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Eliminating Fees

Your neighborhood branch is making $1 million a year in hidden fees

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Banks make a lot of money from basic checking and savings accounts. It may seem surprising that boring, basic accounts remain such big money-makers for the banks, but banks are making billions every year, largely because we stay with large traditional banks for no apparent reason. Banks call it “inertia,” and they profit from it.

promo-savings-halfOn savings accounts, banks make money by paying depositors virtually no interest. Most major banks (including Bank of America, Citibank, Wells Fargo and Chase) pay an interest rate of only 0.01% on their savings accounts. And then they use the money customers deposit to make loans at much higher rates. So, we are basically giving interest-free loans to banks.

There is good news: we no longer have to settle with 0.01%.

Branch-free banks are challenging traditional banks by paying interest rates of 1% or more. That may not seem like a big number, but it can be. If you have a $20,000 savings account, that is the difference between earning $2 or $200 of interest a year. We have compiled a list of the highest interest rate savings accounts, which we update daily. The banks do not pay us, so our recommendations are completely unbiased.

After raking in money on savings accounts, Banks turn their attention to checking accounts. Banks make most of their money by charging the following fees:

  • Overdraft fees: which represent approximately 60% of the fees charged by banks. Only 10% of the population pays 75% of the fees, and they tend to be the most economically vulnerable, including our troops.
  • ATM fees: which can add up quickly. If you go out of network, you pay ATM fees to two banks: your bank, and the bank that owes the ATM
  • Monthly fees: which most people get waived. A direct deposit or minimum balance usually takes care of this fee.

And these numbers add up quickly. We have used FDIC data to see which banks charged the most per branch in fees on checking and savings accounts. Although we expected big numbers, even we were surprised at how much fee income was generated. Bank of America was the worst offender of the big banks, generating nearly $1 million per year per branch in fees. Every time you drive by a Bank of America branch, remember that the bank is earning $1 million in annoying fees alone.

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We list the fees per branch below. But, just like with savings accounts, there are new alternatives out there. You can now get a bank account with no monthly fee (and no direct deposit requirement), no ATM fees (including reimbursement of other bank ATM fees) and no overdraft fees. Some of our favorite options include Bank of the Internet and Ally Bank. But you can compare all of the account on our checking account page.

If you are drowning in overdraft fees, or travel and are tired of ATM fees, then switching is a no-brainer. But, you may be thinking that you never pay any fees and don’t really have any problems with your bank. I was in that camp. But then I decided that I didn’t want to stay with an organization that just waits for me to make a mistake, and then charges an outsized fees. Like any other industry, I want to reward better organizations with my business, and I switched to Ally.

Stay Up to Date

price checker thumbnailAt MagnifyMoney, we want people to get in the habit of comparing, ditching and switching. If you find a gas station with cheaper gas, you switch. But, most Americans just stay with their bank. We want people to pay attention to the rate, tricks and traps and be ready to switch when a better deal is out there.

To keep you informed, we created our PriceChecker email, which goes out twice a month. With a quick glance, you can see if you have the best rate on your savings account. We also show the best mortgage rates, credit card deals and cashback rewards. And, whenever we find a fine print trap, we let you know about it. You can sign up for our email list here.

#1 on the list is Fort Hood Bank, targeting the people who serve our country in the armed forces.  Their customers will likely have limited assets, and the fee revenue will likely be dominated by overdraft and NSF fees.

#2 on the list is Cole Taylor Bank, which has made news targeting college students on financial aid, who also have limited assets.

#3 on the list is The Northern Trust Company, a private bank.  The average account generated $477 in fees last year. They have 77 offices.

#4 is Bank of America, with 5,319 branches. BofA looks particularly bad when compared to the other big 4 banks:

  • Bank of America charges, by far, the most fees per branch.  23% more than Wells Fargo and 27% more than Chase.

  • Citibank only generates $278,210 per branch, 72% less than Bank of America.  Citi does not have an extended overdraft fee.

At MagnifyMoney, we believe that the overdraft market is ripe for disruption. The revenue generated from the activity bear no relation to the cost of providing the service. My thoughts on how we can make the system better are here.

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Eliminating Fees, News

Your Script For Negotiating Credit Card Fees

Credit Card Fees

You probably already know that you can haggle over items at a flea market or the price of a new car, but the one thing many people don’t haggle over — but should — is credit card costs. Whether it’s the first time you’ve missed a payment and you’re being charged a fee, or your interest rate is too high or you want to increase your available credit line, everything is negotiable.

If the thought of haggling with your big, scary bank keeps you up at night, fear not — we have the scripts you can use for just this situation, so you’re more likely to stay calm, level-headed and actually get what you want.

The first thing to remember is that in many situations, you should act fast. The quicker your reach out a bank, the better your chance of getting the situation resolved to your liking. Most consumer protections related to fraud disappear if you wait longer than 60 days to bring it up, so missing this window could mean assuming liability. Your goal with disputes related to a fee the bank has a legal right to charge (think overdraft or late fee) is to get the bank to overturn it as a gesture of goodwill, probably because you’ve been a responsible customer.

When you do call, ask to speak first to a customer service representative, and when you get one, be friendly and succinct. In life they say you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and the same is true in banking. No matter what you’re asking for, you’ll want to point out how long you’ve been a loyal customer and why you’re valuable to them (aka how much you spend with them), and explain what you want in simple terms. For example, you might say:

I’ve been with this bank for 10 years, and I spend at least $2,000 on my credit card each month. If you can’t help me resolve my problem, I will have to ask that you close my account.”

