Sam’s Club: Free 3-Month Membership Extension (or Full Refund Upon Cancellation)

sams200bSam’s Club is offering all of their members a free 3-month extension if you fill out the linked form by March 31, 2018. This is in response to their sudden closure of 63 Sam’s Club locations (about 10% of all stores).

Alternatively, you can cancel your membership and receive a full refund via electronic gift card within 7 days (I want to say you can use this at Wal-Mart, otherwise where would you spend it? Just pay the 5% surcharge?) or mailed check within 6 weeks. If you take the free extension, you can still decide to cancel with free refund later.

Best Interest Rates on Cash – January 2018

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Short-term interest rates are rising. Megabanks make billions by pay you nothing for your idle cash. Here is my monthly roundup of the best safe rates available, roughly sorted from shortest to longest maturities. Check out my Ultimate Rate-Chaser Calculator to get an idea of how much additional interest you’d earn if you switched over. Rates listed are available to everyone nationwide. Rates checked as of 1/7/18.

High-yield savings accounts
While the huge brick-and-mortar banks rarely offer good yields, there are a number of online savings accounts offering much higher rates. Keep in mind that with savings accounts, the interest rates can change at any time.

  • DollarSavingsDirect at 1.60% APY, CIT Bank at 1.55% APY, both with no minimum balance requirement. SalemFiveDirect 1.50% APY, Synchrony Bank 1.45% APY, GS Bank 1.40% APY.
  • I currently keep my “hub” account at Ally Bank Savings + Checking combo due to their history of competitive rates, 1-day external bank transfers, and overall user experience. I then move money elsewhere if the rate is significantly higher (and preferably locked in via CD rate). The free overdraft transfers from savings allows to me to keep my checking balance at a minimum. Ally Savings is now lagging a bit at 1.25% APY.

Money market mutual funds + Ultra-short bond ETFs
If you like to keep cash in a brokerage account, you should know that money market and short-term Treasury rates have been rising. The following money market and ultra-short bond funds are not FDIC-insured, but may be a good option if you have idle cash and cheap/free commissions.

  • Vanguard Prime Money Market Fund currently pays an 1.38% SEC yield. The default sweep option is the Vanguard Federal Money Market Fund, which has an SEC yield of 1.23%. You can manually move the money over to Prime if you meet the $3,000 minimum investment.
  • Vanguard Ultra-Short-Term Bond Fund currently pays 1.83% SEC Yield ($3,000 min) and 1.93% SEC Yield ($50,000 min). The average duration is 1 year.
  • The PIMCO Enhanced Short Maturity Active Bond ETF (MINT) has a 1.68% SEC yield and the iShares Short Maturity Bond ETF (NEAR) has a 1.81% SEC yield while holding a portfolio of investment-grade bonds with an average duration of ~6 months. More info here.

Short-term guaranteed rates (1 year and under)
I am often asked what to do with a big wad of cash that you’re waiting to deploy shortly (just sold your house, just sold your business, legal settlement, inheritance). My usual advice is to keep things simple. If not a savings account, then put it in a short-term CD under the FDIC limits until you have a plan.

  • CIT Bank 11-Month No-Penalty CD is at 1.55% APY with a $1,000 minimum deposit and no withdrawal penalty seven days or later after funds have been received. The lack of early withdrawal penalty means that your interest rate can never go down for 11 months, but you can always jump ship if rates rise. Full review. You can open multiple CDs in smaller increments if you want more flexibility.
  • Ally Bank No-Penalty 11-Month CD is paying 1.60% APY for $25,000+ balances and 1.25% APY for $5,000+ balances. Similar product, higher rate at the moment, higher balance requirement. Ally is a full-featured bank with checking/savings/etc.
  • Synchrony Bank has a 12-month CD is at 2.00% APY with a $2,000 minimum deposit. (Ally Bank had a similar rate that ended on 1/2/18, so I don’t know how long the Synchrony rate will last either.)

US Savings Bonds
Series I Savings Bonds offer rates that are linked to inflation and backed by the US government. You must hold them for at least a year. There are annual purchase limits. If you redeem them within 5 years there is a penalty of the last 3 months of interest.

