-File for both. Their Free Federal version provides a full-featured free Federal return at any income level and for all tax forms. Many other providers have “free” editions that are restricted to certain income levels or are only for 1040-EZ forms with no investment income or business income.

Users should accept that the import feature set is rather weak and you will spend more time with data entry if you have multiple W-2 and/or 1099 forms, including stock sales. In addition, the repeated upsell attempts to Deluxe were a turn-off. I had to read every one carefully and decide “is it really worth the upgrade?” If I was going to pay for the State return anyway, I would have gone back in time and paid the extra $5 upfront just to avoid the hassle.

Bottom line: TaxACT is the best value choice if you just want accurate DIY tax return software and you don’t value the time-saving features of their competitors. If your return is relatively simple, why pay more than nothing (Fed only) or $20 (Fed + State)? If you are doing Federal + State returns and want to avoid repeated upsell attempts, I would pay the extra 5 bucks and upgrade to Deluxe right off the bat. You’ll still pocket some decent savings and you’ll be in a better mood. If you are converting from TurboTax or H&R Block and have a PDF copy of your 2013 return, note their $5 Fed + State deal.

TurboTax Review – 2014 Tax Year Features and Screenshots

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Although I’m still waiting on some 1099 forms (*cough* TD Ameritrade), I’ve already got most of my paperwork in order for my tax returns. I plan on comparing the three major tax preparation websites again this year: TurboTax, H&R Block, and TaxACT. I like shopping around as with all of these services, you only pay when you file. First up is Intuit TurboTax, the more popular online version.

Tax Situation
Here’s a quick summary of our personal tax situation.

  • Married filing jointly, subject to state income tax
  • Both with W-2 income, as well as some simple 1099-MISC forms.
  • Interest income and dividend income from bank accounts, stocks, and bonds (Schedule B).
  • Contribute to retirement accounts (401ks and IRAs).
  • Capital gains and losses from brokerage accounts (Schedule D).
  • Itemized deductions (Schedule A), including property taxes and charitable giving.

Price
TurboTax comes in Free, Deluxe, Premier, and Home & Business tiers. Due to my stock sales, I am going with TurboTax Premier Online. Although their website shows a “retail” price of $79.99, anyone who visits the site will automatically see a discounted price of $54.99 for Federal including e-File. TurboTax State Online an optional add-on at $36.99 including e-file. There are additional discounts out there available through various financial firms like Vanguard or Fidelity.

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This year, TurboTax also has an “Absolute Zero” promotion where you can get Fed + State + Fed eFile + State eFile for $0. However, you must have a very simple tax situation so that you can file Form 1040A or 1040EZ – that means taxable income of $100,000 or less, no itemized deductions, no investment income, no stock sales. I remember those days… my entire tax return fit on a single sheet of paper.

Note: I was able to enter the data from 1099-MISC forms without having to upgrade to Home & Business, even though this could be technically called “self-employment income”. I’m pretty sure if you don’t enter any business expenses and/or deductions then you won’t have to make the upgrade.

User Interface and User Experience
The 2014 user interface is probably the cleanest one I’ve seen from Intuit. It feels like I could fill it out on an iPad, with its clear text, lots of pictures, and big buttons. I’m sprinkling several screenshots throughout this review, which you can click to enlarge.

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As in previous years, TurboTax uses a question-and-answer interview format. I still remember filling out paper 1040 forms, and this is definitely easier to understand and less intimidating. I did feel like there were two slight changes from previous years though:

  • There was an increase in probing questions. For example, just entering a simple $700 1099-MISC from some random bonus deal led me down a 5-minute rabbit hole where TurboTax was trying to decided if this was really a W-2 job or independent contractor pay, if it was a business or hobby, and if I could deduct my cell phone usage and mileage for it. It should have asked me first if I actually wanted to figure these things out.
  • The software’s “personality” was more friendly and positive. For example, after entering in my property taxes, it said something like “Good news! The $X,XXX you paid is deductible and just reduced your tax bill!”

Importing Data From Previous Years
If you used TurboTax the previous year, it will pull up all of your old tax information. Filing status, dependents, address, DOB, SSN, etc. They also had all my old W-2 and 1099 providers to reduce my data entry needs a little bit more. For example, all my Employer Tax IDs and addresses were pre-filled. This did feel rather convenient, and it helped make sure I didn’t forget any 1099s from old bank accounts. I think most other competitors do this as well, however.

I did not use the option to try and import a previous year’s return from another provider like TaxACT or H&R Block. Please share in the comments if you used this feature.

Importing W-2 and 1099 Forms Directly From Providers
One of the major reasons to use TurboTax is that you can directly import your W-2 and 1099 information from a hundreds of partner providers, more than their competitors. The W-2 import function has been improved; you now simply type in your employer’s tax ID number (EIN) and if they can they’ll import your entire W-2 electronically. It worked seamlessly for me.