 If you’re requesting that a late fee be removed, and you believe the fee has been charged in error, you have even more leg to stand on. Then you might add:

“I don’t believe my recent late fee is justified. I submitted my payment on November 6th, which is the same time I submit it every month, but for some reason I was charged a late fee this month. I would like for the fee to be reversed, and for you to ensure that no reporting has been done to the credit agency.”

It also behoves you to thank the customer service rep in advance for any help by saying something like:

“I understand mistakes happen, and I really appreciate your help. If we can resolve this today I’ll be sure to recommend your services to friends.”

If the customer service rep can’t help, ask to speak to the team that handles complaints, or to the manager. At the end of the day, banks really hate to lose a customer, so threatening to leave (even if you don’t really plan to) is a good tactical maneuver. What’s more, when you are transferred to a Retention team after threatening to leave, you will often be offered further incentives to stay, which could then include options to reverse your fees, reduce your APR or increase your credit limit.

If at the end of the day you can’t get what you want from your bank, and you really think it might be time to cut your losses, remember that you can close an account, even if you carry a balance. Just say:

“I’m going to close my account and use another card issuer. I’ll transfer my remaining balance over to them with a balance transfer. It would be really easy for you to stop me, but if you can’t [insert what you’d like done here], then I’ll have really no choice.”

Check out more information about haggling with your credit card company (whether via phone or social media, which is another good way to go) in this story.

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College Students and Recent Grads, Eliminating Fees

Should Millennials Use a Robo Advisor?

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If you’re like most 20- and 30-somethings, you don’t feel so sure about investing in the stock market. After all, it’s a volatile place that can take a nosedive based on factors outside of your control. Investing in stocks feels a little like gambling with your hard-earned money, and Wall Street is the house.

Of course, the reality is that investing to grow wealth is a savvy money move – but you need to know how to invest wisely. If you’ve worked through your fear of putting money in investment accounts, you may get tripped up by another common stumbling block for Gen Y: one in four millennials doesn’t trust anyone for financial advice.

But figuring out investments on your own is not easy (or smart). Traditionally, people have turned to financial advisors – but millennials may struggle to find an advisor they can connect with. Most require asset minimums that people in their 20s and 30s can’t afford and the average age of an advisor is about 55 (which creates a big disconnect between them and their young clients).

So where do you turn to if you don’t feel like you can trust the advice you’re getting? How can you find a way to get help in managing your money to grow your wealth?

Automated investment platforms, nicknamed robo advisors, hope to provide you with a solution.

What Are Robo Advisors?

CNN called robo advisors the next big thing in investing for younger generation, and for good reason. These platforms are technology-driven, run off algorithms that consider the variables you plug in and then manage your money for you. That’s all there is to it – no broker to worry about, no “advisor” who’s actually a commission-based salesperson and provides you with bad advice to enrich themselves.

Computers automatically adjust your asset allocation, attempt to help you save in taxes, and provide beautifully designed dashboards so when you log in to check on your money, you can get a big-picture view of your investments all in one place. You can get simple and affordable investment management without having to figure it out all by yourself.

There are a number of robo advisors out there, including:

  • Betterment
  • Wealthfront
  • Personal Capital
  • Jemstep

Each one offers something a little different, but at their cores they’re all striving to make investment simple, straightforward, and easy for beginner investors to use.

Is a Robo Advisor Right for You?

One of the biggest advantages to robo advisory platforms is the fact that most don’t require asset minimums out of the reach of the average millennial investor. Many traditional RIAs (or registered investment advisors) required you to already have $500,000 or more before they’d work with you as a client. And not many Gen Yers have half a million lying around just waiting to be invested with an advisor.

Robo advisors provide you with a way to get your money in the market, which is a huge hurdle for most people to overcome. Confusion over what to do or who to do it with prevents many people from getting started at all.

A robo advisor may be right for you if you know you need to get started investing — with whatever you have – but aren’t sure how to do it yourself and feel uncomfortable paying a traditional financial advisor. As your financial situation changes, you may want to find a way to acquire individualized guidance. But an automated approach from a robo advisor can help you get started on the right foot.

The Drawbacks of Automated Investment Platforms

Some argue that robo advisors are much too simple for serious investors with big money to invest. Most use Modern Portfolio Theory to determine where to place your money. For those willing to do some research, they can set up similar portfolios on their own and cut out the robo advisor’s fee.

For example, Betterment uses Vanguard ETFs in its investment plans. You could easily go straight to Vanguard and buy into those funds yourself instead of doing it through Betterment.

Essentially, the robo advisors offer a one-size-fits-all solution. And you’re an individual, so these plans may not be the absolute best option available. It makes it simple and easy and keeps you from having to figure it out all by yourself, yes. But it may not be as robust of a solution for you as it is for the person down the street who has a different financial situation.

And the biggest drawback to these platforms is also the most obvious: there’s no one to talk to about your money. While it may be easier for Millennials to trust they’re getting objective financial advice from an unbiased, completely logical computer, you do lose something in the technology translation.

When It’s Time to Call in the Pros

Not everyone should rely on robo advisors for their investment management needs. That human connection is incredibly valuable.

Here’s the deal: developing a good financial situation is like developing good health. We all know the fundamentals are simple. Eat healthy and exercise. Save money and invest wisely.

Simple, but not easy.

