Covestor Core Portfolios Review: Free Managed ETF Portfolio

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covlogoLow-cost index ETF portfolio are everywhere these days! Covestor is a site that usually charges you a fee to manage your portfolio to follow various active managers, with fees ranging up to 2% per year (split Covestor/manager 50/50). However, they recently introduced their Covestor Core Portfolios, which consist of passive ETFs from providers such as Vanguard and Blackrock iShares. These have no management fees, so you’ll just pay the expense ratios of the underlying ETFs plus any trading commissions. Total trading commissions are estimated at $20 annually (investments held at Interactive Brokers, average trade runs about $1, no markup charged). There is a $25,000 minimum investment required.

The three initial portfolios are the Covestor Core Moderate (40% stocks, 60% bonds), Core Balanced (60% stocks, 40% bonds) and Core Growth (80% stocks, 20% bonds). Periodic rebalancing will be done to maintain risk-return profile. Unfortunately, you can’t see the exact portfolio asset allocations without having an account (why not??), but you can try and tease most of the info out of what they give you. Let’s take the top 5 holdings of Core Growth:

  • 34.7% Total US Stock (VTI)
  • 21.4% Emerging Markets Stock (VWO)
  • 19.2% Developed International Stock (VEA)
  • 7.2% Total US Bond (AGG)
  • 5.1% US REIT (VNQ)

The top 4 stock ETFs add up to 80.4%, which must be all the stock ETFs that they use. Broken down in terms of stock asset allocation only, that is 43% Total US, 27% Emerging Markets, 24% Developed International, and 6% REITs.

Let’s take the Top 5 holdings of Core Moderate:

  • 31.8% Total US Bond (AGG)
  • 29.7% Total US Stock (VTI)
  • 10.1% Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities TIPS (TIP)
  • 9.2% Commodities (DJP)
  • 5.6% Emerging Markets Stock (VWO)

Total US Bonds and TIPS only add up to 41.9%, but there are supposed to be 60% bonds, so I’m a bit confused. My guess is that their commodities futures ETN (DJP) is considered fixed income? Usually commodities futures are considered equity-like or an alternate asset class. I suppose they are collateralized by T-Bills, but still even added in, that’s only 51.1%. Still confused.

What about competitors? At a $25,000 portfolio balance, Betterment would charge $62.50 a year and Wealthfront would charge $37.50 a year (first $10k free). At a $250k portfolio balance, Betterment would charge $375 a year and Wealthfront would charge $600 a year (first $10k free). Vanguard Personal Advisor Services has a $100,000 minimum, but includes regular interaction with a CFP and costs 0.3% a year (a $250k portfolio would cost $750 a year). All include any trading commissions in their fees.

All in all, the lack of transparency and also lack of the asset allocations making sense don’t have me very interested in Covestor Core Portfolios, but it is definitely part of an accelerating movement towards having low-cost index funds as your primary investment holding. Remember, with a little learning you can easily DIY all this for “free” as well and maintain full control over your investments.

More: Barron’s (their asset allocation percentages are wrong, they assume the Top 5 holdings are the entire portfolio), ETF.com

TradeKing Advisors Review: Managed Core and Momentum ETF Portfolios

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tkalogoAnother online ETF portfolio advisor joins the mix. Discount brokerage TradeKing, possibly best known for their $4.95 stock trades, announced a new subsidiary called TradeKing Advisors which will directly manage ETF portfolios for retail customers. Details:

  • Portfolio asset allocation designed and monitored by Ibbotson Associates. There will be Core and Momentum portfolios.
  • The portfolio will be determined by an 8 question risk questionnaire.
  • TradeKing Advisors will manage and rebalance portfolio as needed to stay on target. Assets will be held at TradeKing brokerage.
  • Management fee of 0.75% of account balance annually for Core portfolios, minimum initial investment of $10,000. For Momentum portfolios, 1% management fee and $25k minimum account size. For account balances over $250,000, the fees for each portfolio are reduced to 0.50% annually.

Per their website, their “strategies include a diversified allocation of up to 20 asset classes – including fixed income, equities, real estate and foreign investments – implemented cost-effectively with ETFs.” I could not find any specific information about the asset allocation of these ETF portfolios or the ticker symbols used.

