Is your bank or credit union for or against you?

Back around Christmas time I wrote a post about the holiday loan offered by our local credit union. I gave plenty of reasons at that time why you shouldn’t get one of these loans.

But then they came back to surprise me with a vacation loan advertised on their digital sign. Seriously? A loan to go on vacation? They advertise it by showing a beach and saying “it’s only a vacation loan away.” This is accompanied by a “spring into a home equity loan” ad. I’ve also seen one advertising their great rates on car loans.

You know what I haven’t seen? Anything about savings rates, investing, or getting into better financial shape. I had them advertise Financial Peace University once on their digital sign and it worked out great. That was until I got a call telling me they had to take it down because it was a conflict of interest because they wanted their members coming to them to discuss financial problems. Hmmm, maybe for consolidation loan?

All of this begs the question, is your bank or credit union for or against you? Do they have your best interest in mind when they offer you a product or service or are they just trying to maximize their shareholder value, pad their pockets, or make a quick buck?

Banks and credit unions make money when you borrow money and not so much you save it. They can be extremely giving when they’ve got incentive.

Keep this in mind the next time you’re bank or credit union has something new to offer you. Consider how they’ll end up coming out ahead in the end before accepting anything.

What crazy debt products have you seen offered? Do you have any stories about your bank or credit union where they helped you get ahead? Leave them in the comments below.

Photo by 401(K) 2013

Discounted gift cards – Save money on everyday purchases

How would you like to get $80 worth of stuff for $60, without looking for a sale? Or get some money for those gift cards that are just lying around with a few dollars left on them?

It wasn’t until recently that I finally took the leap and tried using a gift card reseller to save some extra dollars. We had 3 gift cards that had a balance on them and hadn’t been used in a while. We’d have to go out of our way to go to these stores and we’d likely pay more for whatever we would buy than if we bought it someplace else.

So I decided to sell them and get some cash through ABC Gift Cards. I was a little hesitant when I read the reviews online, but I gave it a shot anyhow since I didn’t have much to lose. I entered the cards on their site, reviewed their offer, chose my payment method and mailed the cards in. About a week later I got an email with an Amazon gift card code for the amount they offered. So far, so good.

The next step was to try buying one. I decided to buy one for a store my wife likes through CardCash.com (sister site of ABC Gift Cards). About a week later, it showed up in the mail. The total savings was 21% off the face value. Not bad at all.

I recently submitted another order for some cards for stores that our daughters like to get clothes from (Gymboree and Justice). Total order cost me $82.28 and I’m getting $105 worth of gift cards. That’s also an average savings of over 21%.

Why wouldn’t we do this all the time for clothing purchases at least? I’m not sure. If you’re looking for a way to boost your budget, this might be a great way to do it.

What do you think? Do you have any other unique money savings tips? Leave them in the comments below.

Photo by 401(K) 2013

Stocard: All your rewards cards in one handy app

Stocard

Do you have a ton of rewards cards for different stores? Do you forget what stores you have rewards cards too? Do you feel guilty every time you’re holding up the line trying to find the right rewards card?

Of course, the answer is yes. Sometimes reward cards are great, but when you can’t keep them all straight and have more than one for a store, they become useless.

That’s where the Stocard app comes in. It’s a pretty simple app that provides a lot of value. You add your cards to the app by choosing the store and scanning the barcode. Then the next time you’re in a store, you just pull up the app, select the store and the barcode appears for them to scan.

The app has a tons of stores built in, but if they don’t have one you’re looking for, you can create a custom card and add a logo.

For those of us who are forgetful about which stores we have reward cards to, the app can show you your cards based on where you are. That means the next time you’re in a store you’ve got a rewards card for, you can find it easily. The Android version has a widget for displaying them this way. I’m not sure how the iOS version does it.

I’ve been trying it out for a week now and I haven’t had a ton of opportunities to use it, but I plan on keeping it installed for a while to give it a thorough try. So far, I’ve had one custom card that didn’t scan when I tried to use it. Honestly, I’m not surprised since it wasn’t for a store. The other card I tried was one that I changed after scanning it in, so that might be why it didn’t work. I’m hoping for better results the next time and I’m not going to give up on it that easily.

Have you tried the Stocard app? If you have tried it or do, let me know how it works for you in the comments below. If you have any other apps that help you to save money or keep your life organized, let me know in the comments below as well.

Ebates: Earn cash back while shopping online

ebates

I’ve discussed the Google Chrome extension Honey in the past. It helps you find and test promotion codes on web sites when you check out to make sure you’re getting a great deal. They recently released a new version that really enhances how it works and can tell you about deals when you visit a site before reaching checkout.

