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Interest will accrue during the grace period; however, that interest will not be paid if the funds are withdrawn during the grace period.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

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Discover 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.
  • 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.
  • Free FICO® Credit Score on your monthly statements, on mobile app and online*.
  • 100% U.S. based service at your dedicated phone number—day and night.
  • 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:

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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

Ally Bank Savings Account Review

allyreview_logoI’ve banked with Ally for years (checking, savings, and multiple CDs), but I’ve never done a specific review of their savings account until now. Ally has recently raised their rates to be closer to the rotating list of banks jockeying for top spot.

The Ally Online Savings Account has no minimum balance, no monthly fees, and currently pays 0.99% APY (as of 12.19.14). Their interest rates may not be the absolute highest, but they have consistently been within 0.10% of the temporarily top banks, making it not worthwhile to move my money. (See my rate chaser calculator). Let’s go through the important factors.

User Interface. Below is a screenshot of the main page after logging in (click to enlarge). I can see all of my accounts and their balances at a glance. The overall design is clean and practical (with a good dose of purple).

allyreview_main

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

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

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

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

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

allyreview_funds

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

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

allyreview_echeck1 allyreview_echeck2

Mobile app. Let’s see, other comments about the app (iOS and Android)… you can do all the important stuff – see transactions, transfer funds, deposit checks, pay bills. It can remember your username, but you must type in your password every time. I usually just use my Mint app for checking balances, as that only requires a 4-digit PIN. The overall design is acceptable, and the ATM locator includes places like Safeway stores that offer “cash back with purchase”. (If you have the Ally Checking account, you get free ATM fee rebates so the locator is handy as you can just use the nearest ATM.)

The Stats

  • Current interest rate: 0.99% APY (last checked 12/18/2014)
  • Interest Compounding: accrued daily, compounded daily, credited monthly
  • Minimum to open: $0
  • Minimum requirements to avoid monthly service charge: None
  • Number of external bank account links allowed: Unlimited
  • Routing Number: 124003116

Bottom line. The Ally Online Savings Account is a solid offering with with no monthly fees, no minimum balance requirement, and a historically competitive interest rate. I like that their brand is built around the “no hidden fees” slogan. Additional features like a flexible funds transfer system and solid 24/7 customer service help differentiate themselves from the competition.

You can use this savings account either as a complement to your local bank, but I really like how it works with the Ally Checking account which offers unlimited ATM fee rebates, free online billpay, and the ability to use the savings account as a free overdraft source. Ally also has certificates of deposit which offer competitive rates at times.

Robinhood App Review: What’s The Catch Behind Free Stock Trades?

robin0Finance start-up Robinhood promises to “democratize the financial markets” by creating a mobile-first brokerage that offers unlimited free trades with no minimum balance requirement. That is a pretty bold move, and I was skeptical when they started getting noticed in late 2013.

A year later, they’ve gathered $16M in venture capital and last week publicly launched their iPhone app (no Android yet). I’ve already been a beta user of their app for ~5 months (thanks to you guys) and here’s my review.

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

Core features. Yes, the app gives me $0 commission trades with no minimum balance requirement. That means you could open account, put in five bucks, and buy a single share of Zynga (ZNGA) if you wanted to. You can make market or limit orders. You can open a cash or margin account. Along with all the other legit brokerage firms, Robinhood Financial is a member of the SIPC which protects the securities in your account up to $500,000. Data is encrypted with SSL. Apex is their clearing firm.

Funds transfers. You can link any bank account with your routing number and account number, but you can also directly use your username and password at these 9 banks: Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Chase, Citibank, US Bank, USAA, Fidelity, Charles Schwab, and Capital One 360. Such ACH transfers are free.

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

  • You must access your account via your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch. Android and web interface are “coming in 2015″.
  • There is no phone number for customer support, at least that I can find. All their contact links direct you to compose an e-mail to support@robinhood.com. I’d feel more comfortable with a phone number, but customer service agents cost money.
  • No advanced order types like trailing stop-loss or trailing stop-limit.
  • According to their fee schedule, broker-assisted phone trades are $10 each. But again, I can’t even find a phone number to reach a broker.
  • Electronic statements are the default. I don’t even see an option to enable paper statements in the app, but according to their fee schedule paper statements cost $5 a pop.
  • Currently, they do not support ACAT transfers, so you can’t move over your existing assets from an outside brokerage. (Or move out your assets via ACAT either, I’m guessing.)