This is the value of an advisor who can work with your individually and have real, live, human conversations with you. They can talk about your goals, walk you through complicated situations, and stand between you and a silly mistake — like pulling your money out of the market when it’s crashing (when the rational move is to leave your money alone and stay the course so you can ride the wave back up).

You should consider getting in touch with a financial advisor if you want a comprehensive financial plan, and not just help in managing your investments. Remember, investing is only one part of your much larger relationship and situation with your money.

You should know how to look for the right financial advisor for you, and you should know where to look too. Start by searching NAPFA, the largest professional organization of fee-only financial planners, or check out XY Planning Network, the leading group of fee-only financial planners who specialize in helping Gen X and Gen Y.

Both groups adhere to a fiduciary standard and do not earn commissions off product sales. Also, you may want to focus on only considering financial planners who don’t have asset minimums.

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Best of, College Students and Recent Grads, Eliminating Fees

Best Bank Accounts for College Students

Best Bank Accounts for College Students

For most students, the college experience is like dipping one’s toes into the “real world”. Yes, a student may be living away from home but their parents are probably still helping financially. Before anyone blushes, it’s okay. According to a University of Michigan study, more than 60% of adults between the ages of 19 to 22 still receive financial support from their parents. They receive, on average, $7,500 per year. This includes costs like college tuition, rent, and transportation. This makes it important that parents find an economical, fee-free way to send money to their children.

But remember, college is typically a transition period in which child should begin having more control over their financial lives, which means finding the best checking and savings accounts. Our round up of bank accounts for college students below offer options for parents to send children money without fees, stellar overdraft protection and even foreign ATM reimbursements.

For Parents Sending Money to Students

Bluebird by American Express

You may have seen these blue cards at Walmart checkouts. They’re quite popular. The Bluebird card serves as a prepaid debit card of sorts. It’s free to set it up online. It costs $5 for an in-store Set Up Kit to begin using right away.

It doesn’t cost anything to send or receive money. Parents can load the card in a number of ways. The fastest way is to send money to the card via an electronic bank transfer (yes, there is an app). Simply connect a checking or savings account to the card and begin transferring funds. It’s just like transferring funds from one bank account to another. Funds can also be added at a Walmart checkout register via cash or debit. Finally, parents can also load the card even by sending in a paper check.

A cardholder can request money for free. They can simply send a request for ‘new shoes’ and a parent can simply transfer ‘x’ amount of dollars to cover the cost. It’s pretty simple.

Another unique aspect of this card is you can add Walmart Buck$. These are funds that can only be used at Walmart. The funds cannot be redeemed as cash, cannot be withdrawn at ATMs and cannot be transferred to a bank account. This may stop the hold holder from using the money irresponsibly.

Fees and Fine Print

  • No activation fee
  • No monthly fee
  • No annual fee
  • No overdraft fee
  • No ATM fees when in-network. Out of network ATM transactions are $2.50 each plus any surcharges from the bank that owns the ATM. $2.50 is a pretty high fee.

Bluebird

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Best Bank for Overdraft Protection 

Ally Bank

This is our pick because Ally Bank offers a unique overdraft protection plan. Simply link an Ally savings account to an Ally Checking account and it’s protected from overdrafts. However, if the savings account balance isn’t sufficient, an overdraft fee of $25 will be charged. The overdraft fee $25 and is charged a maximum of once per day. But that is still low compared with most banks, with the Big 4 Banks all charging over $30 per incident and often four or five incidents per day.

Ally also provides $10 worth of ATM fee reimbursements per monthly statement cycle, which enables you to take out money at out of network ATMs and still get refunded. But what about other fees?

Fees and Fine Print

  • No monthly maintenance fees
  • Free standard checks
  • Free cashier’s checks
  • No fee for having a zero balance
  • No incoming wire fees (domestic or international)
  • Free Allpoint® ATM usage (43,000+ in the US) plus $10 worth of ATM fee reimbursements each month.

ally

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Best Bank Account for Free ATM Reimbursements

Charles Schwab High Yield Investor Checking Account

Thinking about studying abroad? The Charles Schwab High Yield Investor Checking account reimburses all ATM fees, even internationally. This account is ideal for traveling students. Even for those not studying abroad, this may be a good option for any travel overseas.

Charles Schwab High Yield Investor Checking Fees

  • No ATM fees
  • No monthly service fee
  • No overdraft protection fee. Although owners must also have a Charles Schwab brokerage account or savings account to link for overdraft protection. Should funds in the overdraft account be insufficient, a $25 fee will be charged for up to 4 incidents daily. This overdraft protection is pretty abysmal when compared with Ally.

charles-schwab

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Brick-and-Mortar Options

If the parent is more comfortable with having physical locations, there are still brick-and-mortar banks, which offer good benefits and low fees. Before committing to a big bank, check the local credit unions. They often offer a better value. Compare the credit unions with the other banks listed in this post. Ask about overdraft protection, overdraft fees, minimum account balance, and monthly maintenance fees. The good thing about a local credit union is the customer service. Don’t be too shy to ask about fees.

The downside to local brick-and-mortar options is the parent may be in one location and the child in another, making it difficult for one party to withdraw or deposit money. However, most credit unions today have good online banking systems. They may not have mobile deposits or an intuitive app but they have what counts. If ease of use is still a concern, look for a big bank with many locations. Fees will likely be higher and interest lower, but convenience is very important for a college student. After all, they need to spend their time studying.