Promotion codes are great, but cash back is better. That’s where Ebates comes in. With Ebates, you earn cash back when you shop at a ton of different online stores. Their site can also help you find promotional codes that you can use to get a discount while you’re shopping.

Seems too good to be true, right? How can they give you cash back for shopping online? Most online stores have a referral program. When you refer someone to a site using a unique code and they make a purchase, the online store will give the referer a portion of the amount spent. This is generally called an affiliate or partner program. Assuming this is how it all works, then Ebates simply gives you back some what they get and everyone is happy. The trick is you that you have to start  your shopping trip through the Ebates site or you won’t earn anything.

When it comes time to get your money, they can either mail you a check or deposit your money in your PayPal account. You can even refer friends and get a bonus for referring them when they’ve spent a certain amount.

So, friends, check it out and let them know that Adam sent you. You can start today by clicking here or any other Ebates link in this post. (All of the links use my referral ID.)

Let me know your experience with Ebates in the comments below. Have you found ways to save or make money without changing your habits? Let me know that below too.

Cut your cable and internet bill

Cable

If you’ve got cable TV or internet, I’m sure you’ve seen your bill creep up over time. After the promotional period expires you’re stuck with whatever the latest price is that they’ve got to offer. You can go out to their website and see all the great deals they have to offer…to new customers only. So what are you to do?

You can try switching services to get a lower deal, but that’s a pain. Below are two ways that I’ve personally used to keep the same services you already have, but at a lower price.

  • Look for fees on your monthly cable or internet bill that you can eliminate. Do you see a “modem fee” or some other device fee? When it comes to cable modems, did you know you can sometimes buy the same device that you have in your home for a little more than the monthly fee you’re paying? I’m currently helping a friend drop their $5.99/month modem fee by getting the same model modem on eBay for $8.55 with free shipping. At that rate, you will start saving money in less than 2 months.
  • Call your provider and ask for one of the offers they have online. Sounds pretty simple. However, the first person you usually talk to can’t do much, if anything. If their first offer isn’t appealing then ask for something better. You can always say something like “I was really hoping to lower your bill but keep the same services.” Eventually they’ll transfer you to a “customer care associate” or to the “retention department”. At that point, you’re talking to someone who can make the necessary changes and give you a deal. I’ve personally used this method to keep our internet bill at the same rate after the 12 month promotional period. There is usually a month or two where I end up paying the higher rate, but eventually I get it locked back in at the lower rate for another 12 months.

Potential Savings: In the examples above, I’m personally saving $15.99/month by eliminating the modem fee and keeping my internet rate the same. That’s over $190/year. You may be able to do even better than that.

If you have any questions on how to use either of the techniques above, simple leave a comment below or use the contact page to reach out to me. If you’ve found any creative ways of saving money on your cable TV or internet, leave them in the comments as well.

Featured Image courtesy of franky242 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Quick Savings Tip for Verizon Smartphone Users

Verizon

If you’re a Verizon Wireless user, then you probably already know that you’re likely paying more than you would with any other cell phone company. That’s why I’ve recommended checking out Ting and Republic Wireless in the past.

Recently though, Verizon has made a few steps to give their customers a bit of a break. Along with changing the name of some of their plans to MORE Everything, they’ve also given their smartphone customers more data for the price that they’re paying now. In some cases they may get double the data allowance they had before.

If you’re a Verizon Wireless customer, you’ll get the data increases automatically without intervention on your part. However, to save money, you will need to get involved. If you’ve stayed under your previous data cap, then simply call them up and ask to be moved back to your previous data cap level. That should immediately lower your monthly bill by whatever the next data level down is. Almost instant savings!

If you’ve got any additional savings tips, leave them in the comments below.

Cut the cord, fatten your wallet!

Cord Cutter

I’m sure by now you’ve heard the term cord cutter. It used to be reserved for those crazy people who lived on the fringe, pinched pennies, and had no life. That has changed significantly over the past couple of years as friends of mine have joined the ranks after telling me how they could never drop their subscription television for one reason or another.

I believe that this change has occurred due to the increase in great content outside of cable and satellite. Stores are carrying streaming media devices almost like they carry DVD and Blu-Ray players. Plus, many of the Blu-Ray and DVD players and televisions are now “smart”, which means they include most of the same content options as streaming media players.

If you’re looking for a way to cut some costs, dropping the cable or satellite might be a good option. Not only that, but you may actually enjoy your television viewing experience more. Below are some options and ideas for improving your experience and saving some money in the process.