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

The fact that Robinhood sells order flow may leave you with a slightly worse execution price as compared to other brokers with more complex order routing. If you are making large value trades, then this small percentage difference may add up to something significant that matters more than commission price.

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

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

Even though I don’t trade frequently and I only hold one ETF in this account, I still check the app all the time. That’s more often than my primary Vanguard account. Why? Because it’s so easy. It takes only 5 taps. One tap on the Robinhood app logo, and four quick taps to type in my PIN. If I had a more recent iPhone, I could use Touch ID and get in with a tap and a thumbprint. I know, security, but I just won’t type in a 16-character password on a tiny keyboard just to check a balance.

Screenshots.

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Recap. Robinhood delivers on their free stock trades with no minimum balance promise. The app-only user interface is clean and intuitive, if a bit minimalist on features like order types. You do give up some traditional brokerage features like phone customer service and paper statements. I’m still skeptical about whether they can make the economics work over the long run, but they do appear to be streamlining wherever they can.

More: Fee Schedule, Official FAQ, Techcrunch, Buzzfeed

Note: If you’re still on the waiting list, they state plans to onboard you within the first two months of 2015. If you’re signing up now, you can set up a stock watchlist on the app, but don’t expect to open an account for a couple of months.

Zmodo All-in-One sPoE DIY Security Camera System Review

I’ve always been intrigued by those multi-camera home security systems that you see walking around Costco and Sam’s Club, so when I was asked to review a similar unit I took the opportunity. Here is my review of the Zmodo 4 Channel Complete sPoE NVR Surveillance System w/ 1TB HDD, done from the perspective of a mainstream consumer who wants an affordable, DIY-installed security camera setup at home. I will not be nitpicking camera specs or exploring hacking options.

Cost

My specific package model is ZP-KE1H04-S-1TB, which currently has a list price of $349.99 with free shipping on Amazon. Note that this package comes with a 1 TB hard drive pre-installed, whereas other Zmodo packages do not include a hard drive so that you can size it as you like. (There are many grouchy online reviewers who didn’t notice this fact.) This budget-friendly version has 4 channels (4 cameras recording at once), while more expensive models come with 8 channels or more.

What’s In The Box

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  • 4-channel security NVR with a 1TB hard drive (ZP-NE14-S) with USB mouse
  • 4 720p bullet IP network cameras (ZP-IBH15-S)
  • 19V 3A power adapter, 3′ CAT5e network cable, two 50′ camera sPoE cables, two 80′ camera sPoE cables

What You Need To Supply Yourself

  • External display with VGA input and VGA cable.
  • A wireless router with one empty port (for remote viewing).
  • Always-on High-speed internet connection with minimum upload speed of >256kbps (for remote viewing).
  • Android (v.2.3 and up) or iOS (v.5 and up) mobile device (for smartphone app viewing)
  • Windows XP, Vista, or 7 + Internet Explorer 6 thru 11 (for desktop viewing).

Setup & Installation

If you buy this unit with the hard drive pre-installed, setting everything up is literally plug-and-play. (Of course, installing the hard drive just takes a screwdriver.) You simply connect everything according to the diagram below. Make sure everything is connected first and then turn on the unit, and the unit will automatically recognize the cameras and display them on your monitor. I was up and running (with the cameras on my coffee table) in under 10 minutes.

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sPoE stands for simplified power over ethernet, which means that both power and video signal travel through one cable to the camera. You’ll still need to drill holes and such for cable installation, but you don’t need to route an additional power cord to every camera. Definitely easier, and many budget systems don’t have this feature. Included are two 50 ft cables and two 80 ft cables. If you need more, you can use standard Cat5 ethernet cable. The only hard part is deciding where to position your cameras and installing the cables, which for me required crawling through the attic. I am also simply pointing one out the window.

The NVR (network video recorder) is like a simplified computer with a hard drive, mouse, ethernet port, and monitor port. You view live streaming video on your connected monitor, desktop computer over internet, or smartphone app via internet. You can only view stored video when on your home network. You can make backup copies to a USB flash drive. The NVR must connect physically to your router via ethernet cable.

More Impressions

I personally barely met the minimum requirements as the only VGA-capable monitor I have currently is our living room HDTV bought in 2007. Also, I have no Windows computers either, so I am restricted to either viewing on my home’s only TV or via smartphone app. I wish they allowed more control via web browser.