Don’t Be Afraid to Break Your Routine

Technology has really changed the way banking works today and it’s provided an option for fewer fees and easier transactions. Just because you’ve always banked at a certain establishment, doesn’t mean you should stay there – especially if you’re trying to make it cost-efficient and simple to send money to your college-aged children.

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Ally Bank Checking Account Changes: Fees Are Increasing

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Ally Bank is making changes to its checking account, which will go into effect on August 15th. Existing customers will start receiving notification today from Ally. I spoke with a representative of Ally, who explained the changes to me.

Here is the summary:

  • Unlimited reimbursement of ATM fees is gone: Ally Bank will now reimburse up to a maximum of $10 per billing cycle. Ally is joining the Allpoint ATM Network, and use of those ATMs will remain free.
  • NSF and Overdraft fees are increasing: Ally Bank used to charge a maximum of $9 per day for overdrafts. That charge is increasing to $25.
  • All other features remain the same. If you link your Ally savings account, you will continue to receive unlimited overdraft transfers. There remains no monthly fee with no minimum balance and no direct deposit requirements.

We view these changes as unfortunate. Unlimited ATM reimbursement was a big selling point of the Ally checking account. Many customers were willing to take a lower interest rate on their savings account in exchange for the convenience and value associated with the checking account. Ally is paying 0.99% compared to market-leading rates of 1.25%, which can be found on our Savings Account page.

The NSF and Overdraft fees will only impact a small number of customers. However, we liked that Ally was taking a leading position on keeping fees as low as possible. It is unfortunate that the small number of people impacted by this fee will now have to pay more.

And we generally are not big fans of the Allpoint network. Searching for the closest convenience store with an Allpoint ATM is not the same as choosing the closest traditional bank.

How Does Ally Bank Compare

The checking account is now less competitive.

Unlimited ATM Reimbursement

If you are looking for unlimited ATM reimbursement, there are still some good options out there:

  • Bank of Internet USA offers Rewards Checking, which offers unlimited ATM reimbursement (except international), with the fees reimbursed the next day
  • Charles Schwab offers High Yield Investor Checking, which offers unlimited ATM reimbursement both domestically and internationally

Overdraft Fees

Ally Bank still offers the best deal for linking a high yield savings account to a checking account for overdraft protection. You can keep your checking account balance low and have free, automated transfers from your savings account to your checking account. Large, traditional banks typically charge $10 or $12 to transfer funds from a linked Savings Account. And those savings accounts usually pay very low interest rates.

However, if you are running low on cash and need overdraft protection, you may want to consider a different bank. Capital One 360 offers an affordable overdraft line of credit and does not charge an NSF fee.

The Verdict

Ally Bank has long offered the best checking account in the industry. It was an obvious choice. You could use any ATM in the country for free. You could keep your balance low in your checking account and cover transactions from a high interest rate savings account with free, automated transfers.

These recent changes make the calculation a bit more difficult.

The typical ATM fee is $3. If you use an ATM more than 3 times a month, you may need to re-think your strategy. And if you travel frequently and use the ATM a lot, this account can start to get expensive.

If you tend to go overdraft often, you should consider Capital One 360 instead of Ally Bank.

However, if you only use an ATM once or twice a month and never go overdraft, these changes will not impact you. We regret the changes regardless. Ally Bank created a product that was the absolute best. Now it is no longer so clear.

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Banks Generate $30bn Of Abusive Overdraft Fees

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Banks generated $7.65 billion of overdraft revenue during the first three months of 2015, according to the Wall Street Journal. On an annualized basis, banks are poised to generate $30.6 billion in overdraft revenue this year. Despite the passage of Regulation E, multiple lawsuits and the threat of regulation from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”), fees have only reduced by 4% compared to 2014. Overdraft fees have historically accounted for an outsized percentage of checking account revenue at the largest banks in the country, and it looks like these fees will remain a meaningful contributor to revenue in the near future.

Are Overdraft Fees Predatory?

The average overdraft fee is about $30 per incident. In addition, many banks charge extended overdraft fees. At Bank of America, it can cost $70 to borrow $6 for six days as a result of the extended overdraft fee. Even worse, nearly 50% of banks in the country will re-order transactions to increase the number and amount of overdraft fees charged. Rather than debiting money from your checking account in the order that the debits occurred, banks often debit your account in the order that they wished the transactions would have occurred.

Because overdrafts are so expensive, the vast majority of people avoid them. In Europe, an overdraft line of credit is a cash management product that makes sense for everyone. Keeping too much cash is expensive, because it could be better invested or placed into a long-term certificate of deposit. People of all economic backgrounds take advantage of generous overdraft lines of credit, which charge very low interest rates. Borrowing $6 for six days would only cost a few pennies in most large European banks.

However, American banks have made going overdraft a sin and high overdraft fees the punishment. As a result, people with money have completely avoided overdrafts. Only a small percentage of the population uses the overdraft product. 8% of bank customers generate 75% of overdraft fees. Overdrafts have become a short-term borrowing mechanism for people who have no other option. And overdrafts offered by banks are often more expensive than payday lenders. The typical payday lender charges $15 to borrow $100 for 2 weeks. As I mentioned in the Bank of America example, large banks are charging much more than that.

A banking practice is considered predatory when it meets a few definitions:

  • It targets people with low income or limited financial means
  • It charges a price that is dramatically higher than the cost of providing the service
  • It has opaque and complicated pricing that makes it difficult to understand the true cost of the product
  • It charges the fee when someone is in a vulnerable position and has few alternatives

Overdraft fees meet all of those requirements. The price of an overdraft is dramatically higher than the cost of providing the service. Banks charge an average of $30 to decline a transaction, which costs the bank close to nothing. When banks approve a transaction, credit risk is taken. However, the banks are charging effective interest rates above 400% in the form of fees. The banks are addicted to the revenue, which is why the revenue remains despite the backlash.