  • If you already have a smart television, Blu-Ray, or DVD player then you’ve already got a good start. If you don’t have one or you don’t think your options are that great on the one you’ve got, check out Roku. It has over 1000 “channels” and is one of the most widely used streaming players available. There are others out there, but with the options available on the Roku and a starting price of $49.99, it’s hard to beat. Whatever you get, make sure it has the options you’re interested in.
  • Netflix has thousands of television shows and movies available when you want them and it only costs $7.99 a month.
  • Amazon Prime not only offers you free 2 day shipping on a ton of products and free books from their Kindle lending library, but you also get access to their library of free streaming titles. At $79 a year, that comes out to about $6.59 a month. Some of the titles are available on Netflix, but there are plenty of them that are not due to the different content licenses each company.
  • Hulu Plus provides you access to many current shows the day they after they air on television. It’s like a digital DVR replacement. The downside is that it even though you are paying for it, you still have to watch some advertisements. This will run you $7.99 a month as well, or if you use a PC and don’t mind waiting a little while longer to view shows, it can be free.
  • Crackle, PBS, PBS Kids, NASA, and more are available on the Roku for free and on other platforms as well. To browse the channel selection on the Roku, go to http://www.roku.com/now-playing.
  • To enjoy all of your local programming in full HD, get a digital antenna. Check out http://www.antennaweb.org to figure out what to look for based on where you live. I’ve found that unless you are close to television signals, getting one with a power booster will help you pick up signals that are further away.
  • If you’re ready to take cord cutting to the next level, check out the Channel Master DVR+. It allows you to find and record your favorite over the air shows with no monthly subscription cost. It’s the DVR for cord cutters.

Some of the biggest complaints that I hear about cord cutting is “what about sports?!?!” That’s completely understandable since it’s probably the biggest weakness with streaming content. The sports options are expanding though.

Besides saving money, one of the biggest benefits to cutting the cord is that your life doesn’t have to revolve around what time your favorite show is on. Gone are the days of having to get home by a certain time so you don’t miss a season finale. Controlling the content means you control your schedule. Isn’t that the way it should be?

Potential Savings: We cut the cord about 3 years ago and haven’t looked back. As for savings, Time Warner is currently offering 200+ channels with 3Mbps internet for $79.99 a month. We have 15Mbps internet for $34.99 a month. If you were to subscribe to all the services mentioned above (Hulu Plus, Netflix, and Amazon Prime), it would cost about $57.56 a month. That’s a total savings of over $22 a month or $269 a year.

Featured Image courtesy of Gualberto107 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Republic Wireless – The future of mobile phones?

Republic Wireless Logo

I had stumbled across Republic Wireless a couple years ago. I have to admit that their service was tempting. I mean, how can anyone resist $19/month for unlimited cell phone service with a smartphone. However, at the time, I just couldn’t make the jump to something that was still “beta”. Besides, things that I had grown used to weren’t yet available, like picture messaging.

Their original smartphone was not great. In fact it was almost the same as what I had and I was ready to ditch it (the LG Optimus). They later upgraded to another smartphone, the Motorola Defy XT. It was kind of cool with it’s water, dust, and scratch proof nature, but it still ran an old version of Android, the screen size was small, and it had been surpassed long ago by other smartphones when they announced it.

You might be wondering why a cellular company would only offer one phone. Well, Republic Wireless’s service is unique. In order to offer you such a low price, they offload many of the functions of a cell phone to available wireless networks around them when it’s available. They only rely on cell networks when they can’t connect to wireless. When you think about it, you’re likely surrounded by wireless at home and at work. In fact, I would venture to say that most of the time that you are stationary, there is a wireless access point that you could connect to. In order to offer this unique setup, Republic has to run custom software on the phone and get it approved by the cell phone manufacturer. In other words, it’s not a quick and easy process.

So, why even present you with a cell phone company that only offers one phone and seems to be so limited? Because this week, they finally opened up their service to make it worth another look again. A good long look. A look where you might be busting out the calculator to determine how much money you could save over time. Then you’ll start dreaming about how you could take that savings and take that trip through Europe you’ve always been dreaming of. Okay, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.

On Wednesday of this last week, Republic Wireless made their new phone available to buy, the Moto X. I guess the best way to put it is that they jumped from a Dodge Neon to a Lexus (any Lexus, you decide). This phone is a flagship phone, a phone that any smartphone user would be happy to have (unless you’re addicted to your iPhone). The best part, it’s only $299. That may sound like a lot of money, but consider the fact that a new unlocked one on Amazon is currently $529.99.

In addition to a new fancy phone, they’ve also released brand new plans. You can now pick between 4 different plans and are no longer locked into one unlimited plan.