But that’s okay, as I pretty much stopped listening when the fees were listed at 0.75% for a basic index ETF portfolio. It may be less than what E*Trade charges but in my opinion that’s still too much to pay for any ETF portfolio, and much more than many other services like Betterment and Wealthfront that do pretty much the same thing also with a slick user interface. Supposedly TradeKing will differentiate themselves with their “exceptional customer service”. As a TradeKing brokerage customer, I found their customer service fine and Live Chat is nice but not worth another 0.40% to 0.50% annually as you don’t even get assigned a Certified Financial Planner or CFA. So far it just sounds like an expensive robo-advisor. In that case, I will pass.

Kindle Unlimited Review: Personal Finance and Investing Books

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kindleu2Amazon has just announced Amazon Unlimited, an eBook and audiobook subscription service that costs $9.99 a month (30-day free trial) and not included in Amazon Prime. They claim over 600,000 titles in their library, although that number is padded by a lot of little-known self-published eBooks. “Thousands” of those books come with free audiobook versions. You can read unlimited books (max 10 out at once) and on any Kindle app (Windows, Mac, web browser, iPhone/iPad, Android, etc).

It’s a library card with 24/7 instant availability, but how well-stocked is this virtual library?

My personal reading habits include mainly business, personal improvement, and finance books. I compiled a list of notable books that I have read or want to read first, and then checked if Amazon Unlimited had it. I’m also including the findings from my Oyster review (a competing eBook app) for comparison purposes.

Book Oyster.com Amazon Unlimited
William Bernstein’s Recommended Reading List for Young Investors
The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy by Thomas Stanley and William Danko. Yes No
Common Sense on Mutual Funds by Jack Bogle. Yes No
Devil Take the Hindmost: A History of Financial Speculation by Edward Chancellor. No No
The Great Depression: A Diary by Benjamin Roth. Yes No
Your Money and Your Brain by Jason Zweig. Yes No
How a Second Grader Beats Wall Street by Allan Roth. Yes No
All About Asset Allocation by Rick Ferri. No No
5 Recent Bestsellers
Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis. No Yes
Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry by Helaine Olen. No No
Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. No No
Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty. No Yes
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. No No
5 Personal Favorite Financial Books
Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez. No No
Work Less, Live More: The Way to Semi-Retirement by Robert Clyatt. Yes No
The Richest Man in Babylon by George S. Clason. No No
The Four Pillars of Investing by William Bernstein. No No
A Random Walk Down Wall Street by Burton G. Malkiel. No No

 
* Oyster catalog checked June 2014 and Amazon Unlimited checked July 2014.

Recap

In the “major publisher, popular, well-reviewed” category, Oyster wins hands-down. AmazonUnlimited reportedly does not have any of the major “Big 5″ publishers (they are not BFFs right now). In the “recent business bestseller” category, neither is great but Amazon actually has a slightly better showing. Many of Michael Lewis’s other books are also on AmazonUnlimited (The Big Short, Liar’s Poker, The Blind Side). In the “niche DIY early retirement personal finance nerd” category, again neither does great although Oyster technically wins by a nose.

Bottom line: Amazon Unlimited has a relatively limited catalog for personal finance enthusiasts.

Keep in mind that the Amazon Kindle Owner’s Lending Library still exists (at least for now) and boasts 500,000+ titles (again padded by self-published eBooks). The Kindle Lending Library is free if you already have both a Kindle (any model) and an Amazon Prime subscription. You can only read on a Kindle device though, and you only get one title per month.

There are some promising titles available if you dig around, for example I noticed that William Bernstein’s “Investing for Adults” series of books (The Ages of the Investor, Skating Where the Puck Was, Deep Risk, and Rational Expectations so far) are all available with both Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Lending Library.

Personally, I might sign-up for the free trial and read whatever books I can during that window and maybe it’ll spill over for a month (though you can cancel now and still enjoy you free month without worry of auto-bill), but I can’t see myself paying $120 a year for a limited selection of books (that interest me) that I can’t keep forever.

Quizzle Review: Free Equifax Credit Score and Credit Report

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Quizzle logoQuizzle.com is a website that offers a free credit score and your official Equifax credit report every six months. You can now monitor your credit scores from all three credit bureaus for free. It has been six months for me, so I just grabbed my 2nd credit report of 2014 and took the opportunity to provide a brief review of this service.