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However, 1099 forms are the real time saver for me. If you have a lot of stock sales, this could save you hours of tedious data entry. Now that 1099-B forms include cost basis, the benefit is even greater. Example 1099-INT, 1099-B, and 1099-DIVs that I was able to import: Vanguard, Fidelity, Betterment, Motif Investing, Sharebuilder, Scottrade. (The big banks like Bank of America and Chase are also available, but who actually earns any interest from them?) I did have a hiccup: Pentagon Federal Credit Union was on their partner list above, but I could not find it as an option while filing my return. I created a community question about it, my guess is perhaps it won’t be supported until later in the year? (Update: My guess was right, PenFed 1099s will be available starting February 23rd.)

In addition, it can prevent costly errors. In a previous year, I found that I had made a data entry error of $300 with one wrong digit when manually entering all those capital gains and losses from stock sales. The TurboTax import would have avoided that mistake, which I don’t think I would have caught if I wasn’t comparing these three tax software side-by-side.

The Small Stuff
A few observations:

  • As in previous years, TurboTax automatically enters commas when you reach thousands (ie. 3,459 instead of 3459). It helps with data entry, as I have already shown that I am error-prone! I think it’s a nice touch.
  • If you donate goods to a charity like the Salvation Army, you’ll get a free walkthrough using their ItsDeductible software which helps you value your donations. It’s a good double-check, although somehow it thinks a used jogging suit is worth $20, but you can edit their suggestions as needed.
  • Starting in the 2014 tax year, you’ll have to have health insurance or else pay a penalty. I indicated to TurboTax that I had employer-provided coverage for the entire year, and it did not ask for further proof or documentation.
  • When it came to the foreign tax credit, it was again much more work to claim it as a credit rather than a deduction (it is more valuable as a credit). In previous years, it was much easier in TaxACT to do so but I haven’t tried this year yet.

Upselling and Price Change Tricks?
This year, I noticed much fewer upsell attempts during the tax return, but that may be because I already started with Premier and not Deluxe. However, I was never upsold to Home & Business and the only offer I had was a final pitch for a product call Audit Defense for $44.99, which provides you “professional representation in the event of an audit” and covers both federal and state returns. In the end, the final price was the same as quoted in the beginning with no tricks.

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TL;DR Recap
tt2014_logoIn the end, TurboTax.com showed why it is both the most expensive and widely-used tax software. It covers all of the tax aspects as well as the others, perhaps with a bit more thoroughness (sometimes even too much thoroughness). However, where it separates itself is with the extra features including ItsDeductible and the ease of importing data from many financial institutions. The design is clean and direct, without the air of desperate upsells. I should also acknowledge here that TurboTax did receive negative publicity this year due to an poorly-handled price increase for their Desktop users (download and CD versions).

Bottom line: TurboTax is more expensive than its competitors – but if it saves you both time and effort in data entry (and potentially prevents errors), then I can definitely see how people would be willing to pay a premium. If your return is simple, you are less likely to need the additional features.

T-Mobile Free 7-Day Test Drive Review

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I’m nearing the end of my contract, and I’ve been tempted by T-Mobile’s aggressive promotions like 4 lines for $100 and most recently free rollover data. But I worry about their coverage. Then I learned of the Free T-Mobile Test Drive where you can get an iPhone 5S shipped to you and try out their service with unlimited talk, text, and data for 7 days. All for free. You just have to return the phone to a physical T-Mobile retail store by the end of the 7th day or get charged $375 + tax. If there is damage like a cracked LCD screen or the Find my iPhone feature is left active, you’ll be charged $100.

I signed up online, agreed to the $700 hold on my credit card, and they shipped a phone out to me. 2-day shipping time passed, I started it up, but the phone didn’t work. Well, the phone turned on and apps worked fine on Wi-Fi. The T-Mobile service didn’t work. I saw bars and “T-Mobile” on the screen, but under the phone number setting, it said “Unknown”. All phone calls went to T-Mobile customer service. When trying to access the internet using 4G, it would only pull up a T-Mobile website stating that the phone was not activated on a data plan. Warning: this is a bit of a rant so you may want to just skip down to the bottom line.

Naturally, I called T-Mobile customer service. I was stuck in the usual phone tree hell, as there was no option for the 7-Day Test Drive and I wasn’t a new activation or an existing customer. I had no phone number to type in. Eventually I reached a human. I’ll call her Human #1.

T-Mobile Human #1: Hi, may I help you?

Me: Yes, I just received a phone from your T-Mobile 7-Day Test Drive promotion and I am having trouble getting the service to work.

T-Mobile Human #1: What is your name? (I give it to her)

T-Mobile Human #1: What is your phone number?

Me: I don’t have one.

T-Mobile Human #1: What is your account PIN?