  • $5/month – Unlimited everything over wireless only. This is for those who want to do some extreme savings or maybe want to replace their home phone and plan on keeping it at home all the time.
  • $10/month – Unlimited calls and texts over cellular and wireless, but data is over wireless only.
  • $25/month – Unlimited calls, texts, and 3G data over cellular.
  • $40/month – Unlimited calls, texts, and 4G data over cellular.

You can also change your plan up to twice a month. So if you don’t need the data, but plan on going on a trip somewhere for the weekend, you can change your plan to one that includes data for a couple days and change back when you get home. It’s also important to note that if you use a lot of data over cellular, they will throttle it. It appears that the throttle limit is currently 5GB, which is a TON of data if you don’t stream videos and music all the time. My wife and I together use less than 500MB every month.

They’ve also made some additional improvements to the service. Supposedly, calls can now be handed off from wireless to cellular. That means when you’re at home and you make a call over wireless, and then hop in the car and drive away, it should continue to work even though you are no longer connected to wireless. I’m not sure how they did this, but one review I read said they couldn’t get it to work, while another one said they did. The other improvement is MMS (picture/video message) support.

I have not yet used their service, but with the new plans, it is definitely tempting. I do want to warn everyone that choosing Republic Wireless is not for the faint of heart. They don’t have a number you can call if you run into issues. You’ll have to resort to emailing them or searching through the forums for other people who have had the same issue. Also, if you don’t like the service, you can’t use the phone with Sprint, Verizon or any other carriers. It’s locked into Republic Wireless. Finally, the cell network they fall back to is the Sprint network, which doesn’t have great coverage for everyone. From what I had read though, the phone should be able to roam onto other networks and it even looks like they include 100MB of roaming data.

Should you switch? I guess that depends on how extreme you want to get with your mobile phone savings. We’re planning on trying it when we replace one of our phones. If you’re not ready to go to such extremes. You may want to check out Ting. (You can read my post about them here.)

Potential Savings: If you’ve got one line on Verizon, it looks like you would be paying $80/month for the lowest amount of data possible (500MB). You could get 3G unlimited data through Republic for $25/month or $40/month for 4G data. That’s a potential savings of $55 or $40/month respectively. That comes to a total yearly savings of $660 for 3G or $480 for 4G. Even with the cost of a new phone, you would still be saving quite a bit.

Do you need an Ally?

Ally Bank Logo

We’ve been using an online bank for the majority of our banking for several years. We started with ING Direct until they were purchased by Capital One. We don’t really care for the large banks and figured they’d screw up a good thing, so we decided to switch to Ally Bank. We’ve been with them for a few years now and have no real complaints. Below are some of the reasons that we use Ally and online banks in general.

  • ATM Fee Refunds – With ING Direct, we had to use certain ATMs to not be charged a fee. With Ally, we can use whatever ATM we want, and they will issue us a refund for the fees we pay at the end of the month.
  • Paper Checks – We didn’t have a need for them that often, but they are handy to use occasionally. At the time ING Direct didn’t offer paper checks, but Ally did. Whenever you need more, you just let them know and they’ll send them to you at no charge.
  • Interest Rates – Face it, no one is paying great interest rates, but Ally is usually at or near the top. I’m not the type of person to go around and switch all my banking because someone else offers a .01% better rate. As long as we’re near the top, I’m okay with that.
  • Multiple Checking Accounts – At the time, we could only open one checking account with ING, but we wanted multiple. We like to put money from each paycheck into a “bills” account so that it can be pulled out automatically each month when it’s needed. In order to not go over the 6 withdrawal limit of a savings account, you have to use  a checking account. Plus, we got a debit card for the account and could use that with a lot of the places we pay each month. We also decided later to set up an account for myself and my wife. We keep our finances together for just about everything, but we also have our own little account that we use for our own personal spending. It’s our “no judgement” zone.
  • Tons of Savings Accounts – As far as I know, you can create as many as you want. You can create them for any savings goal you might have and then set up transfers so when you get paid, money is automatically transferred to your savings.
  • Instant Transfers – Did an emergency pop up that you need to take care of and need the money transferred fast? You can do it instantly from one account to another, even on the weekend.
  • Overdraft Protection Using Your Savings Account – You would never do this of course because you keep really good track of your checkbook. Let’s just say you were out and your car breaks down. You can’t transfer money from your savings to checking right then. If you tie a savings account to your checking account. When you pay the bill, Ally will transfer the necessary funds from the savings account to your checking account to cover the transfer. This saved us once when my wife lost her debit card for our shared account, and needed to purchase something. She simply used the one for her personal account and we took care of cleaning things up later.
  • Online Chat – If you’ve ever got a question, you can load up chat on Ally’s site and they can help you right away.
  • Online Bill Pay – Who doesn’t offer this? The nice thing about Ally’s is that they don’t take the money out of your account until the day the check is supposed to be delivered. That means you get a little extra time to earn some interest.