(Fun fact: Quizzle part of the Quicken Loans family and owned by Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and soon-to-be employer of Lebron James.)

Here are some website screenshots:

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Your free Equifax report lists all your credit lines including credit cards and other loans, recent credit inquiries, public records, and other personal information. This is the same report that you would get if you bought one from Equifax directly or got your free government-mandated one from AnnualCreditReport.com. Get your timing right and that is three free Equifax credit reports a year.

Your free Equifax credit score is specifically the newest VantageScore 3.0 which was unveiled in 2013 and has the same scale as FICO 300-850. A little background – VantageScore was actually created directly by the three major bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) to compete with the best-known FICO score from Fair Isaac Corporation. I don’t think they’ve overcome FICO, but it appears they are the 2nd-most widely used score out there and supported by some big bucks. Unlike some FAKO scores, it is actually used by lenders in their loan decisions. However, the numerical value will probably not map directly to your FICO score. From the Quizzle site:

Quizzle features the VantageScore credit score. The VantageScore credit score is used by thousands of lenders, including the nation’s largest banks, in their credit card, auto lending and mortgage businesses.

Some additional details:

  • Yes, it is really free. No purchase or credit card required. No trial subscriptions either.
  • There is no effect on your credit score because you are checking your own credit. It is a soft pull, not a hard pull.
  • You will see advertising of various financing offers based on your information (mortgage, auto loans, credit cards, personal loans). As part of Quicken Loans, so they will likely pitch you for a mortgage. However, they state that they don’t sell your information to others.
  • Free 24/7 credit monitoring of my Experian account was also offered to me. I am not sure if this was targeted only to select users as I had to opt in, but it was clearly marked as free. I just signed up for this so I haven’t gotten a chance to see how it works.
  • Paid upgrade options. Quizzle Pro gets you monthly Equifax credit reports and scores for $8-$11 a month. The pricing appears to be customized for each user. Quizzle Pro+ gets you all that plus $1,000,000 in Identity Theft Protection and 24/7 Victim Assistance for around $18 a month. I did not purchase either option.
  • The site states you can get a free report and score every 6 months (180 days), but I was able to get mine after just 168 days (I didn’t try every day, I just remembered today and it worked… shrug). I checked on January 27, 2014 and again on July 13, 2014. It would be more competitive with other sites if they could start offering score updates every month and keep the reports every 6 months.
  • Prior to early 2014, Quizzle used to give out Experian-based credit scores twice a year, but Credit Sesame already gave Experian-based scores for free every month so it wasn’t very appealing. The change to Equifax was a welcome one.

In summary, I am glad this service exists and I don’t mind being pitched a mortgage loan consultation every six months in exchange for a free official Equifax credit report and credit score. It is another step closer to gaining better access to what I consider our personal information. Credit Sesame and Credit Karma are similar services that use the other two major consumer credit databases:

Oyster App Review: Personal Finance and Investing Books

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oysterssWouldn’t a Netflix for books be neat? You could borrow all the books that you wanted to read and then return them when you’re done. Oh wait, they already invented it and called it a library.

But seriously, what if you wanted it all available 24/7 on your iPhone or iPad, and you don’t want to wait if someone else has checked it out already. Enter the new eBook subscription app Oyster. For $10 a month (first month free, iPhone/iPad + Android app added as of 6/17/14) they’ll let you read all the books you want from their catalog of 500,000+ books. That sounds good me as I buy about a book per month on Amazon as it is. The question is if Oyster’s library is big enough for my personal reading habits. I couldn’t find a way to search through their entire collection without an active subscription, so I signed up for a trial (credit card required).

As I mainly read business, personal improvement, and personal finance books these days, that is going to be the focus of my review. I decided to compile a list of notable books that I have read or want to read first, and then check Oyster to see if they have it in their library.