  • “I Bonds” bought between November 2017 and April 2018 will earn a 2.58% rate for the first six months. The rate of the subsequent 6-month period will be based on inflation again. At the very minimum, the total yield after 12 months will be 1.29% with additional upside potential. More info here.
  • In mid-April 2018, the CPI will be announced and you will have a short period where you will have a very close estimate of the rate for the next 12 months. I will have another post up at that time.

Prepaid Cards with Attached Savings Accounts
A small subset of prepaid debit cards have an “attached” FDIC-insured savings account with exceptionally high interest rates. The negatives are that balances are capped, and there are many fees that you must be careful to avoid (lest they eat up your interest). The offers also tend to disappear with little notice. Some folks don’t mind the extra work and attention required, while others do.

  • Insight Card is one of the best remaining cards with 5% APY on up to $5,000 as of this writing. Fees to avoid include the $1 per purchase fee, $2.50 for each ATM withdrawal, and the $3.95 inactivity fee if there is no activity within 90 days. If you can navigate it carefully (basically only use ACH transfers and keep up your activity regularly) you can still end up with more interest than other options. Earning 4% extra interest on $5,000 is $200 a year.

Rewards checking accounts
These unique checking accounts pay above-average interest rates, but with some risk. You have to jump through certain hoops, and if you make a mistake you won’t earn any interest for that month. Some folks don’t mind the extra work and attention required, while others do. Rates can also drop quickly, leaving a “bait-and-switch” feeling. But the rates can be high while they last.

  • Consumers Credit Union offers up to 4.59% APY on up to a $20k balance, although getting 3.09% APY on a $10k balance has a much shorter list of requirements. The 4.59% APY requires you to apply for a credit card through them (other credit cards offer $500+ in sign-up bonuses). Keep your 12 debit purchases small as well, as for every $500 in monthly purchases you may be losing out on 2% cashback (or $10 a month after-tax). Find a local rewards checking account at DepositAccounts.
  • Note: Northpointe Bank, mentioned previously, no longer has their Rewards Checking account on their website and is not accepting new applications. Unclear how long existing accountholders will be grandfathered. That’s just how it goes with these types of accounts.

Certificates of deposit (greater than 1 year)
You might have larger balances, either because you are using CDs instead of bonds or you simply want a large cash reserves. By finding a bank CD with a reasonable early withdrawal penalty, you can enjoy higher rates but maintain access in a true emergency. Alternatively, consider a custom CD ladder of different maturity lengths such that you have access to part of the ladder each year, but your blended interest rate is higher than a savings account.

  • Advancial Federal Credit Union has their 18-month CD at 2.05% APY ($50k min) and a 24-month CD at 2.14% APY ($50k min). The early withdrawal penalty is 180 days of interest. Anyone can join with a $5 membership fee to the Connex Professional Network.
  • Ally Bank has a 5-year CD at 2.25% APY (no minimum) with a relatively short 150-day early withdrawal penalty and no credit union membership hoops. For example, if you closed this CD after 18-months you’d still get an 1.64% effective APY even after accounting for the penalty.
  • Northern Bank Direct has a 4-year CD at 2.51% APY with a $500 minimum. I had to mention this top rate, but watch out for the huge early withdrawal penalty of 3-years of interest! Hanscom Federal Credit Union still has their 4-year Share Certificate at 2.50% APY (180-day early withdrawal penalty) if you also have Premier Checking (no monthly fee if you keep $6,000 in total balances or $2,000 in checking). HFCU also offers a 3% APY CU Thrive “starter” savings account with balance caps. HFCU membership is open to active/retired military or anyone who makes a one-time $35 donation to the Nashua River Watershed Association.
  • United States Senate Federal Credit Union has a 60-Month Share Certificate at 2.76% APY ($60,000+), 2.70% APY ($20,000+), and 2.63% APY ($1,000+). Anyone can join this credit union via partner organization American Consumer Council for a one-time $10 membership fee. (ACC lets you become eligible for multiple credit unions.)

Longer-term Instruments
I’d use these with caution due to increased interest rate risk, but I still track them to see the rest of the current yield curve. (The yield curve has been flattening in recent months.)

