CIT Bank Review: Savings 1.35% APY, No-Penalty CD 1.45%, Opening Process

citbank200CIT Bank (not be confused with Citi Bank) has become one of the larger online-only banks with a multi-year history of competitive rates. They don’t offer a checking account, so their products are mostly designed to be savings products with high interest rates. Here are their most-interesting products, in my opinion:

They also have traditional term CDs as well as fancy CDs that allow add-on deposits and rate-bumps. Unfortunately, none of those rates are high enough even with the fancy features.

Rates are as of 10/16/17. Compare with the Ally Bank 11-month No Penalty CD, which requires $25,000 to open to get the 1.50% APY rate. At balances under $5,000, the Ally rate is only 1.00%.

Opening process overview. I recently opened an account with them, and here’s my review of the opening process.

  • The application process was completely online. You provide the usual personal information.
  • You must submit to a credit check, but in my experience it was a “soft” pull which did not harm my credit. None of my various credit monitoring services showed it was a hard pull.
  • You may fund via (1) electronic ACH transfer, (2) wire transfer, (3) mobile check deposit via CIT Bank mobile app (iOS and Android), and (4) mailing in a paper check. There was no option for credit card funding. I picked online ACH funding and you need to provide routing and account numbers, followed by manual verification via micro-deposits after a day or two. There was no instant linking option via login information.

After deposit verification, then your funding will go through.

You have successfully verified your external account. Please allow up to 5 business days for your funds to appear in your CIT Bank account.
No further action is required for this account. Thank you!

User interface. While the front-facing website is pretty slick, after you login the backend is run by Fidelity National Information Services (subdomain ibanking-services.com). This is a popular backend software system used by many smaller banks who don’t want to create their own software from scratch. It’s functional, but not very pretty. At least it’s familiar to someone like me who has too many bank accounts. Two-factor authentication is available using voice or SMS.

Robinhood App Review: $0 Stock Trades, Easy-to-Use Interface

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Updated. The Robinhood app wants to “democratize the financial markets” by creating brokerage account in your pocket that offers unlimited free trades with no minimum balance requirement. That is a pretty bold move, and I was skeptical as I’ve been an long-time early adopter of free trading platforms (read: cheapskate investor).

I started out as a beta user in mid-2014 with their beautiful but manually-installed iPhone app. In August 2015, they rolled out both iOS and Android app and reported processing over 2 million free trades. As of 2017, they have over a million users and processed $30 billion in trades. According to Bloomberg, they recently raised money at a $1.3 billion valuation.

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

Core features.

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

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

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

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

ACAT account transfers. Robinhood now accepts incoming stock transfers from outside brokerage accounts. To do this, go your app account menu, select “Banking”, then select “Stock Transfer” and follow the on-screen instructions. Incoming transfers are free. Outgoing transfers will incur a $75 fee.

Robinhood Instant. Robinhood Instant is a free upgrade that gets you a “limited margin account” that has the following features:

  • Immediate access to funds from selling stock. That means you can reinvest those funds without waiting two days for settlement. (All brokerage margin accounts offer this.)
  • Limited instant deposits. Use up to $1,000 of your pending bank deposits right away. No waiting 2-3 days for a bank transfer to complete.

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

  • You must access your account via a mobile Apple iOS or Android device (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Android phone, Android tablet). There is no official web interface. There are unofficial ones available, but I would be wary of sharing your login credentials with a 3rd-party.
  • Broker-assisted phone trades are $10 each, according to their fee schedule.
  • Electronic statements are the default. I don’t even see an option to enable paper statements in the app, but according to their fee schedule paper statements cost $5 a pop.
  • Options trading is not available at this time.

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

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

Robinhood Gold is their premium service tier that gives you extending trading hours and interest-free margin for $10 a Month. My Robinhood Gold review.

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.

Screenshots.

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Recap. Robinhood delivers on their $0 stock trades promise with no minimum balance. The app-only user interface is clean and intuitive. Customer service is on the lean side, but my requests were responded to within a day or so. They continue to make incremental improvements. They’ve been open to the public since March 2015, which is honestly longer than I expected.

Sign up for Robinhood with my referral link and get a free share of stock, and I’ll get one too. Details on this promotion here.

Wealthfront Review 2017: Feature Breakdown and Comparison

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(Updated August 2017. Added details about Advanced Indexing (smart beta), portfolio line of credit (lower rates than HELOC), customized company stock sales, and 529 college saving guidance.)

Wealthfront is one of the largest independent digital advisory firms (i.e. not tied to a specific brand of funds like Vanguard or Schwab). With a younger target audience (20s to 40s), their offering is for folks that are comfortable having nearly all interactions via smartphone or website. They frequently announce new features and improvements, so I will work to keep this feature list updated.

Diversified portfolio of high-quality, low-cost ETFs. Their portfolios are a diversified mix of several asset classes including: US Total, US Dividend, International Developed, US Corporate Bonds, Muni Bonds, Emerging Market Bonds, REITs, and Natural Resources. For the most part, low-cost Vanguard and iShares ETFs are used. You could argue the finer points of a specific portfolio, but overall it is backed by academic research (Chief Investment Officer is Burton Malkiel).

Direct indexing. If your account is over $100,000, Wealthfront will buy all the stocks in the S&P 500 individually and commission-free. ETF expense ratios are pretty low now, so this is mostly used as an opportunity for more tax-loss harvesting. No other robo-advisor offers this feature. Here is whitepaper that details their position. As long as you meet the $100k minimum, there is no additional cost fee above the standard management fee.