William Bernstein’s Recommended Reading List for Young Investors

5 Recent Bestsellers

5 Personal Favorite Financial Books

Conclusion

Oyster has been steadily increasing the publishers participating in their service, but it looks like they still have a way to go. They do have a pretty good showing in older, popular, well-reviewed books. The problem is that these are exactly the type of books that are readily available in most libraries. On the other hand, they are weak in recent business bestsellers, which is where they could provide me with the most value and convenience (I’d like to just browse and skim many of these first). I read that they will not have it if the book was released within the last 3 months. They also don’t have enough depth to carry some of the better books in the early retirement niche.

I won’t be paying $10 a month for this as I only read about a book a month (cost $10-$15) and Oyster probably won’t have it in their library. I will note that on a user-experience basis, actually reading the books and navigating around the app has been pretty easy.

Alternatives to Oyster include Scribd and the Amazon Kindle Lending Library which boasts 350,000+ titles. The latter is free if you already have both a Kindle (any model) and an Amazon Prime subscription.

Walmart Savings Catcher: Finally a No Hassle Low Price Guarantee?

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wmcatcherMany stores offer a “low price guarantee” but in reality nobody actually uses them. You have to find the competing price yourself, wait in the returns line, all for the opportunity to argue with the cashier about the validity of your claim. Who wants to do that?

Walmart is trying out a new feature called Savings Catcher that automates their low price guarantee. Here’s how it works:

  1. Enter the TC Number from your Walmart receipt at walmart.com/savingscatcher or scan the barcode using the Walmart smartphone app.
  2. Savings Catcher compares the prices of the items you bought at Walmart to the advertised prices at the time of your purchase from the print and online versions of weekly print ads of top retailers in your area.
  3. If Savings Catcher finds an advertised price that is lower than what you paid for the same exact item at Walmart, you can get a Walmart Rewards eGift Card for the difference.

Here are the current test markets and the local competitors they check against:

  • Atlanta, GA– Aldi, Food Depot, CVS, Food Lion, Dollar General, Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Ingles, Kroger, Publix, Rite-Aid, Kmart, Target, Walgreens, IGA, Wayfield Foods and Piggly Wiggly.
  • Charlotte, NC– Aldi, Bi-Lo, CVS, Dollar General, Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Food Lion, Harris Teeter, Ingles, Kmart, Lowes (Food), Target, Rite-Aid, Publix, and Walgreens.
  • Dallas, TX– Albertsons, Aldi, Brookshires, Dollar General, Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, HEB, Kroger, Target and Tom Thumb.
  • Huntsville, AL Market– Aldi, Belle/Food World, CVS, Dollar General, Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Save-A-Lot, Foodland, Kroger, Piggly Wiggly, Publix, Rite Aid, Target, Walgreens.
  • Lexington, KY– Aldi, CVS, Dollar General, Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Save-A-Lot, Kroger, Meijer, Rite Aid, Target and Walgreens.
  • Minneapolis, MN– Aldi, Cub Foods, CVS, Family Dollar, Hy Vee, IGA, Rainbow Foods, Shopko, Target and Walgreens.
  • San Diego– Albertsons, CVS, Dollar Tree, Ralph’s, Rite Aid, Vons, Smart & Final, Target, Fresh & Easy, Walgreens, Stater Bros and Save-A-Lot.

Savings Catcher applies to your in-store Walmart purchases only. Online prices from competitors don’t count. If you use a manufacturer’s coupon, it will consider the pre-coupon price. You can submit up to 7 receipts per week and 15 receipts per month. Savings are issued on a Walmart gift card that can be used in-store or online. There are item restrictions.

Included:

  • Most groceries such as cereal, rice and cookies except for: store brand items, deli, bakery and weighed items like meat, fruits and vegetables.
  • Consumable Items such as paper towels, bleach and trash bags;
  • Health and beauty items such as shampoo and makeup.

NOT included:

  • General merchandise items, (including, but not limited to, electronics, media and gaming, toys, sporting goods, housewares, small appliances, home décor, bedding, books and magazines, apparel and shoes, jewelry, furniture, office supplies and seasonal products);
  • Non-branded items;
  • Tobacco, firearms, gasoline, tires, prescription drugs, optical and photo products and services, or products that require a service agreement such as wireless, automotive or financial products.

How much should you expect back? One frequent shopper reports 2-3% back, via DailyFinance:

Anne Jurchak was part of Walmart’s focus group. She said she’s been getting back $5 to $7 on her weekly trips to Walmart in which she typically spends $200 to $250. Jurchak has used those savings to buy holiday stocking stuffers and a case for her e-reader.

