The Best Health Savings Accounts (HSA) Providers: Fidelity and Lively/Schwab

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Updated for 2022. It’s open enrollment season, and there is better than a 50/50 chance that you will enroll in a high-deductible health plan. That means that you are also eligible to contribute to a Health Savings Account (HSA), which has triple-tax-free benefits: tax-deductible contributions, tax-free earnings growth, and tax-free withdrawals when used for qualified medical expenses (image source). This makes them better than even Traditional and Roth IRAs (image source).

Are you an HSA spender or HSA investor? As a spender, you contribute to the HSA, grab the tax-deduction, and then treat it like a piggy bank and spend it down whenever you have a qualified healthcare expense. You don’t have that annoying “use-it-or-lose-it” feature of Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA), and most offer FDIC insurance on your cash.

As an investor, you are trying to maximize the tax benefits of HSAs by contributing as much as possible, investing in growth assets like stocks, and then avoiding withdrawals until retirement. If you have the financial means, you would max out the contribution limits ($3,850 for individual and $7,300 for family coverage in 2022, slightly more if age 55+) and then pay for your healthcare expenses out-of-pocket instead of withdrawing from the HSA. You should keep a “forever” digital PDF copy of all your healthcare expenses. Technically, you can still withdraw the amounts of all those expenses tax-free at any time in the future, even decades later.

You can pick your own HSA provider, and some are much worse than others! Morningstar has updated their 2022 Health Savings Account landscape report (e-mail required). After reading through the entire thing, my take is that you really only need to consider the two best HSA plans: Fidelity HSA and Lively HSA.

Similar to IRAs, you don’t need to use the default provider that your employer recommends. As long as you are covered by an HSA-eligible health plan on the first of the month, you can open an account with any provider. From the Lively site:

My health insurance or employer is offering an HSA. Do I need to go with the option they provide?

No. Because an HSA is an individual account, you are free to choose whichever HSA provider you want to work with (e.g., Lively).

Source: “Publication 969 (2018), Health Savings Accounts and Other Tax-Favored Health Plans.”

In addition, you can transfer the balance in an existing HSA to another HSA provider at any time, even if no longer covered by an HSA-eligible health plan.

Fidelity and Lively HSA for spenders. Both have the least fees and a safe place for your cash. Others HSAs have maintenance fees, minimum balance requirements, and more “annoyance” fees.

  • No minimum balances.
  • No maintenance fees.
  • No paper statement fees.
  • No account closing fee.
  • FDIC-insured cash balances.

Fidelity offers the best potential interest rate on cash via the Fidelity® Government Cash Reserves money market fund (FDRXX) as a core position, which currently pays more than their FDIC cash sweep option. Note that this money market fund is very conservative but is not FDIC-insured.

Fidelity and Lively HSA for investors. Both feature a low-cost way to invest your contributions for long-term growth:

  • No minimum balance required in spending account in order to invest.
  • Offers access to all core asset classes.
  • Offers free self-directed access to ETFs, individual stocks, bonds, and mutual funds.
  • Offers “guided portfolios” for automated investing.

Fidelity quietly offers the institutional shares of their Fidelity Freedom Index “target date” mutual fund line-up with a very low expense ratio of ~0.08%. It’s a bit confusing as you must choose the self-directed “Fidelity HSA” option to access this auto-pilot fund. The self-directed option has no annual fee and also includes access to ETFs, individual stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. Be aware that the Fidelity HSA sign-up page may try to steer you towards the different “Fidelity Go HSA” for guided investing, but that robo-advisor charges an annual advisory fee of 0.35% per year for balances of $25,000 and above (no advisory fee while your balance is under $25,000).

Lively also has similar “guided portfolio” robo-advisor option that charges a 0.50% annual advisory fee. Morningstar dinged Lively for this, but Lively also offers a self-directed brokerage window with Schwab. That means you can invest in any ETF with zero commissions at Schwab including building your own DIY portfolio using index ETFs, mutual funds, individuals stocks, or individual bonds. (Previously TD Ameritrade, but Schwab bought TD Ameritrade.) The Schwab brokerage option has no annual fee with a $3,000 minimum balance, otherwise if you are under $3,000 it costs $24 a year. If you already have your own financial advisor connected to Schwab, you can allow them to manage your HSA as well.

A simple Vanguard ETF portfolio might be 50% US Stocks (VTI), 30% International Stocks (VXUS), 20% US Bonds (BND). The total weighted expense ratio of such a portfolio would be less than 0.05% annually and fully customizable for the DIY investor. Both accounts can cost basically nothing above the expense ratio of the cheapest ETFs you can find – you really can’t ask for more than that!

Fidelity and Lively have the least amount of extra and/or hidden fees:

How do Fidelity and Lively make money then? Your employer has to pay a fee to HSA providers. It’s still much cheaper for them than your old full-price health insurance premium, of course.

Bottom line. Both Fidelity HSA and Lively HSA are excellent options for your Health Savings Account funds. If you want auto-pilot investing, the cheapest option is the Fidelity Freedom Index Institutional shares. Alternatively, Lively is an independent HSA provider with a modern feel and a good history of customer-friendly fee practices and service. DIY investors can use the Lively/Schwab brokerage window to invest in a mix of Vanguard or other index ETFs.

(Disclosures: I am not an affiliate of Fidelity, although I would if they had such a program. I am an affiliate of Lively and may receive a commission if you open an account through my link. Thanks for your support of this site.)

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

The “No Risk” Portfolio: Stock Upside Exposure with 100% Money Back Guarantee

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Everyone loves a 100% money-back guarantee. A popular option on insurance policies is the “Return of Premium” rider. Let’s say you buy a $1,000,000 term life insurance for 30 years at $1,000 a year. At the end of 30 years, if you’re still alive, the insurance policy will no longer pay you the $1,000,000 if you die, but it will return all the premium you paid ($30,000). In your mind, you could think of it as “no risk” because you’ll get your $30,000 back no matter what!