Smart-beta. If your account is over $500,000, Wealthfront created Advanced Indexing as their answer to “smart-beta” investing. It works within its Direct Indexing feature in order to improve tax efficiency. As long as you meet the $500k minimum, there is no additional cost fee above the standard management fee.

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Financial planning software with outside account integration. Path is Wealthfront’s new financial planning software, launched in February 2017. This service links your external accounts from other banks, brokerages, and 401k plans (similar to Mint and Personal Capital) in order to see your entire picture without having to manually input your balances and transactions. How much do I have invested elsewhere? How much am I spending? How much am I saving? How much can I spend in retirement?

Path can forecast your saving rate using the last 12 months of transactions. Investment returns are estimated using Monte Carlo analysis. It also accounts for your household income, birthdate, and chosen retirement age to estimate how Social Security will affect your retirement income needs. You can change up the variables and see how it will affect your retirement outlook.

College Savings Planning. You can select a college for real-time expense projections, get a customized estimate of financial aid, and receive a personalized college savings plan to cover the difference. This works with or without their own Wealthfront 529 College Savings account.

Account types. Wealthfront now supports taxable joint accounts, trust accounts, 401k rollovers, Traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, and SEP IRAs. They also offer a 529 College Savings account.

Tax-sensitive account transfers. This is good news if you already have an existing portfolio with unrealized capital gains. Other robo-advisors may have a “switch calculator” to help you decide whether to move over or not, but Wealthfront will actually accept your existing investments and manage it for you alongside your new investments.

If you want to switch advisors or move your brokerage holdings into a diversified portfolio, you typically have to sell all your holdings and move in cash. This means you will more than likely have a large tax bill. Instead of selling your holdings, Wealthfront will directly transfer them into a diversified portfolio tax efficiently, saving you that tax bill.

Tax-efficent asset location. They will place different asset classes in your taxable accounts vs. tax-deferred accounts (IRAs, 401ks) for a higher after-tax return. However, they do not treat them holistically (i.e. putting all one of one asset in IRA and none in taxable). Non-Wealthfront accounts are also not taken into consideration.

Use dividends and new contributions to rebalance. They will use your dividends and new contributions to rebalance your asset classes in order to minimize sells and thus minimize capital gains.

Concentrated holding of a single stock? Wealthfront caters to the tech start-up crowd with a unique Selling Plan service for people with much of their net worth tied up in a single stock. They’ll help you sell your positions gradually in a tax-efficent manner. Currently available to shareholders of: Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Arista Networks, Box, Facebook, Pure Storage, Square, Twilio, Twitter, Yelp, Zillow.

Daily tax-loss harvesting. Wealthfront software monitors your holdings daily and attempts to find opportunities to harvest tax losses by switching between “similar but not substantially identical” ETFs. If you can delay paying taxes and reinvest them, this can result in a greater after-tax return. The exact “tax alpha” of this practice depends on multiple factors like portfolio size and tax brackets. You can read the Wealthfront side of things in this whitepaper and Schwab comparison. Here is an outside viewpoint arguing for more conservative estimates.

My opinion is that there is long-term value in tax-loss harvesting and especially daily monitoring to capture more losses. However, I also think it’s wise to use a conservative assumption as to the size of that value. (DIY investors can perform their own tax-loss harvesting as well on a less-frequent basis. I do it myself, but it’s rather tedious and I’m definitely not doing it more often than once a year. I would gladly leave it to the bots if it was cheap enough.)

Portfolio Line of Credit. If your taxable balance is over $100,000, Wealthfront will automatically give you a line of credit of up to 30% of your balance. There is no application, no fees, low interest rates, and you can get cash in as little as 1 business day. The rates are advertised to be even lower than a Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC). Keep your loan balances modest though, as this is a margin lending product and they may force you to sell your investments if your outstanding balance exceeds your available margin.

Fee schedule. The fee schedule for Wealthfront is simple – Everyone gets charged a flat advisory fee of 0.25% of assets annually (first $10,000 waived). All of the features listed above are included. As your asset size increases, you get access to some additional features like Direct Indexing and Advanced Indexing (Smart-Beta).

Bottom line. Wealthfront is an independent digital advisory firm with over $7 billion in assets. Independent which means they aren’t tied to any specific brand of funds like Vanguard, Fidelity, or Schwab. Their main differentiators from the other independent firms (see my Betterment review) are (1) Direct Indexing and Advanced (Smart-Beta) Indexing portfolio management for optimal tax-efficiency and (2) customized assistance with transferring in your existing investments (including company stock) and then selling them tax-efficiently. Other notable features include: Financial planning software that incorporates external accounts, tax-loss harvesting, 529 college saving plan and guidance software, and a portfolio line-of-credit.

Special offer. Open a Wealthfront account via my invite link and get your first $15,000 managed for free, forever. This is an additional $5,000 above the standard $10,000 balance waiver. You can then invite your own friends for more savings (your friend gets $15k managed free as well, and you get another $5k managed for free.)

Betterment Review 2017: All Plans Now Include Human Financial Advice

bment1707_0(Updated July 2017. Added details about unlimited access to human advice for all customers, Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) Portfolio options, simplified pricing structure with lower costs for some.)

Betterment is an independent hybrid digital/human advisor that will manage a diversified mix of low-cost index funds and help you decide how much you’ll need to save for retirement. (They are not tied to a specific brand of funds like Vanguard or Schwab). Betterment is also an RIA, which means they have a legal fiduciary duty to keep client interests first. They frequently announce new features and improvements, so I will work to keep this feature list updated.