Me: I don’t have one.

T-Mobile Human #1: What is your account number?

Me: I don’t have one. I’m on a test drive. I do have my order number, though.

T-Mobile Human #1: Hmm… let me transfer you. I’ll need to put you on hold for a few minutes.

Me: Okay.

T-Mobile Human #2: Hi, may I help you?

Me: Yes, I just a phone from your T-Mobile 7-Day Test Drive promotion and I am having trouble getting the service to work.

T-Mobile Human #2: What is your name? (I give it to him)

T-Mobile Human #2: What is your phone number?

Me: I don’t have one.

T-Mobile Human #2: What is your account number?

Me: I don’t have one. I do have my order number, though.

T-Mobile Human #2: Okay let me transfer you. I’ll need to put you on hold for a few minutes.

Me: Umm… okay.

I’m not kidding, this actually happens AGAIN with Human #3, and then I get transferred to tech support.

T-Mobile Human #4: (All the same questions again…) Okay, what is the ICCID number under your Settings > General > About?

Me: 8914 2121 2121 1212 555 (not actual number but I did give it to him)

T-Mobile Human #4: Well your SIM is not showing up as activated on our system. I’ll need to transfer you back again.

Me: You know what, I’ve been on the phone for half an hour. I am already running late. I’m going to go.

I wait until the next day and hope the phone activates on its own. Nope. So I call T-Mobile again. This time the person (#5) is in a crowded call center and I can barely hear her amidst the noise. She has no idea what the T-Mobile Test Drive is. She wants to transfer me. I just can’t go through that again so I hang up. I happen to have an errand that runs by a T-Mobile store so I just decide to return the phone.

I walk into the store and tell them I need to return a Test Drive phone. Surprise, they don’t know how to do that. I should mention that this promotion has been running for over 6 months and T-Mobile boasted that over 12,000 people had already done it. The two young men take the phone and ask me what the phone number is. I tell them I don’t have one and the phone doesn’t work. They ask to look at the phone.

T-Mobile Human #6: Your phone isn’t activated.

Me: I know.

T-Mobile Human #7: So they sent you a phone that doesn’t even work?

Me: Yes.

T-Mobile Human #6: We don’t know how to accept this return.

Me: Well, the promo is on your website and it clearly says I can only return it at a T-Mobile store. So here I am.

T-Mobile Human #7: Uhh, we have to call the manager.

Eventually another employee came by that knew the proper return process. I asked if they could just activate the phone in the store, but they couldn’t. I made sure to get a receipt stating that they received my device back and confirm that I’ll be charged $0.00. So after dealing with eight different T-Mobile employees and wasting well over an hour of my time, I still have no idea how good T-Mobile’s coverage is in my local area. It could be great.

For my troubles, I did get to keep the Apple OEM earbuds that came with the phone. Yay. I guess they think it’s icky to share earbuds (and I agree) so they ship brand new ones to every Test Drive customer along with a refurbished iPhone.

Please, T-Mobile, if you’re going to run a a test drive promotion, you need to use it as THE perfect opportunity to show the best side of your company and gain a customer!

Bottom line: I like the idea of letting people test drive the network. I do suspect T-Mobile coverage can be good enough if you stay in major metro areas. I liked being able to order the kit online and have it arrive at my door. Returning at a physical store so they can manually check the phone’s condition was better than having me mail it in and praying it gets there safely with a fair inspection. This way I knew I’d be charged nothing when I returned the phone. But T-Mobile needs to make a special department or hotline for this promo as their customer service folks are uninformed. Hopefully, most other people who do this test drive get a properly activated phone and don’t have to deal with the same issues.

Acorns App Review: Automatically Invest Your Spare Change

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Updated. Acorns fee structure updated 1/1/15. Previously I wrote about WiseBanyan, which lets you invest in a basket of ETFs with no minimum opening balance. I remarked that it allowed starter investors to open a complete portfolio with as little as $100. 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. YouTube video demo:

Fees. 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. See fee estimator for detailed calculations.

Withdrawals are free, but you may incur capital gains on which you’ll owe income tax. 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 standard Modern Portfolio Theory fare, 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. Currently available on iOS 7 or higher. iTunes download link. Android and web application “available soon”.

My thoughts. My first reaction was… that it was a great idea. 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 you could just look at a buck a month as something you’d otherwise blow on some Candy Crush Saga app.

It bugs me when people call it a “piggy bank” when it isn’t. 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.

Finally, will people will keep large amounts of money in this little smartphone app for years and years? Maybe. My bet is that they are eventually bought out by a larger firm in the future (or someone just straight-up copies the idea).

Bottom line: Neat idea, very nicely-designed app. It won’t fund your retirement, but it might be worth a try for those that need a nudge to invest. I think there should an option for an FDIC-insured high-yield savings account.

More: Wired, Techcrunch