Thanks to reader Doug for the tip.

Everbank 5 Year MarketSafe Treasury CD Review – FDIC Insured Principal, Rising Rate Participation

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marketsafe2Interest rates remain very low, but at the same time we are constantly being warned that they could spike up soon. What is a conservative investor to do?

Everbank’s lineup of MarketSafe CDs are a new wrinkle on FDIC-insured bank CDs that try to take advantage of these current low interest rates. They are basically a hedged bet on something like currencies, precious metals, or commodities. If things don’t work out, the principal you put in is protected with FDIC insurance so you’ll always get that back, just with no interest in the worst case. If your selected market bet does pan out, you’ll get an interest payment based on that upside.

Their newest product is the 5-yr MarketSafe Treasury CD which bets on rising interest rates. I don’t pay much attention to gold or currency prices, but interest rates are easier to understand. Here’s the pitch:

With this latest MarketSafe CD, seek 3.3 times any upside growth in the 10-year Treasury yield during the CD term.3 Full protection of your deposited principal comes standard.1 Act by June 11, 2014 to take advantage.

Sound intriguing, but as usual let’s dig into the details.

The CD has a term of 5 years. You must fund it by 6/11/2014 and the maturity date is 6/21/2019 where you’ll get your principal plus any interest accrued (“market upside payment”). You can’t make any early withdrawals (well, technically you can but you lose the principal protection and are subject to penalties). The minimum opening deposit is $1,500. No monthly or account fees. Available for IRAs.

The market upside payment is based on the following formula using the 10-Year US Treasury yield:

(yield at maturity - initial yield) x 3.3 x deposited principal

Comments:

  • While the formula multiplies the rate difference by 3.3, this includes all the interest you’ll get for 5 years. As an example, if you had a 5-year CD paying 2% annually, that’s a 10.4% total return at the end of 5 years. (You can find a 5-year CD at 2.25% APY at GE Capital Retail Bank).
  • The current 10-year Treasury yield is roughly 2.6% (this could change by issue date). If you want a 10% return after 5 years from this MarketSafe CD, 10-year yields would have to rise by 3% to 5.6% in June 2019.
  • If the 10-year Treasury yield stays constant or drops between the initial date and maturity date, you will only get back your original principal.

I won’t make a rate prediction because I have no idea where rates are headed. Here’s a historical chart of the 10-year Treasury yield over the last 20 years (FRED):

fred10ust20yr

The last time the 10-year yield was near 5.5% was around 2002. Rates would have to go higher than that to beat a top 5-year traditional CD. However, keep in mind that with this product you are getting both upside potential and principal protection. In exchange for such risk reduction, it can’t be a slam dunk. If rates do rise up to say 5.5%, then the people who actually bought 10-year bonds today would be looking at a significant loss of principal.

Betterment Retirement Income Review – Automated Safe Withdrawal Tool

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bettermentlogoOnline portfolio manager Betterment recently rolled out a new Retirement Income feature that will help you withdraw money from your nest egg. Unfortunately, even though I have a Betterment account I couldn’t test it out directly as it is currently only available to customers with a $100,000+ balance that have designated themselves as retired. But through a combination of reading through their website materials, press releases, blog posts, as well as asking an employee specific questions, I was able to get a good idea of how this feature works.

Factors taken in account. Here’s what they ask about your individual situation:

  • Current portfolio value. You can add outside accounts manually.
  • Asset allocation (Betterment portfolios are built-in).
  • Inflation is assumed to be 3% annually.
  • Time horizon (age and entered longevity).

Dynamic withdrawal strategy. This is very important! Betterment’s calculations assume a dynamic strategy where you come back every year to and reassess to determine a new safe withdrawal amount. Dynamic strategies are more flexible and resilient than static strategies which simply set a number at the beginning of retirement and stick with it regardless of portfolio performance. However, as a result you’ll have to deal with varying income, and it does not appear that they perform income smoothing. Here is an example scenario of how income might fluctuate with (rather optimistic) market performance (source):

betterretire1

If you follow their advice, updating at least annually, Betterment estimates that there is a 1% or less chance of depleting your portfolio before the end of your designated time horizon. As with many similar calculators in the industry, their numbers are based on Monte Carlo simulations.