Similarly, a very popular option on income annuities is the “Return of Principal” rider. Let’s say you pay $100,000 upfront in exchange for them paying you $7,000 in annual income for the rest of your life. What about the unlikely but possible chance that you die early in the first few years? A “return of principal” rider will guarantee that your survivors will at least get that $100,000 back. In your mind, you could think of it as “no risk” because you’ll get $100,000 back no matter what!

Create your own 100% Money Back Guarantee Portfolio. Insurance companies already sell complicated equity-indexed annuities that extend a form of this “no principal loss” to investing. But why not apply it to DIY investing? You may already see the flaw in the “no risk” terminology, but if you still like the psychological benefit of knowing you’ll have at least the same number of dollar bills come back to you after 10 years, read on to create your own “no risk” investment portfolio. Allan Roth writes about this in the AARP article Stock Market Investing for the Faint of Heart.

Let’s say you have $100,000. Right now, I see a 10-year FDIC-insured CD paying 3.60% APY (non-callable!) available from Vanguard. Using the Zero Risk Investment calculator from DepositAccounts, I know that I could put $70,210.56 into that CD today, and at the end of 10 years, I will be able to withdraw $100,000 no matter what. That means, I can take the remaining $29,789.44 today and buy stocks. Even if those stocks implode and lose every single penny of value, I will still have $100,000 at the end of 10 years. 100% Money Back Guarantee!

From that perspective, whatever you get from stocks is upside. This chart shows how much of the stock return I would still be exposed to. If stocks alone returned 8% annually, the overall portfolio would still go up about 5% annually, and my total at the end of 10 years would be $164,313.17.

If this level of safety sounds good to you, look more closely. That’s basically a 30% stocks/70% bank CD portfolio, and bank CDs are very similar to high-quality bonds. This is also why I prefer investing in US Treasury bonds and bank CDs for the bond part of my portfolio, I like having a portion of my portfolio that I don’t have to worry about at all. You could also use Treasury STRIPS (zero-coupon bonds) to guarantee a certain future payout.

What if you had a little more faith and just wanted a money back guarantee against the possibility of a 50% stock market loss after 10 years? That would allow you even more stock market exposure at roughly 45% stocks and 55% bank CDs:

This is an interesting alternative viewpoint for deciding your stock/bonds ratio. Personally, I think having even a 50% decline over a full 10-year span is very unlikely, but having a 50% decline over a 1 or 2 years span is very likely. That sharp decline (and all the real-world events causing that decline) is what makes people panic. If you have more faith in the resiliency of stocks, you can own more stocks. Only want to protect from a 10% loss after a 10-year span? Then you could hold 80% stocks to guarantee your money back in that scenario. If, on the other hand, you believe that stock returns are just a random walk with a greater dispersion in results over longer periods (including the possibility of the S&P 500 ending at 1,000 or less in 10 years), then you might want to own a lot less stocks.

Insurance companies are happy to sell you “return of premium” and “return of principal” riders (they are not free, they have a cost that either reduces your payout received or increases your premium cost) because know they can invest your money in the meantime and pocket the returns. If interest rates are high, that means inflation is likely high as well, and the buying power of your $100,000 is shrinking over time. So really, you are still exposed to risk: inflation risk.

More investment education can help us better tolerate stock market volatility, but we also need to be honest about our human tendencies. If using this “100% money back guarantee” structure helps you maintain a certain level of exposure to the stock market, then that can be a good thing. The fanciest investment strategy will fail if you can’t stay invested during the inevitable downturns.

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Savings I Bonds May 2022 Inflation Update: 9.62% Interest Rate!

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May 2022 rate confirmed at 9.62%. Official press release. The variable inflation-indexed rate for I bonds bought from May 1, 2022 through October 31, 2022 will indeed be 9.62% as predicted. Every single I bond will earn this rate eventually for 6 months, depending on the initial purchase month. The fixed rate (real yield) is also 0% as predicted. Still a good deal.

See you again in mid-October for the next early prediction for November 2022.

Original post 4/12/22:

Inflation (and thus I Bonds) 🚀🚀🚀! Savings I Bonds are a unique, low-risk investment backed by the US Treasury that pay out a variable interest rate linked to inflation. With a holding period from 12 months to 30 years, you could own them as an alternative to bank certificates of deposit (they are liquid after 12 months) or bonds in your portfolio.

New inflation numbers were just announced at BLS.gov, which allows us to make an early prediction of the May 2022 savings bond rates a couple of weeks before the official announcement on the 1st. This also allows the opportunity to know exactly what a April 2022 savings bond purchase will yield over the next 12 months, instead of just 6 months. You can then compare this against a May 2022 purchase.

New inflation rate prediction. September 2021 CPI-U was 274.310. March 2022 CPI-U was 287.504, for a semi-annual increase of 4.81%. Using the official formula, the variable component of interest rate for the next 6 month cycle will be 9.62%. You add the fixed and variable rates to get the total interest rate. The fixed rate hasn’t been above 0.50% in over a decade, but if you have an older savings bond, your fixed rate may be up to 3.60%.

Tips on purchase and redemption. You can’t redeem until after 12 months of ownership, and any redemptions within 5 years incur an interest penalty of the last 3 months of interest. A simple “trick” with I-Bonds is that if you buy at the end of the month, you’ll still get all the interest for the entire month – same as if you bought it in the beginning of the month. It’s best to give yourself a few business days of buffer time. If you miss the cutoff, your effective purchase date will be bumped into the next month.

Buying in April 2022. If you buy before the end of April, the fixed rate portion of I-Bonds will be 0%. You will be guaranteed a total interest rate of 0.00 + 7.12 = 7.12% for the next 6 months. For the 6 months after that, the total rate will be 0.00 + 9.62 = 9.62%.