I primarily use their iPhone app, which thankfully works fine on work WiFi or cellular 3G/4G data. You can link up your app via a quick QR code scan, but if your smartphone is already on the same WiFi network it also finds your cams automatically. Both are simpler than the traditional method of setting up port forwarding. I can enable motion detector alerts via the app as well as through e-mail. The motion detection is rather sensitive, and you’ll get a lot of alerts if you aim it at windy trees. You can adjust the sensitivity on the main box, but not via app.

The 720p camera video quality is significantly better than my previous Samsung Smartcam indoor WiFi cameras. Daytime video has good colors and night video is crisp. Each camera as 24 infrared LEDs which improves illumination and are quite noticeable at night with a red glow (good for scaring off criminals?). Again, I can’t compare directly with other HD cams but the picture is more than satisfactory. You can also toggle between high and low definition streaming.

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The IP cameras have an outdoor “weatherproof” casing that feels durable and high quality. They are IP-rated 65, which means it is dust-tight and can withstand low-pressure water jets from any direction. The box says the camera’s rated operating temperature is 14 F to 122 F so I’m not sure about extremely cold climates. You mount the cameras with screws, so the only real tool you need is a drill and screwdriver.

With a 1 TB hard drive, I can keep 30+ days of past footage from all 4 cameras using their “intelligent” setting which increases the video quality when motion is detected but maintains a lower quality when there is no motion detected. The recorded footage is marked with times of motion detection, so that you can go directly there without viewing the entire thing.

If you compare this with the popular Dropcam Pro, that only comes with one indoor camera and costs $200. Dropcam also has easy installation and live streaming to smartphone, but no storage option unless you pay at least $10 a month for cloud storage. The video data travels via WiFi, but you still need a power cable so that’s still one cable going to the camera. So the Dropcam offers cloud storage capability and easier portability, but this Zmodo package offers four indoor/outdoor cameras and 30 days of hard drive storage for no ongoing cost. I think the Zmodo is ideal for small business owners that want an affordable security option and the ability to review lots of past video, and also for homeowners who want permanent, outdoor surveillance and are willing to perform a DIY installation.

Pros

  • Quick setup and easier installation with power through ethernet cable.
  • Past 30+ days of video stored on included 1 TB hard drive.
  • Access live video feed from PC or smartphone.
  • Free in-app motion alerts.
  • Can connect with traditional alarm system.
  • Competitive pricing.
  • No ongoing monthly fees which add up to $100+ a year with other cameras.

Cons

  • Doesn’t interact with other home automation protocols.
  • Can’t remotely reposition cameras.
  • No Mac OS X support (iOS app available).
  • No cloud storage option.

I received this unit for free to review with no editorial restrictions and no other compensation. All opinions expressed are my own. You can interact with Zmodo and enter periodic contests via their Facebook page.

OBi200 Adapter + Google Voice Installation Review

obi200After the announcement that Obihai VoIP adapters were officially supported by Google Voice, I bought one of their discounted Obi200 adapters. I wanted to learn more about this cheap alternative to landline phone service, and also compare the voice quality with my Ooma device.

Obihai adapters have been around since 2011, but this is the first Obi product I have purchased. I don’t know that the installation procedure was in the past, but I believe the official integration has made the installation even easier than before. Supposedly the authentication method is also more secure and your Google password is no longer stored. I thought about making a video, but it really wasn’t necessary.

  1. Open the box and plug in the cables. AC adapter, telephone line, and ethernet cable to router. All ports are clearly marked. All the cables are included except the phone cable which you should already have. The image below says it all:

    obi200a

  2. Write down your unique Obi number. This is clearly printed on the bottom of the Obi200 box. Mine was 9 digits like “123 456 789″.
  3. Go to your computer and visit ObiTalk.com. Click on the link that says “Register” in the top right corner. Then just follow the directions. Dial a test phone number when it asks. It is easiest to use the “Sign in with Google Account” button since you already have one if you use Google Voice. I didn’t even have to type in my password. They didn’t require name, address, or credit card number. A few confirmation clicks, and that was it.

    obi200b

  4. Use your phone. I turned on my phone, listened to the dial tone, and called my cell phone. Success! Traditional phone service with unlimited calls within the US and Canada for the great price of $0 a month. The voice quality was fine, but I’ll test it out more over the next couple of weeks.