I will admit, they were little late to the mobile game. When their original mobile app came out, it wasn’t that impressive. It has improved over time and now allows for eDeposits where you can take a picture of a check and it deposits it into your account. This keeps us from having to run to a brick and mortar bank, deposit the check, and then transfer it up to the account we want it in.

I know there are some other online banks that have created fancy sites that show you a bunch of graphs and do automatic savings of one sort or another. Honestly though, I like to keep things simple and know exactly where our money is and where it’s headed. Ally has worked well for us and if you’re looking to dip your toes in the water of an online bank, give it a try. It might be a great place to put that emergency fund you’ve been working on.

(For what it’s worth, we have one account at a brick and mortar bank. We keep $5 in the account to keep it open. The only reason we have it is for those times we want to deposit cash or a check made out to one of our daughters. Once we make our deposit, we transfer the money almost immediately to Ally.)

Tracking Your Finances, the Easy Way

Mint.com Logo

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably got a variety of checking, savings, retirement, and investment accounts, all at different institutions. On top of that you may have credit cards, a mortgage, or a car loan. It can be overwhelming to get a complete financial picture. That’s where Mint.com comes in.

I love using this service, even if it’s only to give me a rough idea of our net worth from time to time. After you create your account, you will add in all of your different financial accounts. They’ve already got integrations with tons of different financial places. I was surprised to find my local credit union available. For each place that you want to add, you provide the necessary credentials to allow them to read the information. I know at this point, a lot of people would probably freak out. For some reason, I haven’t been that concerned about it. They are well established and have been around for quite some time. If you’re concerned, do some research and judge for yourself.

So, you’ve added your bank accounts, retirement accounts, credit cards, and your mortgage. You can even add your car and that collectible Elvis painting in the attic. It factors it all into your net worth. Here are some of the things that I really like about Mint.com and I’ve found useful.

  • On the lefthand side when you log in, you get the running total of your accounts in one place. It updates when you log in and you get warnings if they couldn’t connect for some reason. If you scroll down to the bottom, you’ll see your net worth. Hopefully it doesn’t scare  you to death.
  • Each week Mint sends out a nice summary showing all of your accounts and how much they’ve increased or decreased. It also gives you your net worth and tells you how much it has increased or decreased. I’ve set it up to also send the same email to my wife so she is able to stay up to date with all of our finances as well.
  • It’s incredibly easy to set up goals. You simply pick what you want to accomplish, when you want to accomplish it by, and which accounts are linked to the goal. For example, if you wanted to save $4000 for a vacation, you enter that in, choose the account you’ll be using to save the money in and it will tell you how much you need to put away each month to reach your goal. If you want, you can put in how much you plan to save each month and it will tell you when you’ll reach your goal. Each month, you’ll get another email showing you the progress of your goals.
  • The Investments tab does a nice job showing you comparisons as to how your doing against each of the major indexes in a nice graph. You can also check performance, value, and allocation in graphs as well.

Mint.com Investments

  • The Trends tab is kind of like the Investments tab. Instead of being for just your investments, it covers all of your accounts. You can analyze your debt, net worth, income, and spending, all in nice looking graphs.
  • If you open up the Accounts window, you’ll see a button for Emails & Alerts. You can create alerts for large deposits, large withdrawals, low balances, bank fees, interest rate changes, going over budget, and a ton of other things. These alerts don’t usually go out right away since they only update information about your accounts on an occasional basis.

There are a few features that are available that I don’t use. One of them is the Transactions tab. On this tab, you can see all of your transactions and categorize them. This helps with some of the other graphs that  tell you where you’re spending money. Honestly, I don’t have the time to go through and categorize them all. Another tab I don’t use much is the Budgets tab. Here you can say how much you want to allocate to different categories and it will tell you how close you’re getting to hitting that amount. Green is good, yellow is a warning, and red is overspending. Of course, this requires that all of your transactions are categorized correctly.

Finally, you’ve got the Ways to Save tab. I have to imagine this is how Mint.com makes their money. From here, they try to connect you up with different financial products like credit cards (stay away), checking, savings, investments, and more. Do some additional research before jumping into something because they suggest it.

I’m sure by now you may be skeptical, or you may not have gotten this far because you were so eager to check it out for yourself. If it’s not for you or after using it you’re concerned about security, you can always delete your entire account. Did I mention that they’ve got a mobile app for your smart phone too?