Let’s look at a worst-case scenario, where you hold for the minimum of one year and pay the 3-month interest penalty. If you theoretically buy on April 30th, 2022 and sell on April 1st, 2023, you’ll earn a ~6.51% annualized return for an 11-month holding period, for which the interest is also exempt from state income taxes. If you theoretically buy on April 30th, 2022 and sell on July 1, 2023, you’ll earn a ~7.17% annualized return for an 14-month holding period. Comparing with the best interest rates as of April 2022, you can see that this is much higher than a current top savings account rate or 12-month CD.

Buying in May 2022. If you buy in May 2022, you will get 9.62% plus a newly-set fixed rate for the first 6 months. The new fixed rate is officially unknown, but is loosely linked to the real yield of short-term TIPS, and is thus very, very, VERY likely to be 0%. Every six months after your purchase, your rate will adjust to your fixed rate (set at purchase) plus a variable rate based on inflation.

If you have an existing I-Bond, the rates reset every 6 months depending on your purchase month. Your bond rate = your specific fixed rate (based on purchase month, look it up here) + variable rate (total bond rate has a minimum floor of 0%). So if your fixed rate was 1%, you’ll be earning a 1.00 + 9.62 = 10.62% rate for six months.

Buy now or wait? Given that the current I bond rate is already much higher than the equivalent alternatives, I would personally buy in April to lock in the high rate for the longest possible time. Who knows what will happen on the next reset? I already purchased up to the limits first thing in January 2022. You are also getting a much better “deal” than with TIPS, as the fixed rate is currently negative with short-term TIPS.

Unique features. I have a separate post on reasons to own Series I Savings Bonds, including inflation protection, tax deferral, exemption from state income taxes, and educational tax benefits.

Over the years, I have accumulated a nice pile of I-Bonds and consider it part of the inflation-linked bond allocation inside my long-term investment portfolio. Right now, the inflation protection “insurance” is paying off with high yields and no principal risk.

Annual purchase limits. The annual purchase limit is now $10,000 in online I-bonds per Social Security Number. For a couple, that’s $20,000 per year. You can only buy online at TreasuryDirect.gov, after making sure you’re okay with their security protocols and user-friendliness. You can also buy an additional $5,000 in paper I bonds using your tax refund with IRS Form 8888. If you have children, you may be able to buy additional savings bonds by using a minor’s Social Security Number. TreasuryDirect also allows trust accounts to purchase savings bonds.

Note: Opening a TreasuryDirect account can sometimes be a hassle as they may ask for a medallion signature guarantee which requires a visit to a physical bank or credit union and snail mail. Don’t expect to be able to open an account in 5 minutes on your phone.

Bottom line. Savings I bonds are a unique, low-risk investment that are linked to inflation and only available to individual investors. Right now, they promise to pay out a higher fixed rate above inflation than TIPS. You can only purchase them online at TreasuryDirect.gov, with the exception of paper bonds via tax refund. For more background, see the rest of my posts on savings bonds.

[Image: 1950 Savings Bond poster from US Treasury – source]

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Mastercard Free ID Theft Protection and Credit Monitoring

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Update April 2022: Just a quick update that this has been a useful, additional free identity theft protection service. Today, I electronically signed some “power of attorney”-type papers through Docusign and they had me answer some identity verification questions like “which address have you been associated with?” that pulled from my credit reports and driver’s license data. Immediately, I got the following alert from Mastercard Identity Protection that even included the exact questions asked:

Previously, this service has also alerted me that my personal information like name/email have been found in data breaches from random websites like autoexpresscars.com and drivesure.com. These are all events that did not trigger any alerts from my other credit bureau-based monitoring services. Therefore, I feel signing up for this additional free service rounds them out. Services like Docusign are useful but open you up to potentially more severe cases of fraud.

Original post:

Data breaches are scary fact of life these days. If you have a Mastercard, did you know that they offer a Mastercard ID Theft Protection service to cardholders for free? If you activate it, Mastercard has paid on your behalf for a private-label identity theft protection service provided by Generali Global Assistance, Inc. (GGA). The same way that Safeway doesn’t actually make their generic version of Cheerios, Mastercard has outsourced this service. Thanks to reader Bill P for the tip.

Services are provided by Generali Global Assistance, Inc. (GGA), one of the largest providers of private-label identity protection services in the United States. GGA has handled thousands of identity-related cases and has protected millions of customers since it began offering the service in 2003. GGA’s in-house identity theft resolution specialists are certified identity theft risk management specialists – CITRMS® certification by the Institute of Consumer Financial Education (ICFE) and FCRA-certification (Fair Credit Reporting Act by the Consumer Data Industry Association).

You’ll receive an alert if there’s a change to your TransUnion credit report (e.g., new inquiries, new accounts, updated personal information by creditors). That’s nice, but I already get more comprehensive coverage from all three bureaus than this from my combination of Credit Sesame, Credit Karma, and FreeCreditScore.

The difference that caught my eye was their emphasis on full-service, human help if you do become a victim of identity theft. Emphasis mine:

This program is designed to help protect you from identity theft and provide full-service, hands-on assistance in the event of an incident. Studies have shown that the largest cost to victims of identity theft is lost time and stress associated with figuring out how to restore their identity, including replacing cards and documents while communicating with creditors to dispute fraudulent activity. In the event of an incident, we will assign you with a personal case manager to help you resolve issues, saving you countless hours and reducing the stress associated with identity theft.

Their package of services includes: identity theft affidavit assistance and submission, creditor notification, dispute and follow-up, 3-bureau fraud alert placement, inform police/legal authorities, placement of credit freeze and opt-out services provided by certified identity theft resolution specialists.