As overdrafts become more expensive, fewer people will use the service. Banks will extract more revenue from people who have fewer funds and a lower net worth. In my opinion, overdrafts are predatory and action is required.

Isn’t The Situation Improving?

Most headlines have reported the reduction in overdraft fees. And a 4% reduction is material. This reduction has come from banks eliminating high-to-low transaction ordering and putting limits on the number of overdraft fees that can be charged per day. At many banks, it used to be unlimited.

However, banks have not reduced the headline rate. Bank of America has been bragging about its commitment to the customer. But lets look at what they have really done:

  • The overdraft fee remains $35 per incident, and 4 incidents can happen each day
  • The extended overdraft fee remains in effect, charging $35 after 5 days
  • The bank eliminated the option to opt in to debit card and ATM overdraft fees. However, very few people are opting in to this service

In short, the changes have been cosmetic. And without rules from the CFPB or competitive pressure, I doubt the policy will change. The poorest Americans will continue to find Bank of America more expensive than most payday lenders.

What Alternatives Exist

I personally do not like doing business with institutions that create intricate webs of “gotcha” fees. That is why I switched to Ally Bank, which has virtually eliminated overdraft fees from its product offering. Most internet banks have done the same thing, and you can compare accounts here.

Unfortunately, if you need a branch, most branch-based banks remain expensive. And most credit unions are not far behind, charging $25 when the big banks are charging $30. Community banks, credit unions and large banks are all getting fat from these fees. Despite the regulatory pressure, lawsuits and negative press, our nation’s poorest will give banks another $30 billion of overdraft fees this year.

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Eliminating Fees, Strategies to Save

8 Savings Solutions for Dynamic Pricing

Pretty Young Multiethnic Woman Holding Phone and Credit Card Using Laptop.

This article comes to us from consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch.

One of the most powerful tools retailers use to trick you into spending money is dynamic pricing. This refers to the practice of fluctuating prices on products throughout the month, week or even day. Both online retailers and brick-and-mortar stores use analytical tools to manipulate prices based on demand, time of day, weather and even zip code with the ultimate goal of maximizing profits. For example, a study tracking Amazon found the online giant changed the price on a GE microwave nine times in just one day.

By adjusting prices based on consumer and market behavior, retailers can capture more customers while getting the most money from each sale. That means the price you viewed on a product in the morning could change by the time you get home from work at night. These analytical tools may also identify an IP address for repeat searches and subsequently send a price soaring.

With such advanced technology working against you, dynamic pricing may seem unbeatable. However, the following tactics can put you back in control of your spending and help you snag the best price on a purchase.

Clear Your Cookies

Cookies (in Internet-speak) are what help you avoid entering your login information every time you check your bank statement, but they’re also responsible for tracking your buying patterns across the web. This creates a digital profile of your purchasing behavior and sites adjust pricing and search results accordingly. Erase your cookies before your next online shopping task to receive unbiased results.

Shop Covertly

A study about price discrimination from Northeastern University in Boston revealed registered users to sites like Orbitz were sometimes presented with better deals than non-registered users. Clearing your cookies as advised above could impact member pricing, so in these cases it’s best to browse covertly. If you’re a repeat customer with a login, use Chrome’s Incognito mode or Firefox’s Private tab to search for prices and compare them to traditional browsing to determine any price differences.

Compare and Track Prices

The biggest weapon against dynamic pricing is price tracking. Knowing the history of a product’s price can show you how high or low it’s been, and during what times. CamelCamelCamel offers price history and tracking for Amazon products, while TrackIf.com helps you track products from other retail websites. You can also use price comparison search engines like PriceGrabber to find out who has the best price at the moment. Finally, browser add-ons like Invisible Hand alert you when a product you’re looking at is better priced elsewhere.

Set Sale Alerts

When you’re short on time, setting sale alerts is helpful to learn when a product’s price drops due to a promotion or available coupon. Pinterest actually has a setting to alert you when something you’ve saved (or “pinned”) from a retail website drops in price. You can also use SnapUp, an app that organizes your mobile screenshots of products into a database and lets you organize by category (“clothing” or “John’s birthday”), and sends you an email when product prices drop. PoachIt offers similar price-tracking features but highlights specific coupon codes that help you offset the cost of your purchase.

Apply a Coupon

Obvious, yes, but oh-so-important! If a checkout page has a field for a promo code, take a moment to look for one before you proceed. Search for coupon codes on deal sites like CouponSherpa.com to easily find deals from specific stores or within product categories. If you’d rather not search through coupon sites, install the Honey browser extension and have available codes automatically pop up during checkout.

Price Match

To compete for your business, several major retailers are willing to match one another’s prices, making your pursuit of savings much easier. Plus, if you have perks with one retailer (like rewards cash), you don’t have to sacrifice those rewards to get a better price. Review the retailer’s price-match policy or open up a live chat session with an online rep. You’ll have to provide proof of the better price but it should be as simple as copying and pasting a link from the other store.