  • Willing to lock up your money for 10+ years? You can buy certificates of deposit via the bond desks of Vanguard and Fidelity. These “brokered CDs” offer the same FDIC-insurance. As of this writing, Vanguard is showing a 10-year non-callable CD at 2.75% APY (Watch out for higher rates from callable CDs from Fidelity.) Unfortunately, currently CD rates do not rise much higher even as you extend beyond a 5-year maturity.
  • How about two decades? Series EE Savings Bonds are not indexed to inflation, but they have a guarantee that the value will double in value in 20 years, which equals a guaranteed return of 3.5% a year. However, if you don’t hold for that long, you’ll be stuck with the normal rate which is quite low (currently a sad 0.10% rate). I view this as a huge early withdrawal penalty, so I avoid it. You could also view it as long-term bond and thus a hedge against deflation, but only if you can hold on for 20 years.

All rates were checked as of 1/7/18.


Premier High Yield Savings

Navy Federal Credit Union 0% APR No Balance Transfer Fee Promotion

navyfed0Navy Federal Credit Union (NFCU) has a limited-time promotion where both new and existing NFCU credit cardholders can get 0% intro APR on balance transfers for 12 months. You must transfer a non-Navy Federal credit card balance before February 28, 2018. (All NavyFed cards now have no balance transfer fee, but the APR is usually much higher.)

Members With Existing Navy Federal Credit Cards – Sign in to your online account, select the “Transfers” tab and “Make Credit Card Balance Transfer” on the lower right side. Be sure to transfer your existing card balance before Feb. 28, 2018.

Members Without a Navy Federal Credit Card – Sign in to your online account, select the card you want to apply for, and choose the Balance Transfer option during the application process.

Membership eligibility for NavyFed is restricted primarily to military personnel including Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force – including retirees and family members – but also includes some civilian employees in the Department of Defense. Some may have joined through a military-related association in the past, but that window is now closed. If you are not military and wish to join, your best bet may be to ask an affiliated family member to refer you. NavyFed offers a variety of solid financial products including mortgage and home-buying services.

This is a solid offer, especially if you already have an NFCU card as you don’t need to apply for a new card. In addition, there continues to be fewer good no fee 0% APR balance transfer offers these days even though interest rates are still relatively low. Here are some other opportunities to consider:

  • Chase Slate Card – 0% Introductory APR on balance transfers and purchases for 15 months. No balance transfer fee. Balance transfers must be initiated within 60 days of account opening. Update: The BankAmericard® Credit Card has the exact same offer.
  • Citi Simplicity® Card – 0% APR on balance transfers and purchases for 21 months. A longer period and applies to both purchases and balance transfers, but with a 3% balance transfer fee ($5 minimum). No late fees and no penalty rate. Balance transfers must be completed within 4 months of account opening.
  • Alliant Credit Union Visa Platinum – 0% Introductory APR on balance transfers and purchases for 12 months. Shorter period, but no balance transfer fee. You must be an Alliant CU member to obtain this card, but membership is open to anyone who pays a $10 membership fee to Foster Care to Success. You could view that as a small balance transfer fee.

0% balance transfer cards can be good opportunities to lower the interest rate on your existing balances and accelerate any debt payoff plans. Try your best to finish your payments within the introductory period, as the rates will increase significantly after that.

Citi Simplicity Card Review: 0% for 21 Months (1.75 Years), No Late Fees, No Penalty Rates

CitiSimplicityCard (1)This offer is now EXPIRED.

One of the most common New Year’s resolutions is to pay down debt. Rewards-earning credit cards may not be optimal for those carrying balances and thus more impacted by 18% interest rates than a relatively puny 2% back on purchases.

Our partner Citi offers the Citi Simplicity® Card, which is uniquely suited for those that want to transfer higher rate balances to a long 0% intro period while also offering some “accident forgiveness insurance”. The highlights:

  • The ONLY card with No Late Fees, No Penalty Rate, and No Annual Fee… EVER
  • 0% Intro APR on Balance Transfers and Purchases for 21 months. After that, the variable APR will be 15.24%-25.24% based on your creditworthiness*
  • There is a balance transfer fee of either $5 or 3% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater
  • The same great rate for all balances, after the introductory period
  • Save time when you call with fast, personal help, 24 hours a day – just say “representative”
  • Enjoy the convenience of setting up your own bill payment schedule on any available due date throughout the month

No late fees, no penalty rate details. On most other credit cards, if you make a late payment, you’ll first be charged a late payment fee of about $35. On top of that, your super-low interest rate disappears and instead gets jacked up to something called their “default rate” or “penalty rate”. This is often close to 30% APR! The Citi Simplicity card adds a bit of flex in that they do not charge penalty rates or late fees.