Diversified portfolio of high-quality, low-cost ETFs. Their portfolios are a diversified mix of several asset classes including: US Total, US Large Value, US Mid Value, US Small Value, International Developed, Emerging Markets, US Corporate Bonds, US Total Bond, Inflation-Protected Treasuries, Muni Bonds, International Bonds, and Emerging Market Bonds. For the most part, Vanguard and iShares ETFs are used.

The traditional Betterment portfolio has a more pronounced tilt towards the size premium and value premium than the cap-weighted indexes. You could argue the finer points of whether this will really create higher risk-adjusted returns, but overall it is backed by academic research.

Betterment has also added a Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) portfolio option. These SRI portfolios also work with their Tax-loss harvesting (TLH) and Tax-coordinated portfolios (TCP) features (see below)>

Free access to human advice for everyone. In July 2017, Betterment announced that all of their customers can message a licensed financial experts. Digital members (0.25% annual fee) can ask questions any time via their mobile app. Digital members should expect an answer in approximately one business day. Betterment Premium members (0.40% annual fee) have unlimited e-mail and direct phone access to “Certified Financial Planner professionals”. Here’s a quote from their press materials as to what they can help you with:

Our experts can assist with deciding which funds to move to Betterment, setting goals (like saving for college, a house, or retirement), and identifying which Betterment tax features may be right. They can also help you make important investment decisions, like choosing risk levels, amounts to invest, and types of accounts.

Reading between the lines, Digital members get “licensed financial experts” while Premium members get “Certified Financial Planner professionals”. This suggests that while Digital members will still get fiduciary (client-first) advice, Premium members will get access to the more-experienced advisors in exchange for paying their higher fee.

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Retirement planning software with external account balances. RetireGuide is Betterment’s retirement planning software, launched in April 2015. This service links your external accounts from other banks, brokerages, and 401k plans (similar to Mint and Personal Capital) in order to see your balances without having to manually input them. According to their methodology guide [pdf], they don’t analyze your transactions to estimate savings rate, they are just pulling in balances.

How much do I have invested elsewhere? Am I saving enough money? How much estimated income will I have in retirement? Your future Social Security income is estimated for your based on your chosen retirement age and birthdate. You can change many of the variables as you like.

Account types. Betterment now supports taxable joint accounts, trust accounts, 401k rollovers, Traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, SEP IRAs, and Inherited IRAs.

Tax-efficent asset location. They will place different asset classes in your taxable accounts vs. tax-deferred accounts (IRAs, 401ks) for a higher after-tax return. In addition, if you have multiple types of accounts at Betterment (i.e. both IRA and taxable), it will manage multiple accounts as a single portfolio, placing assets that are taxed more into more favorably taxed accounts (like IRAs). Note that this only works across accounts that are held at Betterment. It does not adjust for non-Betterment accounts. This is called their Tax-Coordinated Portfolio (TCP).

Use dividends and new contributions to rebalance. They will use your dividends and new contributions to rebalance your asset classes in order to minimize sells and thus minimize capital gains.

Daily tax-loss harvesting. Betterment’s “Tax-loss Harvesting+” (TLH+) software monitors your holdings daily and attempts to find opportunities to harvest tax losses by switching between “similar but not substantially identical” ETFs. If you can delay paying taxes and reinvest them, this can result in a greater after-tax return. The exact “tax alpha” of this practice depends on multiple factors like portfolio size and tax brackets. You can read the Betterment side of things in their whitepaper. Here is an outside viewpoint arguing for more conservative estimates.

My opinion is that there is long-term value in tax-loss harvesting and especially daily monitoring to capture more losses. However, I also think it’s wise to use a conservative assumption as to the size of that value. (DIY investors can perform their own tax-loss harvesting as well on a less-frequent basis. I do it myself, but it’s rather tedious and I’m definitely not doing it more often than once a year. I would gladly leave it to the bots if it was cheap enough.)

Invest your excess cash automatically. Automatic contributions are good, but perhaps you don’t want to commit to a set amount each month. (Ideally, you do commit to a set amount, and this service invests more money on top of that.) Called SmartDeposit, you link your checking account and choose your Checking Account Ceiling and Max Deposit amount. If your checking account balance goes above the ceiling, Betterment will automatically sweep over money and invest it for you. Betterment will account for future scheduled deposits so you don’t over-contribute.

Fee schedule. In July 2017, Betterment simplified their fee structure change down to two tiers. Both now include access to human advice.

  • Betterment Digital. No minimum balance. Digital portfolio management and guidance. Unlimited access to “licensed financial experts” via mobile app with ~1 business day turnaround time. Flat fee of 0.25% of assets annually. The management fee on any assets over $2 million is waived.
  • Betterment Premium. $100,000 minimum balance. Digital portfolio management and guidance. Unlimited access to “CFP professionals” financial experts” via e-mail or phone. Includes more in-depth advice on investments outside of Betterment. Flat fee of 0.40% of assets annually. The management fee on any assets over $2 million is waived.

Bottom line. Betterment is an independent digital advisory firm with nearly $10 billion in assets, which means they aren’t tied to any specific brand of funds like Vanguard, Fidelity, or Schwab. Their main differentiators from the other independent firms (see my Wealthfront review) are (1) access to human advice available to all customers and (2) a Socially-Responsible portfolio option. Other notable features include: Retirement planning software that syncs with external accounts, tax-loss harvesting, tax-coordinated portfolios (when you have both IRA/401k and taxable at Betterment), and SmartDeposit which automatically invests excess cash from your checking account.