Name Your Own Price

Ideally, you could always pay the price you think something is worth, but in retail it doesn’t typically work that way. However, when it comes to gadgets, electronics and, um, baby gear, Greentoe gets us to that point. Search for your desired product and Greentoe shows you the lowest and average online price, plus gives you an idea of how well your offer will be received. Submit an offer and the first retailer to accept it gets the sale, and you get the product at the price you want. You also have the power to name your own price through portals like Craigslist or Facebook Groups, where you can negotiate your preferred price with the seller.

Call Customer Service

When in doubt, give customer service a call and speak to someone. You’d be amazed what you can get by simply asking. A friend of mine was disappointed with part of a purchase she made over Black Friday weekend, and was torn about whether to keep it anyway because the return-shipping fees would be outlandish. I encouraged her to call customer service and let them know she wasn’t satisfied with the product. She did, and the company sent her a return-shipping label, no questions asked. I’ve also used this tactic countless times and have had expired coupons honored or been granted free overnight shipping.

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Eliminating Fees, Life Events

The Downsides of Having Joint Bank Accounts

Joint Banking

Although I am a big supporter of having joint accounts with your spouse, I won’t deny there are downsides. Currently, my husband and I use Charles Schwab for most of our banking and investment needs.

We opened that account when we moved out of the country because Charles Schwab charges no foreign transaction fees and refunds all ATM fees. They also have excellent customer service and were able to help me with getting my paycheck deposited and a laundry list of other issues as we tried to navigate the tricky waters of international banking.

Although joint bank accounts inspire teamwork and openness in marriage, my husband and I definitely had some tense moments over the last five years of banking together. 

1. Analyzing Each Other’s Purchases

One of the most common reasons men and women want their own bank accounts in a marriage is because they want the autonomy to spend as they please. Early in our marriage, before we had regular money dates or discussed our financial goals, I frequently went through our online accounts pointing to various charges and asking my husband why he made them. After several months of this, he was scared to make a purchase at all, not knowing if I’d point it out or not. Over the years, we’ve remedied this problem by having our own cash spending money and also starting a rule that you only have to ask the other one about a purchase if it’s over $50.00. That way, I overlook all the little Starbucks charges and he overlooks all the small updates I make to my business.

So, depending on your upbringing or the personality of your spouse, having this oversight can be difficult on a marriage, which is one of the reasons I’m counting it as a downside of having joint accounts.

2. Difficulty in Gift Giving

A week before Mother’s Day this year, my husband told me to look out for any packages addressed to him. He didn’t want me to see the return address because it was a Mother’s Day present. I asked, “Is it from an Etsy seller?” and he was so disappointed.

Technology and our joint banking accounts ruined a little of his surprise. My Mint App (one of many financial tools I use) already told me he spent money at Etsy. I assured him that Etsy was a pretty big range and that I wasn’t disappointed at all, but it was more about the principle of the matter.

This has happened several times in our relationship, to the point where we tell the other one around Christmas time to not look at our account for a few days, which isn’t good either. Many people have suggested that we simply buy gifts with cash, and although that works at times, we both prefer the convenience of online shopping.

3. All Your Eggs in One Basket

In 2005 my family’s life completely changed after Hurricane Katrina blew its way through our town. It was so hectic after the storm. Banks were closed, ATMs weren’t working, and it was difficult to do anything that required using local banks. Everything was underwater. My mom was able to call an open branch of her bank and stop the large check she just wrote for my student housing expenses at my college (which was by then totally closed because of the storm.) I remember how stressed they both were.

Having a joint checking account and putting all your eggs in one basket can be detrimental in an emergency or if your bank has a breech or some other security issue. Spreading out your accounts and your money in different banks and different accounts provides a layer of security that you can’t get with just having one main joint account.

My husband and I feel comfortable banking with Schwab because it’s such a large company but for an extra layer of security, we do have separate accounts in Smarty Pig, an online high yield savings account, which does not allow joint accounts. So, if you do like having joint accounts, you should know that some banks are better about allowing joint accounts than others.

It’s All About Communication

Really, when it comes to joining finances with your spouse (or not), it all comes down to communication and trust. I know many couples that are happily married with joint accounts because they have to work together on all of their money decisions. I also know other couples that are equally as happy with their separate accounts because they trust each other to make wise financial choices and feel like they have a sense of independence.

Whichever path you choose, just remember to have regular financial check-ins to see the status of your combined net worth so you know how far you have to go before you can reach financial goals and ultimately retire.

Find the best accounts for your joint banking needs by using our comparison table. 

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College Students and Recent Grads, Eliminating Fees, Life Events

When to Avoid a Company 401k

Man Paying Bills With Laptop

Gone are the days of workers depending upon pensions when they retire. Today, instead of offering defined benefit pensions guaranteeing an employee a monthly payment for the rest of his or her life, employers are moving to more employee-managed retirement savings plans.

Today, more employers offer a 401k plan – if they have an employer-based plan at all. With a 401k, employees make a defined contribution from their income each year. With a pension plan, employees knew exactly how much income they could depend on each month during retirement. Now, it is up to the employees to determine how much they need to save in order to reach their retirement savings goals.

A 401k allows employees to make defined contributions, pre-tax (or post-tax), towards retirement. If you contribute to a traditional 401k, contributions are automatically deducted from your paychecks each pay period, pre-tax. As a result, you don’t pay taxes until money is withdrawn from the account and you cannot withdraw money before 58 ½ without penalties. Some employees offer the option to contribute post-tax in a Roth IRA, so money withdrawn in retirement will not be taxed.

With this change toward employee-directed retirement, rather than retirement guaranteed by the employer, it is up to you to make the best decisions regarding your retirement savings. This could mean it’s best to avoid a company 401k.