Sample numbers for 65-year old retiree. I asked Betterment Marketing Manager Katherine Buck about the following hypothetical situation: $1,000,000 portfolio, 60% stocks and 40% bonds invested at Betterment, with 30-year time horizon (age 65 to 95). In that case, the current model income recommendation would be $2,879 per month ($34,548 a year), or roughly 3.45% of the $1M portfolio.

Automatic withdrawals. To recreate a paycheck in retirement, you can set up an auto-withdrawal to deposit money into your linked bank account on a regular basis. You can go with their recommended amount, or you can adjust the amount as you wish.

Cost. The Retirement Income feature is included in their existing fee structure. At a $100,000 minimum balance, a Betterment charges 0.15% annually and that fee is inclusive of all trading costs and rebalancing costs. 0.15% works out to $150 a year per $100,000 invested. So a $1,000,000 portfolio would cost $1,500 a year. This is much cheaper than a traditional advisor from a major brokerage firm.

Finally, here’s a video about the feature that includes some (blurry) screenshots of the tool in action:

Overall, I think this is a smart move on Betterment’s part to start offering more features that a human financial advisor would offer that a discount brokerage like TD Ameritrade wouldn’t. The numbers appear to be reasonably conservative and the tool is definitely easy to use. A competing product that I’ve also written about is the Vanguard Managed Payout fund. In comparison with that product, I wonder if Betterment shouldn’t add a smoothing component to their recommended income amounts so that the withdrawal amounts don’t swing too wildly from year-to-year. Betterment has historically shown a good willingness to make changes in response to feedback, so I am hopeful they will consider it.

Also see my previous full Betterment review. The current Betterment sign-up promotion offers 3 months free with a $5,000 initial deposit, 4 months free with a $25,000 deposit, and 6 months free with a $100,000 initial deposit.

Citi Simplicity Card Review: 0% for 18 Months, No Late Fees, No Penalty Rates

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citisimplicity175I 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. The Citi Simplicity® Card 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 18 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 18 months. This means you can keep charging your new purchases on this card as well and also enjoy no interest for 18 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.
  • 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® is a solid card for those in the midst of the debt payoff process looking to pay no interest for 18 months with minimal gotcha fees compared to the competition.

Tax Prep Guide 2013: TurboTax vs. TaxACT vs. H&R Block Online

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According to an informal 2012 poll, 86% of blog readers prepared their own taxes using software with a breakdown of 60% TurboTax, 21% TaxACT, and 16% H&R Block at Home. This nearly matches the findings of analytics firm Comscore, which found that of online filers 60% used TurboTax, 18% used TaxACT, and 15% used H&R Block at Home.

I’ve used all three programs over the years and each has their clear strengths and weaknesses. The NY Times recently did their own 3-way comparison with very similar experiences to my own. They actually called in for help and reported the results, so I’ve added this factor into my lightning review:

The major differentiating factors are price, time-saving features, audit support, and ability to answer specific tax questions. In terms of accuracy, I think all three are nearly identical. All three offer a “Maximum Refund Guarantee” (relative to competing software) as well as an “Accuracy Guarantee” (relative to your tax liability) that says that they will pay any penalty and interest assessed by the IRS or your state due to calculation errors on their part (though H&R Block limits this to $10,000). Actual cost can vary widely with sales and discounts, listed here are just the everyday prices.

tt180TurboTax Online

  • Most expensive. Federal Deluxe regular price is $29.99 w/ e-file. However, you now need Premier at $49.99 if you have an investment gains or losses. State return price is $36.99.
  • Best import support from payroll providers and financial institutions for automatic import of W-2 and 1099 forms. Works with free “ItsDeductible” program to help with recording charitable donations.
  • Moderate audit support (you get help, but no in-person representation)
  • Specific tax advice – Free online chat included. Did not provide definitive answer to NYT reporter’s question.