Special offer. Open a Betterment account and you can get your management fee waived for up to 1 year, depending on how much you roll over or deposit within 45 days of account opening. Here’s the breakdown:

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Landline Phone Replacement: OBi200 Adapter $40 Deal + Installation Tips

obi200Updated. If you still like the idea of landline phone service and multiple handsets around the house, Obihai VoIP boxes are officially supported by Google Voice to provide unlimited free calls to the USA to Canada. That’s totally free: $0 a month + $0 in tax and fees. Low international per-minute rates as well. All you need is a broadband internet connection and and a power plug (no computer).

Special offers. Get Obi200 for $39.98 when you use promo code OBIDEAL7 (expires 7/30/17). The seller should be Obihai Technology, Inc. at $49.99 before the coupon brings it down to $39.98 during checkout. There haven’t been many deals on these boxes recently.

I bought myself a Obi200 in order to try out their free calls, and also compare the voice quality with my Ooma device. I thought about making a video, but it turned out to be unnecessary.

  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:

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    Here is the back of the box, showing the ports:

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  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 (as I was already logged in by cookie). They didn’t require name, address, or credit card number. A few confirmation clicks, and that was it.

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  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, and continued to be quite good for the few months that I was using it before giving it away. (I already have the grandfathered fully-free version of Ooma. The voice quality between the two was comparable.)

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.

Which Obi box model should I buy? I think the sweet spot for most people will be the Obi200, which supports T.38 faxing and has a USB port which can be used to connect to your router over WiFi using an OBiWiFi adapter.

The Obi202 offers two independent phone ports so you can use two different VoIP providers simultaneously (or you can have two Google Voice phone numbers). If you can find one on the cheap, the older boxes work too. However, note that Obihai has stopped supporting Obi100 and Obi110 with new development. Here is a handy comparison chart of the OBi100, OBi110, OBi200, and OBi202.

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Bottom line. If you like the idea of having a landline-style phone service (multiple handsets around the house), this is a very good way to save money on your budget.

Chase IHG Rewards Club Select Card Review: 80,000 + 5,000 Bonus Points Offer

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The Chase IHG Rewards Club Select card has upped their public sign-up bonus to 80,000 bonus points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months of account opening. You can get an additional 5,000 bonus points when you add your first authorized user and make your first purchase in the first three months from account opening. The annual fee is waived for the first year, then $49 a year afterward.

Sign-up bonus details. 80k is a solid offer historically, but I should mention that there is also a targeted link for 100,000 bonus points after $2,000 in purchases within 3 months. The problem is that if you click on “Apply Now” you probably won’t get an actual application. However, there are reports that if you ask Chase nicely to match a better offer that you happened to see, they will agree. Worth a shot, but don’t count on it. Use their secure online messaging and create a digital paper trail.

This card is NOT subject to any “5/24” restrictions (where Chase limits you to less than 5 credit cards opened in the last 24 months. Our household strategy is to have one person only apply for Chase 5/24 cards, and the other person applies for everything else. You must not have had this specific IHG card within the last 24 months, however:

This product is available to you if you do not have this card and have not received a new cardmember bonus for this card in the past 24 months.

IHG stands for Intercontinental Hotel Group which has over 5,000 hotels including the following brands:

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

Free hotel night upon annual card renewal. Upon paying the $49 annual fee, you will get a free night certificate good at any IHG hotel worldwide. Assuming you can use it within 12 months, it is actually a good deal for $49.

Anniversary Free Night is valid at hotels in the IHG® Rewards Club Family of Brands and must be redeemed, and stay must be completed, within 12 months from date of issue. Anniversary Free Night is valid for one standard room night rate and applicable taxes only. Rooms are limited, subject to prior sale and availability of allocated resources and may be unavailable during high demand periods.

Platinum Elite status as long as you remain a credit cardmember. Perks include priority check-in and complimentary room upgrades (that actually happen). You also get 10% back when you redeem your points, up to 100,000 points each year.

Rewards on card purchases. Here’s the tiered rewards structure:

  • Earn 5 points for each $1 spent at IHG hotels
  • Earn 2 points per $1 spent on purchases at gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants
  • Earn 1 point for $1 spent on everything else.
  • No foreign transaction fees.

Based on the value estimates below, I would not put all your everyday spending on this card.

IHG point value estimates. IHG Rewards Club puts out a new list of PointBreaks hotels every few months where you can redeem a hotel night for only 5,000 points. That means 80,000 points could technically earn you 16 free nights! If those hotel rooms would otherwise cost $100 a night including taxes, you’d be getting $1,600 value from 80,000 points. This is how you can see valuations anywhere between 1.5 cents and 2 cents per IHG point.

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

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

Here’s an actual rate quote for 8/9 to 8/16 for the same Staybridge Suites:

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Keep in mind that the quote doesn’t include taxes, which would make the $138 average nightly rate into $159 with taxes. The 30,000 points per night does include taxes, so that work outs to roughly 0.53 cents per IHG point. At that rate, 80,000 points would be worth $424.

You can perform the same calculations for hotels that fit your needs. I tried a bunch of other various combinations and always got between 0.5 cents and 1.1 cents per point equivalent value.

Bottom line. The 80,000 upfront sign-up bonus can be conservatively valued at $400 in hotel stays (although you may do much better). Grab the easy 5,000 points for first authorized user as well. IHG has a wide selection of hotels around the world, from Holiday Inns and Staybridge Suites to luxury InterContinental hotels. The annual fee is waived the first year, but upon $49 annual fee renewal you get a free night certificate good at any IHG hotel (based on availability).