Take a look at these situations in which you should not pay into your employer’s 401K, and see if any of them apply to you.

No Employer Match

Many employers provide a match to their employees’ 401k contributions. Employer matches vary greatly by employer, but a common example of this is $0.50 per $1.00, up to 6% of employees’ pay.

Let’s say you earn 40,000 per year at your current job, and your employer provides a $0.50 per $1.00 match, up to 6% of your pay. If you were to contribute the full 6% of your pay annually, you would contribute a total of $2,400 to your 401K over the course of a year. Your employer would then contribute $0.50 for every dollar you contributed, for a total of $1,200 for the year.

In total, over the course of the year your 401K would contain $3,600, and you only would have contributed $2,400 of the balance.

But if your employer does not provide a match, it may be time to reconsider contributing to its 401K plan. Never walk away from an employer match, as it is basically free money, but if your employer does not provide a contribution match, it may be time to consider other options like saving for retirement in a traditional or Roth IRA.

You Have Reached The Contribution Limit

Effective January 1, 2015, the 401k contribution limits are $18,000 if you are age 49 and under. If you are 50 or older, you can contribute an additional $6,000 above and beyond the $18,000 regular contribution, for a total of $24,000. Of course, you are free to contribute less to a 401K, but saving as much as possible for retirement is always best.

Once you have reached the contribution limit on your 401k, you cannot make any more contributions pre-tax, and it is time to consider alternative investments.

One good alternative is a Traditional IRA. Contributions are made to a traditional IRA after tax, meaning that you pay taxes, and then make contributions out of your paycheck. For 2015, individuals can contribute up to $5,500 per year to a traditional IRA if they are 49 and under. You can contribute up to $6,500 per year if you are 50 or older.

Another solution for aggressive savers is a taxable account such as stock index funds or tax-free municipal bonds. When using taxable accounts such as these, you can expect to pay 15% on long-term gains and qualified dividends. Additionally, contributions to these plans are made after-tax. However, the benefits of using accounts such as these include being able to withdraw from them for things such as children’s college expenses before age 59 ½ without additional penalties and fees.

You Qualify For a Roth IRA

If you employer does not offer a 401k match – or a 401k plan at all – and you meet income thresholds, then a Roth IRA may be an excellent option for your retirement savings.

A Roth IRA allows individuals whose modified adjusted gross income, which you can calculate at the IRS website, is less than $135,000, or married couples whose income does not exceed $195,000 to contribute to their retirement.

A Roth IRA is different from other accounts, though, because of the way taxes are handled. Contributions are made after tax. However, once the initial contribution is made, you enjoy tax-free growth as long as you follow the rules:

  • 49 and under can contribute a maximum of $5,500
  • 50 and over can contribute up to $6,500
  • You can withdraw your contributions (not growth) at any time without penalty

How much can a Roth IRA save in taxes? If you contribute $5,500 per year to a Roth IRA for 40 years (and increase your contributions to $6,500 per year once your age allows), and your marginal rate is 15%, this is what your account’s growth could look like over the course of 40 years:

401k_1

In this scenario, you would have only paid in $230,000 during the entire 40 years you worked. You would have paid $34,500 in taxes from your paychecks.

However, your relatively small investment could grow to $1,189,636 – and you will not have to pay taxes on any of that balance when you withdraw it. If your marginal tax rate stayed at 15% when withdrawing money from your Roth IRA, you could save more than $143,000 in taxes alone.

See how much money you can save with a Roth IRA, and how much money it can save you in taxes here, with Bankrate’s Roth IRA calculator.

High Fees

If your employer offers a 401k without a match, a good way to gauge whether it is a good investment vehicle for your retirement savings is to take a look at the fees. Many times both employees and employers are unaware of just how much fees are costing them. After all, 3% seems like such a small number, doesn’t it?

3% may feel like a very small amount to pay in fees, but this example will show you just how much a small percentage can affect your retirement savings.

401k_2

In this example, the investor is a 29 year old, contributing $18,000 per year to her company’s 401k, and her retirement age will be 65. The current balance of their 401K is $100,000, and fees are 3%.

Just by switching to a plan that cuts fees in half, 1.5%, she could save $801,819.03. Instead of having $1.8 million upon retirement, she could have more than $2.6 million – making for a much better retirement.

You can check out a fee calculator here and find out just how much your fees are costing you!

Even if your 401k has high fees, be sure to consider the employer match. Many times the match will more than cover the fees, making the 401k a good investment vehicle in spite of the high fees.

If You Need Flexibility

401k’s, while they offer tax advantages, and often free money through the form of an employer match, do not offer any sort of flexibility. Contributions are automatically deducted pre-tax from an employee’s paycheck in pre-set amounts, and cannot be withdrawn without serious penalties until age 59 ½.

For many families, saving and investing money is not just about retirement. It is about college, medical expenses, large purchase, and even vacations. Always contribute to your 401k up to the maximum amount that your employer will match, but if no match is available and you need flexibility for other savings priorities, check out some of these options:

A 529 Plan: An education savings plan operated through your state or an educational institution to help families set aside income for education costs. Although contributions are not deductible on your federal income tax return, the investment grows tax-deferred, and distributions used to pay the beneficiary’s college costs come out tax-free. Some states offer tax breaks for 529 contributions, you can find yours here. In addition, there are very few income and contribution limitations, making the 529 plan a great, flexible way to save for college.