These could be hollow claims, but hopefully they are truly helpful in taking care of these things on your behalf. If you have a Mastercard, it may be another worthwhile service to add to your defenses.

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Big List of Free Consumer Data Reports 2022: Check Your Credit, Banking, Rental History, Insurance, and Employment Data

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magUpdated for 2022. Since these are available every 12 months, it is a good idea to check these near or around the same time each year. A lot of companies make their money by collecting and selling data – your personal data. It can be critical to know what they are telling prospective lenders, landlords, even employers about you. Under the FCRA and/or FACT Act, many consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) are now legally required to send you a free copy of your report every 12 months, as well as provide a way to dispute incorrect information.

Some have an online request form, but some are purposefully making it harder to check your reports by removing the online option. Call them if needed. You probably won’t want to bother checking all of them anyhow, but if you’ve experienced any sort of rejection or adverse reaction in these areas the cause might be found inside one of these databases. Keep in mind that you may not have a file with all of these places. Requesting a copy of your own consumer reports does not hurt your credit score.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been doing a much better job maintaining their own comprehensive list of CRAs (PDF version) recently, and so I am editing this list include mostly the larger and more widely-used consumer reporting agencies.

Credit-Related

Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. The three major credit bureaus track your credit accounts, payment history, and other related information like bankrupts and liens. Free copy of each once every 12 months.

(Note: As part of a class action settlement, you may also request up to six additional free copies of your Equifax credit report directly from myEquifax during any 12-month period through December 2026.)

You can also now freeze your credit reports for free, but you must contact each bureau separately. For the contact info, please see Big List of Ways To Protect Your Identity: Free Credit Monitoring, Free Credit Locks, and Free Credit Freezes

CoreLogic Credco. One of the largest credit-related CRAs and often used by mortgage lenders, your CoreLogic Credco Consumer File can contain: previous homeownership and mortgage info, rental payment history, any reported delinquencies, and other debt obligations like child support. Free copy once every 12 months.

LexisNexis. One of the largest personal information databases that includes public records, real estate transaction and ownership data, lien, judgment, and bankruptcy records, professional license information, and historical addresses on file. Free copy, must mail in form.

SageStream, LLC (formerly ID Analytics). Per their site, they are a “a credit reporting agency that produces credit reports and scores from our repository of consumer information contributed by a wide array of companies including leading financial services organizations, wireless providers, utilities, retailers, auto lenders and many others” Free copy, must fax or mail in a written form.

Banking-Related

Chexsystems. A consumer information database used by an estimated 80-90% of all banks to help determine the risk of opening new accounts. Think of it as the banks’ version of a credit bureau. If a person commits check fraud or overdraws their account, it will be listed here. In addition, the simple act of opening or closing a bank account may be recorded in their database. Having a negative ChexSystems record can leave you blacklisted from opening bank accounts at most major banks. Free copy once every 12 months. You can now request your report online.

Subprime-Related (Payday Lending)

Microbilt and subsidiary Payment Reporting Builds Credit (PRBC). Microbilt is a provider of credit data for the “approximately 110 million underserved and underbanked consumers in the United States.” Free copy once every 12 months.

Rental History

Realpage (LeasingDesk) Consumer Report. Provides tenant screening through their LeasingDesk product, including “the industry’s largest rental payment history database.”

CoreLogic SafeRent. SafeRent provides both tenant and employment screening data, including information regarding landlord tenant and criminal public court records. One free report every 12 months.

Experian RentBureau Rental History Report. “Every 24 hours, Experian RentBureau receives updated rental payment history data from property owners/managers, electronic rent payment services and collection companies and makes that information available immediately to the multifamily industry through our resident screening partners.”

TransUnion Rental Screening Solutions. SmartMove provides tenant credit, eviction, and background checks.

  • MySmartMove.com FAQ page
  • SmartMove will disclose the contents of a criminal and/or credit report retained by SmartMove to an individual who requests a copy of their report. To verify your identity and obtain a copy of your report(s) or dispute any information within that report, please contact customer service at 866-775-0961.

Auto and Property Insurance

C.L.U.E. Personal Property Report. A division of LexisNexis, CLUE stands for Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange, which collects information that is used to calculate your insurance premiums. This report provides a seven year history of losses associated with an individual and his/her personal property. Includes date of loss, loss type, and amount paid along with general information such as policy number, claim number and insurance company name. This also means you can find out about previous claims on the house you are currently renting or recently bought, even if they weren’t made by you.

C.L.U.E. Auto Report. This report provides a seven year history of automobile insurance losses associated with an individual. Includes date of loss, loss type, and amount paid along with general information such as policy number, claim number and insurance company name.

A-PLUS Loss History Reports, subsidiary of Verisk. ISO stands for Insurance Services Office, A-PLUS stands for Automated Property Loss Underwriting System. Auto and property loss claim history.

Utilities

National Consumer Telecom and Utilities Exchange. NCTUE tracks when people don’t pay their phone, cable, or utility bills. One free report every 12 months.

Retail

The Retail Equation. Tracks product return and exchange abuse at retail merchants.

Medical History

MIB (previously known as Medical Information Bureau). Run by 470 insurance companies with a “primary mission of detecting and deterring fraud that may occur in the course of obtaining life, health, disability income, critical illness, and long-term care insurance.” They record information of “underwriting significance” like medical conditions or hazardous activities. If you have not applied for individually underwritten life, health, or disability income insurance during the preceding seven year period, then you probably don’t have a record.

Milliman IntelliScript. Tracks your prescription drug purchase history. “Milliman IntelliScript will have prescription information about you only if you authorized the release of your medical records to an insurance company and that company requested that we gather a report on you.”

Employment History

The following companies all offer background screening services for employers. Most will not have any information about you unless you authorized a potential employer to run a background check on you (probably during the application process). Some will not provide you information unless there was adverse action. Otherwise, you can get one free copy every 12 months.