Lemonade: Homeowners & Renters Insurance With No Incentive To Deny Your Claim?

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Update: Lemonade is now available in California (in addition to New York and Illinois). Get a free quote from Lemonade and see if they are cheaper than your current homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy. Feel free to leave a comment about whether they were more or less expensive at the same coverage and deductible level. If you missed the follow-up, I asked for more clarification on how Lemonade differs from mutual insurance.

Right or wrong, many people view insurance companies with suspicion. Even though you pay them money every month for protection, you’re not really sure if they are truly on your side (despite what the commercial says). The problem is that with most insurance companies, any money they don’t pay you ends up in their pocket. The incentives are not aligned. Will they find a reason to deny your claim? Recall the Insuricare scene from the movie The Incredibles.

Lemonade is a new insurance company that takes a flat cut upfront, and the rest is put aside to payout claims. They are starting out with homeowner’s and renter’s insurance. The specific breakdown is below.

  • 20% to Lemonade.
  • 40% into a pool to pay out for claims (or charity).
  • 40% to reinsurance in case that pool is exhausted (catastrophic cases).

Reinsurance is basically what is sounds like – insurance for insurance companies. This provides additional safety that there will be money to pay out your claim in cases of catastrophic losses (i.e. certain natural disasters). Examples of reinsurance companies are Lloyd’s of London and Berkshire Hathaway.

If there are fewer claims than expected, Lemonade will donate the money to a charity of your choice. Therefore, they have no direct incentive to deny a valid claim. In turn, hopefully their customers will also not make false claims because they will only be taking money away from charities and not the big bad insurance company. When signing up, you even take a “honesty pledge”.

Here’s how behavioral economist Dan Ariely, who is their “Chief Behavioral Officer”, puts it:

Knowing that every dollar denied to you in claims is a dollar more to your insurer, brings out the worst in us all… Since we don’t pocket unclaimed money, we can be trusted to pay claims fast and hassle-free. As for our customers, knowing fraud harms a cause they believe in, rather than an insurance company they don’t, brings out their better nature too. Everyone wins.

Lemonade is also structured as a Public Benefit Corporation (B-Corp), which makes it the “World’s Only Public Benefit Insurance Company”.

Lemonade also saves money with tech start-up tricks. No human salespeople. No brokers. No physical branches. Apply online. File your claim online. Handy smartphone app (iOS and Android). The app has a chat-based AI interface, which also saves money. If you have to file a claim, you can take a video of the damage using their app and explain the situation.

It remains to be seen if they can truly disrupt the industry. In the meantime, they need competitive premiums. Uber would not be nearly as successful if they were more expensive than traditional taxis.

As of right now, Lemonade is only available in the states of California, New York, and Illinois. Lemonade has a stated goal of being available to 97% of the U.S. population during 2017, and it has filed for licenses to operate in 46 states and the District of Columbia. Get a free online quote from Lemonade and compare with what you have now. Prices start at $35 a month for homeowner’s insurance and $5 a month for renter’s insurance.

RealtyShares Review 2017: Wisconsin Apartment Loan One-Year Update

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Here’s a one-year update on my $2,000 investment through RealtyShares, a partial interest in a loan backed by a 6-unit apartment complex in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. RealtyShares is restricted to accredited investors only. Here are the highlights:

  • Property: 6-unit, 6,490 sf multifamily in Milwaukee, WI.
  • Interest rate: 9% APR, paid monthly.
  • Amount invested: $2,000.
  • Term: 12 months, with 6-month extension option.
  • Total loan amount is $168,000. Purchase price is $220,000 (LTC 76%). Estimated after-repair value is $260,000. Broker Opinion of Value is $238,000.
  • Loan is secured by the property, in the first position. Also have personal guarantee from borrower.
  • Stated goal is to rehab, stabilize, and then either sell or refinance.

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Property details. I chose this property because it is different from my other past “experiments”. I have never lived in or visited Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I have never invested in an apartment complex. Where I live, parking spaces have sold for more than $200,000. All units are 2 bed/1 bath, currently fully rented for ~$600 a month each. I don’t know all the numbers, but this place earns roughly $43,000 in gross annual rents with a purchase price of $220,000. Annual property taxes are $3,000 a year. Even if half of the rent is spent on expenses, that is still a cap rate of 10%. To be honest, I have had some second thoughts about this borrower (after a few late payments) that s/he is juggling too many investment properties using crowdfunding websites.

Initial experience. This specific investment was not “pre-funded” by RealtyShares. That meant that I had to wait until they secured enough committed money before the deal can go forward. I committed to this loan on 12/21/15 and $2,000 was debited from my Ally bank account on 12/29/15. However, the funding goal was not reached until 1/13/16 (before which I earned no interest) and I didn’t receive my first interest payment until 3/4/16 (for interest accrued 1/13-2/10). There was essentially a 3 month period between the time where they first took my money and I received my first interest check. I did receive my second month of interest shortly thereafter on 3/17/16.

Since my initial investment, RealtyShares has started offering investments on a pre-funded basis. You should also know that you don’t have to deposit any money into your account first before investing in any deal. You should link an account, but you can sign the papers and they will debit the funds when the investment closes.

What if RealtyShares goes bankrupt? RealtyShares investments have a bankruptcy-remote design. RealtyShares, Inc. is the platform. Your investment is held within a separate special-purpose LLC with a designated trustee which would continue to operate even if RealtyShares, Inc. goes bankrupt.