Note that if you are 30 days late on this or any credit card, Citi will still report this activity to the credit bureaus. This card may be forgiving but you’re still trying to pay down debt and keep your credit score as high as possible. (Before the Credit CARD Act of 2009, there was something called “universal default” where you could be subject this penalty if you were late on another credit card. This is not longer allowed.)

The strong part of this card is the long 21 month period, so you can spread out payments over 1.75 years and ideally pay it all off by the end. There is a 3% balance transfer fee ($5 min). However, if you’re currently paying 18% APR, then 3% works out to 2 months of interest over a 21 month period. Once the intro period on all 0% cards expire, the rates will go right back up. You’ll either need to pay it off or transfer your balance again if you need more time. This card lets you spread your payments out over 21 months instead of 6 or 12 or 15.

If you know you will pay it off within a shorter time period, look for a card with no balance transfer fee. Compare with other low fee 0% APR balance transfer offers.

In terms of rewards structure… this is not that type of card. The Citi Simplicity does not earn any cash back, points, miles, or free toasters. I’d open a separate card for rewards after your balances are paid off and you join the “Paid in full every month” club. It does include certain purchase benefits such as Citi Price Protection (price drop protection on brick and mortar purchases) and free Extended Warranty (extends manufacturer’s warranty for up to 12 months).

Bottom line. The Citi Simplicity® Card is a card targeted that for those serious about paying down their balances. You get a 0% introductory period of 1.75 years on both purchases and balance transfers, with a one-time 3% balance transfer fee ($5 min). The card includes consumer-friendly features that help ensure your low rates don’t get hiked. If you do the math and can make adequate payments to pay down your balance over a span 1.75 years, this card may help get you debt-free with minimal gotchas. No annual fee.

  • Citi Simplicity® Card application page

“Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the issuer. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the issuer. This site may be compensated through the issuer’s Affiliate Program.”

H&R Block Desktop Tax Software 2017: Fed + State $20 (1/4 Flash Sale)

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Deal of the Day again 1/4/18. The benefit of “old-school” desktop tax software is that it doesn’t require your Social Security Number and financial details to be stored in the cloud. Here’s a limited-time deal on H&R Block Tax Software 2017 (download or physical CD).

Amazon has H&R Block Deluxe Federal + State for $19.99. Federal only is $14, and Premium is $30. Premium & Business is $37. This is a 24-hour “Deal of of the Day” (sorry I don’t get advance notice) and is within $1-$2 of the lowest prices ever from last year. If it is out of stock, you can still buy it and lock in the price. If you miss it, it will probably come back again as H&R Block likes to do these flash discounts every so often.

H&R Block Deluxe includes guidance for stock gains and losses, home mortgage interest deduction, and other itemized deductions. Compare that against TurboTax Deluxe Download which makes you upgrade to TurboTax Premier to get guidance for stock sales and dividends. H&R Block Premium includes rental properties and self-employment. All flavors include “Refund Bonus” where you can a 5% bonus if you take your refund in the form of an Amazon gift card.

Keep in mind that for these products 5 Federal e-Files are included but State e-File is extra ($19.95 per state). I would personally just print the (usually shorter) state return out and snail mail it in if you don’t have a free State e-File option.

CIT Bank Review: Premier High Yield Savings 1.55% APY, 11-Month No Penalty CD 1.55% APY

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Update: Premier High Yield Savings now up to 1.55% APY, with no minimum balance requirement ($100 minimum to open). CIT Bank (not to 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, which they have been consistently been offering rate bumps on:

  • 11-Month No-Penalty CD at 1.55% APY. $1,000 minimum to open. 11-month CD with a fixed rate, but no withdrawal penalty seven days or later after funds have been received. This means that your interest rate will never go down, but you can still move out if interest rates go up.
  • Premier High Yield Savings at 1.55% APY, currently available on all tiers ($0+) with no max. $100 minimum to open, but $0 minimum balance requirement.