The Work Number (division of Equifax). They also keep historical income records.

Backgroundchecks.com.

Checkr

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Charlie Munger: A Double Layer of Risk Protection

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My current commute/workout/kid taxi listening is old Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meetings after finding them in podcast format. (I know, out of all the choices available, somehow I find these the most stimulating?!) Here is a educational excerpt from the 2008 BRK meeting (transcript and video available at CNBC) where Charlie Munger is discussing how Berkshire works to avoid low-probability problems that could destroy the company now and in the future.

CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah. You can see how risk averse Berkshire is. In the first place, we try and behave in a way so that no rational person is going to worry about our credit.

And after we’ve done that, and done it for many years, we also behave in a way that, if the world suddenly didn’t like our credit, we wouldn’t even notice it for months, because we have such liquidity and are so unlikely to be — unable to be — pressured by anybody.

That double layering of protection against risk is like breathing around Berkshire. It’s just part of the culture.

[…]

We do not want to be dependent on anybody or anything else. And yet we want to keep doing things.

So, we’ve found a way to do it — we think we found a way — to do that. It may give up some of the — well, obviously gives up earning higher returns 99 percent of the time, and maybe 99.9 percent of the time.

Obviously, we could have run Berkshire with more leverage over the years than we have. But we wouldn’t have slept as well, and we wouldn’t feel comfortable — we’d have a lot of people in this room that have almost all their net worth in Berkshire, including me — and we wouldn’t feel comfortable running a business that way.

Why do it? I mean, it doesn’t — it just doesn’t make any sense to us to be exposed to ruin and disgrace and embarrassment and — for something that’s not that meaningful.

If we can earn a decent return on capital, you know, what’s an extra percentage point? It just isn’t that important.

Takeaways. The parallels for personal finance seem pretty straightforward:

  • Maintain an excellent credit reputation (score). Having a good credit score will help you borrow for a house, buy a car, lower your insurance premiums in many cases, and finance larger projects and transactions. However, that credit line may still disappear quickly in a crisis.
  • Maintain adequate liquidity separate from any credit lines. Imagine that you lose your job and can’t find a new one for six months. Can your household survive without major disruption? What if at the same time, your stocks also got a 50% haircut and everyone else is suffering as well? Do you have cash or liquid assets to tide you over?
  • Accept that this level of safety means you won’t earn the highest returns. You’ll do fine, but you may not do as well as someone else who bet it all (or more than all using leverage) what happened to be the right thing during the good times. That’s okay, because you won’t be exposed to ruin.
My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

State Farm Homeowner Policyholders: Free Ting Electrical Fire Sensor + $1,000 Repair Credit

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If you have State Farm homeowner’s insurance, check to see if you are eligible for a free Ting smart sensor that monitors your home’s electrical wiring for faults that can lead to fires. Three years of Ting service is included, which includes a $1,000 credit toward the cost of a licensed electrician to find and fix hazards found by Ting. Their press release states that electrical fires make up approximately 13% of all home fires.

Some of these preventive detections included sensing clear arcing signals isolated to a chandelier in master bathroom, identifying a missing neutral connection in a sub-panel, and detecting arcing signals consistent with water interaction with electrical system.

Qualified customers who enroll will receive:

– Free Ting sensor with mobile app access
– Pay no annual service fees for three years (fees paid by State Farm)
– Receive $1,000 credit toward remediation of electrical fire hazards (provided by Whisker Labs)

What happens after the 3rd year? Before the end of the 3rd year, State Farm will notify you if the program will be extended as-is, changed, or discontinued. No payment information is requested at the time of enrollment, and you can cancel at any time. There is no obligation to continue the service.

Do all hazards identified by Ting require a licensed electrician for mitigation? In many cases, remediation of the hazard simply means stopping the use of an offending device, such as a heating blanket, sump pump, lamp, or pet feeder (all of these are real examples, among many more). In other cases, a hazard requires professional remediation.

Hat tip to DoC, as I did not receive en e-mail regarding this even though I am eligible and have since gotten and installed my free sensor.

Currently available in the following states:

Alabama
Arizona
Arkansas
California
Colorado
Connecticut
Florida
Georgia
Hawaii
Idaho
Illinois
Indiana
Iowa
Kentucky
Maine
Massachusetts
Mississippi
Missouri
Montana
Nevada
New Hampshire
Ohio
Oklahoma
Pennsylvania
Rhode Island
South Carolina
Texas
Utah
Vermont
Virginia
Washington
Washington, DC
West Virginia

My experience. Enrollment was quick and easy, and the sensor arrived from Ting within a few days. Installation was also quick and easy; just install the app and everything is done via Bluetooth and WiFi within a couple of minutes. Right now, it is is “learning mode” and analyzing my home’s electrical wiring. It will be reassuring to know that there is no obvious electrical fire hazard lurking in my (old) home.

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Big List of Free Consumer Data Reports (2/2): See Your Confidential Rental History, Insurance, Retail, & Employment Data

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magUpdated for 2021. Here is the second part of my big list of free consumer reports from over 50 different reporting agencies. The first part included your credit, banking, and subprime lending-related information. This part includes your housing, insurance, and employment history. You can request a free copy every 12 months of what these databases have stored about you and are telling prospective landlords, insurers, or employers.

Again, you may not need to check all of these, and many may not even have a file on you anyway. But for example if you are a renter then you’d want to make sure your rental history is clean and correct, or if were applying for life insurance you might check your medical reports.

Based on my situation, I have checked the following reports out of the ones listed below – CLUE Auto, CLUE Property, MIB.com, Milliman IntelliScript.

Rental History

Realpage (LeasingDesk) Consumer Report. Provides tenant screening through their LeasingDesk product, including “the industry’s largest rental payment history database.”