A Health Savings Account: An HSA offers individuals and families the opportunity to save money exclusively for medical expenses, and contributions are 100% tax deductible from gross income. For 2015, individuals can contribute up to $3,350, and families are allowed to contribute up to $6,650. HSA accounts holders age 55 and older can contribute an extra $1,000. If using savings for medical expenses if a priority, talk to your employer about an HSA. Not all insurance plans are eligible.

Taxable Investment Accounts: When saving for large purchases or vacations, more flexible accounts are better. As explained above, index funds, mutual funds, or even traditional savings accounts leave the account holder with more of a tax burden, but far greater flexibility for withdrawals. These accounts do not need to be opened through your employer, but can be opened and managed on your own, or with the help of a financial planner.

If your employer offers a contribution match, they are essentially offering you free money, so go ahead a take advantage of the 401k, regardless of high fees or a low income. However, if your employer offers no match, high fees, or you have reached the yearly contribution limit, then it is a good idea to avoid that 401k plan and look into other retirement savings options.

At the end of the day, saving for retirement or other goals is all about you. How much flexibility you need, how much you need to save, and your tax situation. Be sure to weigh all of your options to guarantee that you are making the best decision for you and your family.

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Consumer Watchdog, Eliminating Fees, News

Regions Bank Fined $7.5 Million For Overdraft Abuse

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This week, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) fined Regions Bank $7.5 million for unlawful overdraft practices. In addition to the fine, Regions Bank has refunded approximately $49 million of fees to customers. Regions Bank is based in Alabama and has more than $119 billion in assets, making it one of the largest banks in the country.

Regions Bank was fined because it failed to receive the necessary opt-in from consumers, delayed fixing the problem for a year and mis-represented certain fees to its consumers. The CFPB has been looking closely at the overdraft practices of banks. Director Cordray has made it clear that he is not a fan of the way banks treat overdrafts, and bigger reforms are expected later this year. In the interim, we can expect more fines of banks that are violating existing rules and guidelines.

Regions Bank earned $218 million during the first three months of 2015. The CFPB fine does not represent a significant portion of the bank’s earnings.

Abusive Overdraft Practices

Overdrafts in the United States are incredibly expensive for consumers, and unimaginably lucrative for banks. During 2014, banks generated over $30 billion of overdraft fees. When you look at how banks charge overdraft fees, you can see how easy it is for banks to generate so much revenue.

If you make a transaction in your checking account without having sufficient funds in your account to cover the transaction, you are at risk of being charged an overdraft fee. Imagine you have $100 in your bank account, and you try to write a check for $120. The bank has two choices: it can approve the transaction, or decline the transaction. If the bank declines the transaction, it will charge a non-sufficient funds (“NSF”) fee. The average NSF fee is $35. If the bank approves the transaction, it will allow the account balance to go negative. In effect, the bank gives you a loan. Banks charge, on average, $35 for an approved overdraft. So, you will pay $35 if you are approved, and $35 if you are declined.

Even worse, most banks have an extended overdraft fee. For example, Bank of America will charge an additional $35 if you do not bring your balance positive within 5 business days. Some banks even have a per day charge.

Some banks offer “overdraft protection.” That means you can link your checking account to a savings account or credit card. If you spend money that is not available in your checking account, the bank will sweep the money from the linked savings or checking account. However, most banks will charge a transfer fee, which averages $10. Given that most savings accounts only pay 0.01%, you would need to have $100,000 in your savings account in order to earn $10 in one year.

Even worse, if you link your credit card for overdraft protection, the sweep will be treated as a cash advance on your credit card. In most cases, that means you would be subject to an additional cash advance fee and interest would stat accumulating immediately at high double-digit rates.

As if the overdraft process wasn’t complicated enough, many banks reorder transactions to increase the overdraft fees. According to Pew, nearly 50% of banks engage in high-to-low transaction processing. Imagine you have a balance of $100. You make a purchase at 9AM for $10 (your new balance is $90). At 10AM you make another purchase for $10 (and your new balance is now $80). And then at 1PM you make a purchase for $100. The last transaction would cause you to go overdraft, resulting in a $35 charge.

50% of banks would reorder the charges, from highest to lowest. In this example, they would process the $100 transaction first, reducing your balance to $0. The other two charges would each cause the account to go overdraft. As a result, your fee would be $70 instead of $35. And that is all perfectly legal.

Consumer Protection

You do have certain rights. You can opt out of overdraft protection for ATM and debit card transactions. That means that if you use your debit card to make a purchase, and there is not sufficient money in the account, the transaction would be declined and you would not have to pay an overdraft or NSF fee.

However, you cannot protect yourself against checks and other electronic (bill pay) or recurring transactions.

Are There Cheaper Options?

Overdrafts can be incredibly expensive. The best way to avoid high cost overdraft protection fees is to consider an internet-only, branch-free bank. Many of the new start-up banks charge no overdraft fees and offer free overdraft protection from linked savings accounts. You can see some of these new providers here.

If you do not want to switch banks, you should consider opting out of overdraft protection, which will protect you from high fees on debit and ATM charges. You should consider linking your savings account or credit card, because the charges would still be less than standard overdraft fees. Finally, you should consider taking advantage of balance alerts to ensure that you are on top of your balance.

However, many people go overdraft because they have a short-term borrowing need. You should consider opening a low interest rate line of credit with your local credit union, or a personal loan from a marketplace lender. Credit unions and marketplace lenders offer significantly lower interest rates.

 

 

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