Payment history. I’ve been earning my 9% APR interest on my $2,000 initial investment, which works out to $15 a month. Below is a screenshot of my interest payments, which I have elected to by deposited directly into my bank account. You can see that I have received 12 payments over the last 12 months (March 2016 to March 2017). The borrower has had a few late payments, but always seems to catch up eventually. There was a mention of late charges potentially being charged, but none appear to have been paid out to my account. I need to follow-up on that (I assume it was within the allowed grace period).

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Recap and next steps? My real-estate-backed loan through RealtyShares is now a year old, designated my Real Estate Crowdfunding Experiment #3. I have received my 9% interest as promised, and the loan is current although some past payments have been late before becoming current again. The borrower has exercised the 6-month extension option and the loan now has an expected maturity of 5/20/17, so it remains a continuing experiment to see how/if/when the borrower pays off the loan in full. I definitely like that my loans are backed by hard assets, and a small part of me is still curious as to what would happen if the borrower just walked away.

Please don’t take any of my experiments as recommendations as the entire point is that I don’t know all the angles. I am sharing and learning. Also, I don’t know your situation. If you are interested and are an accredited investor, you can sign-up for free and browse investments at RealtyShares before depositing any funds or making any investments.

Experiment #1 was with Patch of Land and single-family residential property in California, which was paid back in full with a 12.5% annualized return. Experiment #2 is ongoing with the Fundrise Income eREIT, which holds a basket of commercial property investments and has been paying quarterly distributions on a timely basis.

Fundrise Income eREIT Review 2017: One Year Update

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Here’s an update on my $2,000 investment into the Fundrise Income eREIT. Fundrise is taking advantage of recent legislation allowing certain crowdfunding investments to be offered to the general public (they were previously limited only to accredited investors). REIT = Real Estate Investment Trust. This specific eREIT initially sold out of its $50 million offering, but Fundrise has since opened regional eREITs called the West Coast, Heartland, and East Coast eREITs. The highlights:

  • $1,000 investment minimum.
  • Quarterly cash distributions.
  • Quarterly liquidity window. You can request to sell shares quarterly, but liquidity is not always guaranteed.
  • Fees are claimed to be roughly 1/10th the fees of similar non-traded REITs. Until Dec 31, 2017, you pay $0 in asset management fees unless you earn a 15% annualized return.
  • Transparency. They give you the details on the properties held, along with updates whenever a new property is added or sold.

Why not just invest in a low-cost REIT index fund? I happen to think most everyone should invest in a low-cost REIT index fund like the Vanguard REIT ETF (VNQ) if they want commercial real estate exposure. I have many times more money in VNQ than I have in Fundrise. VNQ invests in publicly-traded REITs, huge companies worth up to tens of billions of dollars. VNQ also has wide diversification and daily liquidity. But as publicly-traded REITs have grown in popularity (and price), their income yields have gone down.

Fundrise makes direct investments into smaller properties with the goal of obtaining higher risk-adjusted returns. They do a mix of equity, preferred equity, and debt. Examples of real-life holdings are a luxury rental townhome complex and a $2 million boutique hotel. From their FAQ:

Specifically, we believe the market for smaller real estate transactions (“small balance commercial market or SBC”) is underserved by conventional capital sources and that lending in the market is fragmented, reducing the availability and overall efficiency for real estate owners raising funds. This inefficiency and fragmentation of the SBC market has resulted in a relatively favorable pricing dynamic which the eREIT intends to capitalize on using efficiencies created through our technology platform.

Here’s a comparison chart taken from the Fundrise site:

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Quarterly liquidity. As noted, the investment offers the ability to request liquidity on a quarterly basis, but it is not guaranteed that you can withdraw all that you request. In addition, you may not receive back your full initial investment based on the current calculation of the net asset value (NAV).

Update: I tested out the quarterly liquidity window and was able to withdraw my funds in a simple process and without issue.

Dividend reinvestment. I chose to have my dividends paid directly into my checking account. However, you can now choose to have your dividend automatically reinvested across currently available offerings.

Tax time paperwork? All you get at tax time is a single 1099-DIV form with your ordinary dividends listed in Box 1a. That’s it. Every other box is empty. This is much easier than dealing with the 10-page list of tax lots from LendingClub or Prosper.

Dividend income updates.

  • Q1 2016. 4.5% annualized dividend was announced. This was the first complete quarter of activity, so the dividend was not as large as when funds became fully invested. The portfolio had 13 commercial real estate assets from 8 different metropolitan areas, with approximately $31.5 million committed.
  • Q2 2016. 10% annualized dividend announced, paid mid-July. Portfolio now includes 15 assets totaling roughly $47.25M in committed capital.
  • Q3 2016. 11% annualized dividend announced, paid mid-October.
  • Q4 2016. 11.25% annualized dividend announced, paid mid-January. Portfolio now includes 17 assets and all of the $50 million has been invested.

Screenshot from my account:

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Recap and next steps? It has now been over a year since my initial investment in the Fundrise Income eREIT, designated my Real Estate Crowdfunding Experiment #2. I’ve earned $183.01 in dividends on my initial $2,000 investment. The quarterly dividends have arrived on time, I get regular e-mail updates, and it has been nearly zero-maintenance. I still accept the possibility of wide price fluctuations, as with any real estate investment.

Update: I tested out the quarterly liquidity window and was able to withdraw my funds in a simple process and without issue. Fundrise is still accepting direct investments into some of their eREITs, but I am now looking to re-invest into their new Fundrise 2.0 system, which has a new $500 minimum and allocates across multiple eREITs. You can sign-up and browse investments at Fundrise for free before depositing any funds or making any investments.