CoreLogic SafeRent. SafeRent provides both tenant and employment screening data, including information regarding landlord tenant and criminal public court records. One free report every 12 months.

Experian RentBureau Rental History Report. “Every 24 hours, Experian RentBureau receives updated rental payment history data from property owners/managers, electronic rent payment services and collection companies and makes that information available immediately to the multifamily industry through our resident screening partners.”

First Advantage Resident History Report. Tenant and employment background checks. One free report every 12 months.

Contemporary Information Corp. CIC provides background checks on prospective tenants and/or employees and contractors for landlords and management companies. Keep records of any rental evictions.

Tenant Data. Provides tenant history reports, including any reported damages, unpaid balances, evictions, lease violations, noise complaints, or unauthorized pets.

Screening Reports, Inc. A national provider of background screening service to the multi-family housing industry.

TransUnion Rental Screening Solutions. SmartMove provides tenant credit, eviction, and background checks.

  • MySmartMove.com FAQ page
  • SmartMove will disclose the contents of a criminal and/or credit report retained by SmartMove to an individual who requests a copy of their report. To verify your identity and obtain a copy of your report(s) or dispute any information within that report, please contact customer service at 866-775-0961.

Auto and Property Insurance

C.L.U.E. Personal Property Report. A division of LexisNexis, CLUE stands for Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange, which collects information that is used to calculate your insurance premiums. This report provides a seven year history of losses associated with an individual and his/her personal property. Includes date of loss, loss type, and amount paid along with general information such as policy number, claim number and insurance company name. This also means you can find out about previous claims on the house you are currently renting or recently bought, even if they weren’t made by you.

C.L.U.E. Auto Report. This report provides a seven year history of automobile insurance losses associated with an individual. Includes date of loss, loss type, and amount paid along with general information such as policy number, claim number and insurance company name.

A-PLUS Loss History Reports, subsidiary of Verisk. ISO stands for Insurance Services Office, A-PLUS stands for Automated Property Loss Underwriting System. Auto and property loss claim history.

Drivers History. Owned by TransUnion. Collects driving violations.

Insurance Information Exchange (IIX), subsidiary of Verisk. Provide reports including your motor vehicle records and driver history, including any traffic violations or related criminal history. May require proof of adverse action to obtain free report.

Utilities

National Consumer Telecom and Utilities Exchange. NCTUE tracks when people don’t pay their phone, cable, or utility bills. One free report every 12 months.

Retail

The Retail Equation. Tracks product return and exchange abuse at retail merchants.

Gaming

VIP Preferred. Tracks consumer data regarding check-cashing at casinos.

Medical History

MIB (previously known as Medical Information Bureau). Run by 470 insurance companies with a “primary mission of detecting and deterring fraud that may occur in the course of obtaining life, health, disability income, critical illness, and long-term care insurance.” They record information of “underwriting significance” like medical conditions or hazardous activities. If you have not applied for individually underwritten life, health, or disability income insurance during the preceding seven year period, then you probably don’t have a record.

Milliman IntelliScript. Tracks your prescription drug purchase history. “Milliman IntelliScript will have prescription information about you only if you authorized the release of your medical records to an insurance company and that company requested that we gather a report on you.”

Employment History

The following companies all offer background screening services for employers. Most will not have any information about you unless you authorized a potential employer to run a background check on you (probably during the application process). Some will not provide you information unless there was adverse action. Otherwise, you can get one free copy every 12 months.

The Work Number (division of Equifax). They also keep historical income records.

Accurate Background, Inc.

  • AccurateBackground.com “You may contact our Client Services team at 800.216.8024, or send an email to customer_service@accurate.com. Please include your full name and the search reference ID, if available.”
  • 800-216-8024

American Databank, LLC.

Backgroundchecks.com.

Checkr

EmpInfo

  • EmpInfo.com report request page (scroll down to FCRA section).
  • Generally won’t have a report on everyone, only for people specifically requested by an employer.
  • 800-274-9694

First Advantage Background Check. Tenant and employment background checks. One free report every 12 months.

HireRight, recently merged with General Information Services (GIS)

Info Cubic.

IntelliCorp

OPENonline

Pre-employ

Professional Screening & Information, Inc.

Sterling (acquired EmployeeScreenIQ)

PeopleFacts

Truework

Reminder: Also see Part 1: Big List of Free Consumer Reports with Your Credit, Banking, and Payday Lending Data.

Sources: ConsumerFinance.gov, FTC.gov, Wikipedia

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Reduce or Pause Auto Insurance During Coronavirus? Insure Only One Car?

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Many of us are driving less these days. Nearly all of the major auto insurers are providing some sort of refund – this detailed list suggests an overall average of 15% to 25% back on two months of premiums. But what if you don’t need to use your vehicle for an extended period of time? You might:

  • Reduce your coverage levels to the minimum liability coverage levels required by your state for driving, saving money on premiums but assuming some risk yourself (depending on how much you actually drive).
  • Suspend your coverage as if your car was in storage. This would include liability and collision insurance. You may consider keeping comprehensive insurance to protect against theft, fire, or other damage.
  • Something in between. If you feel like you are driving a lot less, you could do some combination of raising your collision/comprehensive deductibles, dropping only collision coverage, or changing up any of the various options to lower your overall premium.

A common situation might be that a couple owns two cars but only really needs one for a while. Reader Beth shared that she chose to drop the (more expensive) coverage on her newer car while keeping the existing coverage on the older car, thus saving more than 50% on her total bill:

Our family lives in Texas, and we own two cars. Right now because of COVID-19, my husband and I are both working from home and hardly leaving our house, so we do not need both cars. I called our insurance company and temporarily dropped coverage on our newer, more expensive car, which is saving us more than half our 6-month premium. Once the COVID-19 restrictions ease up, we’ll add the second car back on.