Total set-up time was under 10 minutes. If for some reason my directions don’t work, check out the official Obi200 Starter Guide [pdf] or their extensive set of tutorials. You can also add e911 service for $15 a year.

The Obi200 is currently $49.99 at NewEgg and $48.89 at Amazon, both with free shipping options. The newer Obi200 supports T.38 faxing and has a USB port which can be used to connect to your router over WiFi using an OBiWiFi adapter. If you want to save some money you can buy the OBi100 for $37.99 at NewEgg and $37.99 at Amazon (prices often change). NewEgg works with Shoprunner which many people have for free, giving you free 2-day shipping. Here is a comparison of the OBi100, OBi110, OBi200, and OBi202.

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Schwab Personal Choice Retirement Account (PCRA) Review – 401k Brokerage Window

Tax-advantaged 401k and 403b plans can help you save for retirement, but did you know that you’re probably paying for all the costs of this “employee benefit”? 76% of large employers have workers pick up all the costs of 401(k) administration, according to a recent Forbes article Creative Ways to Cut Your 401(k) Fees. The tab is often quietly paid via high-fee mutual funds (which in turn kick back money to the administrator). The article also focuses on brokerage windows, an “escape hatch” that allows employees to move their funds into a self-directed account with a many more investment options. Their availability is growing:

forbeswindow

What is the catch? These self-directed plans have their own set of fees, notably annual maintenance fees and transaction fees. While regular 401(k) plan options may be limited and more expensive on a percentage basis, they usually don’t charge transaction fees each time you buy or sell. For this reason, brokerage windows tend to work better people with larger account balances. With bigger trade sizes, a flat commission is only a small percentage of the total amount involved.

We recently gained access to Schwab’s brokerage window, called the Personal Choice Retirement Account (PCRA). The mechanics were pretty simple. After completing a special application, you could sell a portion (or all) of your existing investments and transfer them into a “Schwab PCRA” bucket. That money then shows up into your linked account at Schwab.com, where you do all your trades.

Commission Schedule and Available Mutual Fund List. Here is the PCRA fee schedule and PCRA mutual fund availability list that was provided to me by Schwab. (I am assuming these documents are the same across all PCRA plans, but I could be wrong. As I’ll explain shortly, just because something is listed does not mean it is available to everyone.)

The commission schedule is pretty similar to what is available in their standard brokerage account. $8.95 ETF and stock trades, $0 trades for Schwab ETFs. No commission on their No-Transaction-Fee mutual fund list (funds have to pay to be on the list), otherwise $50 to buy and $0 to sell. Schwab PCRA does not charge any annual account or maintenance fees, but your Retirement Plan Service Provider may charge account maintenance fees or some form of “recordkeeping fees”. In our case, there is a $50 annual account fee.

The mutual fund list is quite extensive. Let’s say I was trying to buy the Vanguard REIT ETF (VNQ). I searched and found two results:

pcra3

The big caveat in my particular case: ETF and stock trades were not allowed at all. I still tried to make a purchase but got this message:

pcra1

From the fee schedule, I assume that some PCRA plans will offer this feature. But in my case, I had to be satisfied with buying the Vanguard REIT mutual fund (VGSIX) and paying $50 per buy trade. The good news is that I was able to buy Admiral Shares (VGSLX) which has the same expense ratio (0.10%) as the ETF version ($10,000 minimum).

pcra2

Should I use my brokerage window? According to this Money article, just 5.6% of 401(k) investors opt for a brokerage window even with it is offered. The Schwab PCRA has worked out well for me as an alternative to my standard 401k investment options, but only because a few things aligned:

  • My balance was big enough. Paying $50 a year and $50 per trade is only worth it when your balance is big. Let’s say my balance is $100,000. $50 is only 0.05% of $100,000. If I am saving over 0.05% in expense ratios every single year in exchange, that is a great deal. But $50 is a full 1% of a $5,000 balance.
  • There was a better option in the brokerage account. For example, the S&P 500 index fund in my 401k standard menu charges 0.30% annually, while I can access a Schwab S&P 500 index fund at only 0.09% annually. In my case, I wanted cheap access to the REIT asset class which I didn’t have otherwise. Only about 25% of 401k plans offer access to an REIT fund.
  • I don’t trade too frequently. $50 a pop adds up, so I intend to accumulate money in the normal account, and then transfer over a chunk of money once a year to my Schwab PCRA. This way my bi-weekly contributions are invested for free, and I limit my $50 Schwab trades to once or twice a year.