As of 1/3/18, CIT Bank raised the rate on their Premier High Yield Savings to 1.55% APY, up from 1.35% APY. This makes it (for now) the highest interest rate on a liquid savings account with no minimum balance requirement. Check out my rate chaser calculator to see if it makes sense for you to move money over.

The CIT Bank 11-month No Penalty CD rate is a competitve 1.55% APY and $1,000 minimum opening balance. In terms of comparison, the Ally Bank 11-month No Penalty CD is currently at 1.60% APY if you open with at least $25,000. For balances under $25,000, the CIT Bank rate is higher.. See further down this review on how to move your existing funds over if you already took advantage at the previous rate.

They also have traditional term CDs as well as fancy CDs that allow add-on deposits and rate-bumps. Currently, I don’t find those rates especially interesting.

citnewcd

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!

How to transfer your money from an existing No Penalty CD into an new, higher-rate No Penalty CD. Let’s say you opened up a No Penalty CD at 1.45% APY, but then the rate for a new CD has risen to 1.55% APY. You have the option of moving the funds (with no penalty of course) over to a new CD with a new 11-month holding period. I just did this, and here’s the easiest way to do so:

  • Start a new online application for the 11-Month No-Penalty CD at 1.55% APY. You will have the option to sign-in as an existing CIT customer.
  • After signing in, go through the opening process but choose to fund via “Mail in Check”. Your personal details should be filled in already to save time. Again, I did not observe any hard credit check. This will get you access to your new account number for the new No Penalty CD on the final “Congrats! Your account has been opened” page. Save/print this new account number!
  • Call CIT Bank on the phone at 855-462-2652, open M-F 8a-9p ET, Sat 9a-5p ET, Sun 11a-4p ET. Press “0” for operator. Tell them you opened up a new No Penalty CD and you wish to fund it by closing out your old No Penalty CD. They will verify your identity, ask for the new account number, and complete the transfer instructions while you are on the phone. My customer service rep was pleasant and helpful. I timed my call at under 8 minutes from start to end.
  • That’s it. They told me the entire process should take 1-3 business days to complete. Your new accounts will show up online. You can have the entire previous balance (including accrued interest) moved over and earning the new, higher interest rate.

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.

There is also an app available (iOS/Android) provided by the same company. It is similarly functional and includes mobile check deposit. Here are some screenshots:

citapp

Bottom line. CIT Bank is a lean bank offering targeted products for folks looking to get higher interest rates on their cash balances. I have opened an account due to their low minimums (easy to move in and out) and their current aggressive rate-hiking. They don’t do physical bank branches, checking accounts, or fancy apps. Their most compelling products are their Premier High Yield Savings account ($100 minimum to open, no ongoing minimum) and their 11-month No Penalty CD which combines a competitive interest rate with a $1,000 minimum deposit. The lack of a penalty means you are always able to move out to a higher rate, even within CIT bank itself.

Discounted Apple iPhone $29 Battery Replacement: Available Now

iphone6sroseIn case you missed it, Apple disclosed that their operating system slows down the phone in some cases if the battery gets too old. As part of their official explanation and apology, Apple has reduced the price of a OEM battery replacement to $29, cheaper than even most third-party repair shops.

Apple is reducing the price of an out-of-warranty iPhone battery replacement by $50 — from $79 to $29 — for anyone with an iPhone 6 or later whose battery needs to be replaced, available worldwide through December 2018.

If you’re frugally nursing an older iPhone, this is a good opportunity to spend $30 and improve your daily performance and improve battery life. If you sell your phone later on, you might even note the battery replacement date and reclaim some of that cost. This offer should be most appropriate for 6/6 Plus, iPhone 6s/6s Plus, or iPhone SE users as they are most likely to be out of warranty and old enough to benefit from a new battery.