[…] We took our newer car off completely and left our older car with the same level of coverage it had beforehand. Allstate said they would happily add the newer car back on whenever we’re ready, and they will simply prorate the amount for however much is left of our 6-month policy.

We are only driving the older car (we drive a couple of times a week right now), and the newer car stays in the garage. Allstate even emailed us a little sign to print off to tape on the steering wheel to remind us to call and reinstate coverage.

I agree with her other advice that the best thing to do is to call your insurance company and explore your options. Mine has always been happy to help me compare a variety of options along with the resulting price changes. If asking about pausing or suspending coverage, you want to make sure it is treated differently than “canceling” coverage, as gaps in coverage can make you look riskier and hike up your future premiums.

As an aside, if you are not going to move your car for a long time, you should looks up tips to prep it for long-term storage. Otherwise, I’d worry that the damage might exceed the insurance savings. Ideally, you would start it up every couple of weeks and drive it for a while on a private driveway.

Note that if your car is under a loan or lease agreement, you may have agreed to maintain a minimum level of coverage that includes both collision and comprehensive coverage. Has anyone else had success in doing this? Or tried and run into problems?

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Do Not Buy List: Healthcare Sharing Ministry As Health Insurance Alternative

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I am creating a “Do Not Buy” list as part of my estate planning to help my family avoid potentially dangerous financial products. These things are not illegal “scams”, but may have hidden risks where it is better to simply avoid them. In addition to equity-indexed universal life Insurance, I am also including health-care sharing ministries (HCSM). The bigger names in this group include Samaritan, Medi-Share, Christian Healthcare Ministries, Trinity/Aliera, and Liberty.

I’ve been reading about these off and on, and they are often mentioned as a cost-saving option for the self-employed and/or those in early retirement. Read this NY Times article It Looks Like Health Insurance, but It’s Not, this Seattle Times article Washington state orders ‘sham’ health-care sharing ministries to halt, and this Consumer Reports article to get some background.

I can definitely see the appeal of the lower monthly costs and the positive feelings from being part of a cooperative community. I can accept that many (but not all) require a strong religious affiliation. I might overlook the fact that they usually don’t cover and basic preventative care like screening exams (mammograms, colonoscopies), flu shots, and other vaccines. However, I cannot accept the following:

  • HCSMs are not health insurance. This also means they are not overseen by state insurance agencies. There no government oversight, nobody to appeal to and have them say “hey that’s not right, you can’t do that”.
  • HCSMs provide no guarantee of payment. Legally, they are just a charity. The ministry looks at each claim and has sole discretion as to whether they want to provide payment.
  • HCSMs do not have to accept or cover pre-existing conditions.
  • HCSMs do not have to cover prescriptions drugs. Read their rules very carefully.
  • HCSMs can cap lifetime payments at relatively low amounts like $250,000. Read their rules very carefully. ACA-compliant health insurance plans have no lifetime limits.

The problem is that by design, yes, MOST people will be satisfied by these programs. MOST people get their bills paid. MOST people can thus leave a positive review. MOST people won’t have an extreme event that requires $500,000 of medical care over time. However, that is not the point of insurance! Insurance is there to protect you from bankruptcy due to a catastrophic event out of your control. Insurance is based on strict contracts, and you should notice that all forms of real insurance (life, health, auto, homeowners, etc) are tightly regulated. What happens if they run into some sort of financial difficulty, perhaps in a recession or from a rogue employee or executive?

Think of the importance of only putting your cash in an FDIC-insured bank or NCUA-insured credit union. The vast, vast majority of the time, banks don’t fail. I’ve never had a bank fail on me. I don’t know anyone who has had money in a truly failed bank where the FDIC had to step in. But I still know that having the proper checks and backstops is important. Sometimes things are great for long time… until they aren’t.

Also, don’t forget that if a healthcare sharing ministry rejects a child’s claims and the family is bankrupt and desperate, they’ll likely end up falling back on taxpayer-funded Medicaid to cover their healthcare needs. Is this how we want the system to work?

My recommendation is to steer clear of all healthcare sharing ministries. I do not doubt that most have good intentions and happy customers, but things can happen that may even be out of their control. HCSMs are charities, not insurance. They can fail as much as any business. Yes, real insurance costs more, but at least you have a clear contract with defined rules and legal options as a backup. If you are my loved one and are reading this, please protect yourself fully and make sure you are buying true health insurance.

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Do NOT Buy List: Equity Indexed Universal Life Insurance

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards and may receive a commission. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned.

Financial noise is everywhere. I try to be selective and only write about a limited amount of unique, profitable, and actionable information. If I see a bad product, I usually just ignore it and move on. Angry rants are not my thing.

However, I do worry that if something happens to me, my surviving loved ones may not know what to avoid. Therefore, I am adding a DO NOT BUY list as part of my estate planning documents. Simply avoiding the worst things is often a better (and easier) strategy than searching for the absolute best thing.

This WSJ article (paywall?) profiles one of the items on my DNB list: It’s the Hottest Thing in Life Insurance. Are Buyers Aware of the Risks?. I was unaware that indexed universal life (IUL) had grown so much in popularity, now making up 25% of new individual life insurance policies as measured by premium:

A universal life insurance policy combines a death benefit with the ability to build up a policy cash value. An indexed universal life policy is a universal life policy that increases the cash value at a rate tied to the performance of an index, often the S&P 500.