Bottom line: The time-saving choice if you have a lot of brokerage transactions, W-2s, or other 1099 forms to electronically import this year. Also if you have a lot of details to import from last year’s return with TurboTax. It may be worth the extra cost to avoid tedious data entry.

ta200TaxACT Online

  • Cheapest overall with Federal Deluxe regular price at $12.99 w/ e-file. Federal + State return combined including e-file at $17.99.
  • Limited import support (worst of the three).
  • Limited audit support (worst of the three).
  • Specific tax advice – Phone support only, online chat not available. Did not provide definitive answer to NYT reporter’s question.

Bottom line: The value choice if you just want accurate DIY tax return software and don’t need any extra assistance.

hr160H&R Block at Home Online

  • Middle-of-road pricing. Federal Deluxe regular price is $29.99, but includes investments. State return price is $36.99.
  • Moderate import support for 1099s and W-2 (not as broad at TurboTax, better than TaxACT)
  • Best free audit support. Only product that includes an H&R Block Enrolled Agent actually attending your audit in-person. However, consider whether you would hire your own representative in the actual event of an IRS audit.
  • Specific tax advice – Free online chat included, only one to provide definitive answer to NYT reporter’s question.

Bottom line: The got-your-back choice if you want the assurance that a federally-authorized enrolled agent will guide you for free through a potential albeit unlikely audit. Anecdotally the one most likely to provide answers if you have harder tax questions.

Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund Review (VGTSX, VTIAX, VXUS)

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(See also: Vanguard Total Stock Index Fund Review)

The Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund is available both as a mutual fund (VGTSX, VTIAX) and an ETF (VXUS). Across all shares classes, there is currently around $90 billion dollars invested in this fund, making it one of the top 10 largest funds in the world. As the name suggests, this fund attempts to include all the investable companies from every single country in the world outside the US. From Indonesia to Morocco, from Luxembourg to Hong Kong. It also includes small-cap, mid-cap, and large-cap companies, unlike many other “total international” index funds. Such a wide coverage area makes this fund very fascinating. Let’s take a look inside.

[Read more...]

LikeAssets Review: A Reality Check For Your Portfolio

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Over the years, I’ve noticed that people tend to overestimate their own stock-picking prowess – myself included. Especially over longer periods of time, if you’re not tracking things carefully you probably don’t know how well you’re doing on a relative basis. We all tend to remember the winners and forget the losers. The sooner you figure out you’re not Buffett, the sooner you can improve your returns. (Otherwise, the sooner you can start your own hedge fund.)

If you like the idea of my Beat The Market Experiment but don’t want to expend too much effort in tracking your own performance, you should check out LikeAssets.com. This new portfolio tracking site recently became the backend for the Wall Street Journal’s Portfolio tool (paid subscribers only), but the direct site is free to all. I’ve been playing around with it for a few days, and here’s my review.

LikeAssets is similar to a Mint.com, SigFig, or Personal Capital (review) in that you hand over your login information and they automatically sync with your brokerage accounts to pull in your holdings. However, their key differentiator is that they automatically choose the appropriate benchmark ETFs based on your holdings in order to determine your “alpha” (excess return above benchmark). You don’t have to do anything. So if you’re holding a bunch of big dividend-paying companies, you’ll probably be matched up with a large-cap value index ETF. The custom benchmark goes even further to match your trades in real-time, not just your current asset allocation:

How is the LikeAssets custom benchmark calculated?
A benchmark portfolio is constructed based on the types of securities in your portfolio. When you make a trade, your custom benchmark portfolio mirrors the trade using an appropriate ETF or set of ETFs.

Once you sign up, you can either choose to import your data electronically from a supported brokerage firm, or manually input your trades. Supported firms include Fidelity, Vanguard, TD Ameritrade, Schwab, E-Trade, Scottrade, and OptionsXpress. Below is a screenshot of my linked TD Ameritrade benchmark portfolio. I would expect my “alpha” here to be close to zero as they are already passive investments, and that is indeed the case.


(click to enlarge)

Unfortunately LikeAssets only works with about 50 brokers right now, and my TradeKing speculative portfolio is currently not supported. Typing in the trades manually is somewhat of a pain as you’d expect, although the software does automatically fill in your buy/sell price based on the market’s closing price that day (not exact, but a good estimate and you can edit it). In addition, dividend distributions are automatically calculated for you (any reinvestment of dividends still must be input manually). Here’s a screenshot of my manually-input TradeKing account:

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