The announcement said availability would start late January 2018, but Techcrunch says this is available now, so go ahead and set up those Genius Bar appointments. I confirmed this online just now with our iPhone 6:

iphone29

If you make an appointment at an Apple Store and they have the battery in-stock, you can usually have it done in less than an hour. (Ideally you’ll just shop or eat.) You can also chose to have them mail a box to your home, where you’ll pack up your phone and they’ll send it back in 5-9 business days.

In addition, third-party site iFixit has reduced their DIY battery install kits to $29 or less. This can be a good alternative you are impatient or have an older iPhone 5/5s/5c (plus a steady hand).

Healthywage Review: Bet on Yourself, Get Paid To Lose Weight

hw_logoIt’s that time of year, and since I eventually lost 50 pounds with the help of this and other weight-loss betting sites (and have kept it off since), and I wanted to share my experiences including both positive and negative aspects.

After reading academic studies which found that financial incentives were effective in helping people lose weight, I joined HealthyWage.com. You tell them how much weight you want to lose, your current body details, how much time you want, and and they’ll calculate what prize to offer you based on how much you want to bet on yourself.

My overall HealthyWage bet was to lose 10% of my body weight over 9 months. My offered bet was to put up $50 per month for 9 months for a potential win of $50. You may like the sound of “winning $500”, but most of it will be your own money:

healthywage500

Honestly, risking $450 to win $50 didn’t feel like a very good risk/reward ratio, but I wanted the extra motivation. Perhaps my goal was too easy and that was why the payout wasn’t as high. You can put up your own numbers and calculate your own HealthyWage offer. Your payout may be better than mine. The quote is free, you just need to provide any e-mail address.

Initial weigh-in verification. There are three ways to verify your weight:

  1. Video Verification. Smartphone video using your personal scale. The most popular option, and the one that I chose.
  2. Verification by a Fitness or Health Professional – Bring a form to your “local gym, pharmacies, corporate wellness clinics, walk-in clinics, HR reps, nurses, your personal doctor, your personal trainer or your chiropractor.”
  3. Verification at a Weight Watchers Meeting.

I followed their directions carefully, uploaded my video, and both my initial and final videos were accepted with no issues or additional requests.

Warnings. Every month, I would see a $50 charge on my credit card bill from Healthwage. However, that was about it. There were no regular e-mail updates. No interim weigh-ins. No fun tokens or prize giveaways. No smartphone app. No encouraging quotes or success stories. No interaction at all.

Upon initial sign-up, I was given my 2-week window for final weigh-in. HealthyWage’s two-week window is definitely more generous than DietBet’s 48-hour window, with the important difference that I was never sent any reminders by HealthyWage when the time actually came. In comparison, Dietbet sent me multiple reminders beforehand. Now, I had the date marked on my digital calendar with several alerts, so I completed my weigh-in by the second day of the window. It is quite possible that if I waited until closer to the final deadline, I would have gotten a reminder. But I wouldn’t rely on it. I got the feeling that they wouldn’t mind if you forgot about that final weigh-in.

This brings me to the important structural difference between HealthyWage and similar service DietBet. DietBet collects participants into groups and then takes a cut from the pooled bets. The winners of each group then split the money from the losers, so that Dietbet makes the same commission amount, no matter how many people win or lose. Dietbet feels more like they want you to win. HealthyWage, on the other hand, makes one-on-one bets with individuals.

See my separate DietBet Review. You can do both at the same time.

Extra final verification hoops. Upon final weight verification, you’ll have to submit the verification video again (see above). But that’s not all. I also had to locate and upload a “before photo” and an “after photo”, which could be any photo from “around the time” of the start and end of the challenge. I also had to upload a scan of my driver’s license. Here’s a screenshot of their page asking for additional information.

Finally, I successfully referred a few people to Healthwage and received extra money added my “pot”. This referral program is nice feature to get some social support, but remember that you get the referral money if you win your own bet.