Briefly, here are reasons why I avoid Indexed Universal life insurance products:

  • High fees. In fact, probably multiple layers of fees. They might sound simple, but are actually amazingly complex. Per the WSJ – “We joke that it takes an actuary, an attorney and sometimes an engineer to understand the calculations,” said Billie Resnick, co-author of an American Bar Association book on life insurance.
  • No guaranteed return. You are unlikely to get near the long-term S&P 500 returns. Most IULs have floors which protect you from losses in down years, but return caps which cuts off your return on big up years. Stock market returns are lumpy, but with more big up years than big down years. Historically, protecting against the downside does not help enough to offset missing out on the upside. In addition, they almost always exclude dividends, which means you are guaranteed to miss a significant part of total return. So even if you did magically track the S&P 500 perfectly, you’d still be behind by ~2% due to losing the dividend. You’ll get a smoother ride, but at what cost?
  • Life insurance is better when it is simple and transparent. Ideally, the payout should be a guaranteed amount in exchange (i.e. $1 million cash) for a clearly defined event (i.e. death). When something is simple and transparent, you can easily comparison shop and let market competition create a fair price. IUL policies are again highly complex and nearly impossible to compare side-by-side. Maybe one day this will change, but for now it’s buyer beware.
  • More fine print: Insurers can change the rules after purchase?! Per the WSJ: “Insurers generally retain the contractual right to change these percentages, subject to regulator-approved limits. They also typically can raise the cost of the death benefit, per contractual provisions.” What? Even the floors and cap percentages are subject to change and not guaranteed?
  • In my experience, the loudest supporters of this product tend to be the people who sell them. Why are some things pressured upon you initially as the best thing since sliced bread, but immediately after purchase they become nearly impossible to sell again? The second you buy it, it has lost a huge part of its value. Reminds me of timeshares. Look out for big surrender charges for 10+ years because they have to recover the big upfront commission paid to the salesperson.

I can see how the idea of “stock market-linked returns with less risk” can be attractive, and I would be intrigued if there became some sort of commodity product where multiple companies sold essentially the same thing and competed to drive down prices. However, the current way of selling IULs is too vague and hard to understand for the average customer.

I’m a relatively conservative investor myself, but UILs have all sorts of risks. Side-by-comparisons are hard, so you risk buying a bad version of the product. There is no fixed return, like a fixed annuity. If the stock market tanks, you still risk getting a lousy return. There is a risk the issuer will change the growth rules on you. As with all insurance, the issuer could become insolvent somewhere in there. I prefer my term life insurance policy, as it gives my family a guaranteed fixed payout at a low fixed price after comparing prices side-by-side with several issuers that all offered the exact same product.

My recommendation is simply to steer clear of them all. If you are my loved one and are reading this, my advice is not to buy an indexed universal life policy. Definitely don’t use my hard-earned money to buy one!

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Open Enrollment Checklist: HSA, HCFSA, DCFSA, Disability Insurance, Life Insurance

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maxben

We just finished our open enrollment paperwork, and like many other workers we faced a long and confusing list of instructions. They tried to distract me from the increased health insurance premiums by adding a bunch of optional “perks” like universal life insurance and paid identity theft protection. Christine Benz has a thoughtful Checklist for Open Enrollment Season. Here are my own thoughts as I went through the options:

Health Savings Accounts (HSA). Doesn’t “triple tax-free” sound good? HSA contributions are tax-deductible (pre-tax money), they grow tax-free once there, and your withdrawals are tax-free when spent on qualified healthcare expenses. However, you have to be enrolled in a qualified high-deductible health plan (HDHP) to be eligible, which means your higher out-of-pocket costs might not offset the cheaper premium plus upfront tax savings. Depending on your estimated healthcare costs, tax rate, and how much your employer pays, you may be better off with a traditional HMO or PPO plan. A bit of math will be needed.

In order to maximize the HSA’s long-term advantages, you will also want to treat the HSA as an investment account. This means you’ll you need to cover the higher annual out-of-pocket costs yourself and still have money left over to fund the HSA.

Healthcare Flexible Spendings Accounts (HC FSA). I’ve said it before, but these can be a bureaucratic mess. The benefit is “use-it-or-lose it”, but for me it has been “use-it-and-lose-my-mind”. Third-party benefits administrators have given me several bad experiences with submitting my receipts and ensuring they are approved. If it takes me an hour to submit/check/argue/re-submit/check a $50 medical expense, then in my opinion the tax savings of $10 was not worth it at all. But if I don’t follow through, I lose the entire $50. Asymmetric risk in a bad way.

There are also some finer details if you want to have both an HSA and an FSA (look up limited-purpose or post-deductible FSAs).

Dependent Care Flexible Spendings Accounts (DC FSA). These are better. You can have both an HC FSA and a DC FSA as they cover separate things. If you have eligible childcare costs (or adult dependent care), it is quite possible you reach the $5,000 annual maximum. I usually wait until I’ve already paid out $5,000 in preschool tuition, and then I just submit a single receipt for a potential $1,000 tax savings (assuming 20% tax rate on $5,000). Now that’s a good per-hour rate.

Employer-sponsored disability insurance. The best thing about group disability insurance through your employer is that it’s easier to qualify and the cost may be subsidized by your employer. However, if you switch or lose your jobs, you might lose your group disability insurance at the same time. This won’t happen with your own portable plan. Specialized workers can purchase riders that will pay out as long as you can no longer perform your specific occupation (as opposed to any lower-paying job). However, it’s so easy to put this off that getting some employer-sponsored disability insurance can be a good first step.

Life insurance. A common offering is a year of your salary in life insurance. Beyond that, you should always compare with an individual term life insurance plan. That way, if you have a special medical condition that makes your private premium somehow crazy expensive, then you can always fall back on the group plan. For most healthy folks, finding your own portable term life policy will be cheaper and it won’t go away if you lose your job. If you get a 20-year level term policy, your premium also stays fixed for those 20 years. No surprise increases.

Other benefits. The menu seems to expand every year. 401k investment advice. Commuter benefits. Student loan repayment assistance programs. Accidental death and dismemberment (ADD) insurance. Critical illness insurance. Long-term care insurance. Identity theft insurance If it’s free, I’ll take it but in general I decline the ones that require a premium.

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.