Personal Capital Review 2017: Automatically Track Net Worth and Portfolio Asset Allocation

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Personal Capital is free financial website and app that links all of your accounts to track your spending, investments, and net worth. You provide your login information, and they pull in the information for you automatically so you don’t have to type in your passwords every day on 7 different websites (similar to Mint). Investment-specific features include tracking portfolio performance, benchmarking, and asset allocation analysis.

Net worth. You can add your home value, mortgage, checking/savings accounts, CDs, credit cards, brokerage, 401(k), and even stock options to build your customized Net Worth chart. You can also add investments manually if you’d prefer. I have a habit of accumulating bank and credit union accounts, so I find account aggregation quite helpful.

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Cash flow. The Cash Flow section tracks your income and expenses by pulling in data from your bank accounts and credit cards. This chart compares where you are this month against the same time last month. If you hate budgeting, you may find it easier to view a real-time snapshot of your spending behavior. Their expense categorization tool is not as advanced as Mint.com, as you can’t for example tell them to always classify “Time Warner Cable” as “Utilities” and not “Online Services” or whatever they do by default. The default is usually pretty accurate, but if it isn’t you have to change it manually.

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Portfolio. This is where Personal Capital is better than many competing services, by analyzing my overall asset allocation, holdings, and performance relative to benchmarks. They also analyze your investment fees to see if you can get them reduced. I first signed up for Personal Capital four years ago, and since then my investments have gotten spread out even further. I now have investments at Vanguard, Fidelity, Schwab, TransAmerica (401k), and Merrill Edge. It’s nice to be able to see everything together in one picture.

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For comparison, Mint does not allow manual input of investments and it did not break down my asset allocation correctly based on my linked accounts. In fact, all it shows is a big orange pie chart with “99.9% Not Sure” and “0.00 Other”. Not exactly helpful.

Personal Capital considers the major asset classes to be US stocks, International stocks, US Bonds, International Bonds, and Cash. The “Alternatives” classification includes Real Estate, Gold, Energy, and Commodities.

If you have one bank account, one credit card, and a 401(k), you may not need this type of account aggregation service. Life tends to get messy though, and this helps me maintain a high-level “big picture” view of things.

Security. As with most similar services, Personal Capital claims bank-level, military-grade security like AES 256-bit encryption. The background account data retrieval is run by Envestnet/Yodlee, which partners with other major financial institutions like Bank of America, Vanguard, and Morgan Stanley. Before you can access your account on any new device, you’ll receive an automated phone call, email, or SMS asking to confirm your identity.

How is this free? How does Personal Capital make money? Notice the lack of ads. Personal Capital makes money via a optional paid financial advisory service, and they are using this as a way to introduce themselves. (People who sign up for portfolio trackers have money…) Their management fees are 0.89% annually for the first $1 million, which is rather expensive to my DIY sensibilities. They are a legit, SEC-registered RIA fiduciary and currently manage over $3.6 billion. In my opinion, this status improves their credibility as an entity with access to my sensitive information.

Note that if you give them your phone number, they will call you to offer a free financial consultation. If you answer the phone or e-mail them that you don’t want to be contacted anymore, they will honor that request. However, if you simply ignore the phone calls, they will keep calling. Know that you can keep using the portfolio software for free no matter what happens. Therefore, if you aren’t interested, I would recommend simply being upfront with them. A simple “no thank you” and you’re good.

Bottom line. It’s not what you make, it’s what you keep that counts. The free financial dashboard software by Personal Capital helps you track your net worth, cash flow, and investments. I recommend it for tracking stock and mutual fund investments spread across different accounts. I’d link your accounts on the desktop site, but interact daily through their Android/iPhone/iPad apps for optimal convenience (log in with Touch ID or mobile-only PIN).

Betterment Now Offers Human Advice + Flat Fee Structure

betterment_logoThe robo-advisor evolution continues. Betterment just announced some significant changes that include the option to upgrade to a Certified Financial Planner (CFP®) and a more simplified flat fee structure. Here are highlights from the new plans:

  • Betterment Digital. Their original product with digital portfolio management and guidance. Now at a flat 0.25% annually (no more tiers). No minimum balance. There is no longer be a $3/month fee if you don’t make monthly auto-deposits. The management fee on any assets over $2 million is waived.
  • Betterment Plus. Digital features above + an annual planning call from a “team of CFP® professionals and licensed financial experts who monitor accounts throughout the year.” You will also have unlimited e-mail access. The plan is a flat 0.40% annually. $100,000 minimum balance required.
  • Betterment Premium. Digital features above + unlimited phone access to a “team of CFP® professionals and licensed financial experts who monitor accounts throughout the year.” You will also have unlimited e-mail access. The plan is a flat 0.50% annually. $250,000 minimum balance required.

Betterment’s previous fee structure for Digital was 0.35% for balances under $10,000 with $100/mo auto-deposit (or a flat $3 a month without), 0.25% for balances of $10,000 to $100,000, and 0.15% for balances above $100,000. This means that with the new flat 0.25% fee structure, people with balances under $10k will end up paying less while those with $100k+ will be paying more. If I had a big balance at Betterment, I’d be quite unhappy with the price hike. Existing customers on the 0.15% tier will stay on that fee structure until June 1st, 2017.

Here’s how this breaks down in terms of your account size:

  • $10,000 account balance. Digital would cost just $25 a year ($2.08 a month). There is no longer any requirement for auto-deposit to avoid a $3 a month fee. Plus or Premium not available.
  • $50,000 account balance. Digital would cost $125 a year ($10.41 a month. There is no longer any requirement for auto-deposit to avoid a $3 a month fee. Plus or Premium not available.
  • $100,000 account balance. Digital would cost $250 a year ($20.83 a month). Plus would cost $400 a year ($33.33 a month) and include an annual planning call with a human advisor. Premium not available.
  • $250,000 account balance. Digital would cost $625 a year ($52.08 a month). Plus would cost $1,000 a year ($83.33 a month) and include an annual planning call with a human advisor. Premium would cost $1,250 a year ($104.17 a month) and include unlimited calls to a human advisor.

Commentary. I don’t write about robo-advisors all that often, but Betterment adding human advisors as an upgrade option signals a big change in the industry. For the investors with modest balances, the flat fee is cheaper but it has always been pretty cheap; at $50k in assets it costs the same as a Netflix subscription. Perhaps more important is knowing that as you continue to grow assets, a human advisor will become available without having to move your money elsewhere.

For those with at least $100k in assets, the upgrade cost to talk to a human advisor annually appears reasonable ($150 a year more at $100k asset level). You also get unlimited e-mail interaction for quick questions. If you go to an independent CFP and request a one-time consultation, that will usually cost a $400 to $500 flat fee. Potential concerns include that you don’t get a dedicated person but a team. However, in my experience even if you get assigned a dedicated person, they’ve often moved onto another job within a year. The wording also suggests that the pool of advisors are not all CFPs.

This move signifies both the good and bad about the current robo-advisor environment. The good is that they keep evolving and looking for ways to improve (i.e. index replication, tax-sensitive asset location, tax loss harvesting). The bad is that these can involve big changes with little notice (i.e. portfolio tweaks, fee changes). This time, the good is now you have the option to pay more for human advice. The bad is that if you already had a lot of money with Betterment, your fees got hiked by 10 basis points. This is why I prefer to DIY, because I enjoy being in control.

That said, if I had to switch I would prefer human access for estate-planning purposes (Mrs. MMB doesn’t want to manage our portfolio). Betterment says they have an advantage because they are independent. For comparison, I would look into Vanguard Personal Advisor Services (VPAS) which costs 0.30% annually and includes a team of human advisors. Possible drawbacks of VPAS include no automated tax-loss harvesting and you’ll be confined to Vanguard products.

Ally Bank 1-Day ACH Funds Transfer Review

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Considering all of the things that can be done instantaneously nowadays, I’m rather disappointed that it still takes 3 business days to move money between most financial institutions. NACHA has been gradually working on same-day ACH transfers – apparently credits are live (like direct deposit), but not debits. Even then, banks may treat this as a premium service and charge a fee.

Ally Bank announced in October 2016 that they would support free 1-day ACH transfers for eligible transfers on 12/3/2016. They later announced a delay until 1/7/17. I finally got around to testing out this new feature in mid-January. Here are their own words:

We can now complete qualified transfers between your Ally Bank and non-Ally Bank accounts in 1 business day – free of charge. If 1-day delivery is unavailable, we’ll deliver your transfer in 3 business days.

Here’s their updated timing chart (note the cut-off times):

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Here are the official reasons why a transfer would be ineligible for 1-day delivery:

  • Your one-time transfer is ineligible due to account inactivity, overdrafts or transfer returns.
  • Your transfer is part of a recurring transfer plan.

In my experience playing around with the website, there may be other additional factors. Here are the results of various combinations of to/from between Ally Savings/Checking and a sample External Bank B. This is what Ally is telling me upfront, before initiating the transfer.

  • Ally Savings to External Bank B = 1-day Transfer
  • External Bank B to Ally Savings = 1-day Transfer
  • Ally Checking to External Bank B = 3-day Transfer
  • External Bank B to Ally Checking = 1-day Transfer

Update – Here’s what a commenter Craig said an Ally CSR told him. I haven’t officially confirmed this but it appears to be consistent with my experiences.

To qualify for the 1 day transfer At Ally Bank, you have to do at least one $250 transfer in and out of the external account and then it goes into effect 2 months after that is done…so ALL your transfer accounts can qualify for 1 day transfers if you follow that rule…They should mention on the website…i found it out from a CSR….

Let us not forget that Alliant reduced the amount of outgoing transfers to $25,000 where as Ally allows $150,000 per transfer…

This usually isn’t a problem since I can make an instant transfer between Ally Checking to Ally Savings and then do a 1-day transfer from there, but savings accounts are only allowed six withdrawals per month. If I have a lot of transfers in any given month, I will eventually run into delays.

Ally has redesigned and improved the user interface of their funds transfer page. They now provide a a nice illustration of when your funds will be debited and when they will be deposited at the target location. It is also explicitly states whether it is a 1-day or 3-day transfer. Here’s an Expedited 1-day transfer:

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Here’s a Standard 3-day transfer (in this case technically it will take only two days):

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Bottom line. Ally Bank now offers 1 business day transfers in eligible cases with an improved user experience. Overall, I’m happy with this development as it applies most of the time (see above for details). I use Ally Bank as my central hub for cash transfers with Ally Bank Savings Account (higher interest, 6 withdrawals per month) as my default location for liquid cash savings and as a free overdraft source from Ally Checking (unlimited withdrawals per month). If I find a high-interest CD that looks good, I move money to/from my Ally account to where it needs to go, so speed can matter.