Final payout options. There are two options to receive your winnings. A mailed check takes 3-4 weeks to process, with no fee. The other “fast” option is PayPal, which charges a 3% fee. I picked the PayPal option because I didn’t want to wait around for a check. However, they later clarified that it would still take 3-5 business days for Paypal transfer. The 3% fee is actually taken out by PayPal, so HealthyWage actually sends the full amount (they just choose not to subsidize the fee). In retrospect, maybe I should have just waited for the check. Here’s a screenshot:

hw_finalpay

Bottom line. I committed to a Healthywage bet to lose 10% of my initial weight over 9 months. I lost the weight, completed my verifications without hassle, won the bet, and was paid my winnings. I also won a bit of extra cash due to referring others. Calculate your own HealthyWage offer here. I found the overall process very business-like. However, the added motivation to lose weight and he healthier was the biggest benefit, and worth more to me than the cash winnings.

DietBet Review: Using Money To Motivate You To Lose Weight

dietbet180It’s that time of year, and since I eventually lost 50 pounds with the help of this and other weight-loss betting sites (and have kept it off since), and I wanted to share my experiences including both positive and negative aspects.

DietBet.com runs weight-loss challenges where I bet my own hard-earned cash that I could lose 10% of my body weight within 6 months. More specifically, a group of folks (strangers or friends) agreed on a weight loss goal, put money into a community pot, and the winners split the pot. Here’s a look back at how the process worked along with some helpful tips and detailed numbers.

Game basics. You pick from a list of available “games” that are starting soon. All of them have a goal of either losing 4% of your body weight in 4 weeks (Kickstarter), or 10% in 6 months (Transformer). I chose the 10% goal and picked the group with the most participants because Dietbet uses the poker rake model where the winners take money from the losers. This is smart because Dietbet doesn’t risk any of its own money (also doesn’t have any incentive for you to lose).

dietbetfinal0

Weigh-in rules and tips. Your weight is verified each round by uploading two pictures: one with your feet on a digital scale, and another of your entire (lightly-clothed) body on the same scale. You are given a special keyword to ensure that the weigh-in is done during a 48-hour window. Here are my tips:

  1. Use the smartphone app. Having the smartphone app made it so much easier to snap the pictures and upload with a few taps. iOS and Android only.
  2. Check the dates with your work schedule. During one of my weigh-ins, I was on the road. Dietbet says digital scales are “preferred” but the only thing at my hotel’s gym was a non-digital balance scale. My submission was still accepted. If my hotel gym didn’t have a scale at all, I would have had to search for a Wal-Mart or something.
  3. Know the rules and give yourself time for rejections. One of my submissions was initially rejected because I was wearing running shoes (in that same hotel gym) and I forgot that shoes aren’t allowed in the pictures. You only get a 12-hour grace period after a rejection to re-submit a qualifying weigh-in.

Overall, I felt that Dietbet was fair and quick when judging my weigh-in pictures. You may also be “audited” and be required to submit a video verification. I did not get audited.

Money details. The bet amounts can vary by game, but mine was for $25 a month times 6 months. I was offered one month free ($25 discount) if I paid $125 upfront, but since this is all about the behavioral component for me, I wanted the monthly charge to show up on my credit card bill. Players who have chosen to place their bets on a monthly basis may drop out at any time and avoid being charged for future, unplayed rounds.

There is one round per month; Rounds 1 to 6. Half of the total money bet is put towards Round 1 through 5. That is $25 x 6 / 2 = $75, split across 5 rounds is $15 per round. The other half is put toward the final weigh-in round. So $75 is bet on Round 6. Here’s a screenshot that shows my actual winnings from each round:

dietbetfinal2

  • Round 1 Breakdown: $16.09 (7% ROI on $15 bet)
  • Round 2 Breakdown: $26.94 (80% ROI)
  • Round 3 Breakdown: $31.36 (109% ROI)
  • Round 4 Breakdown: $31.50 (110% ROI)
  • Round 5 Breakdown: $30.42 (103% ROI)
  • Round 6 Breakdown: $152.87 (104% ROI)

I ended up winning $289.19, for a net win of $139.18. That’s a solid 93% return on my $150 initial bet! According to their documentation, the average “win” is 50% to 100% of your contribution. I would venture to guess that the 6-month games have a higher overall payout due to a higher difficulty level.

As noted above, Dietbet makes their money by taking a cut of the gross pot before distribution, between 10% to 25%. In a previous post, I erroneously assumed that the numbers being reported above were before fees were taken out. The numbers are actually net of fees. (You are always guaranteed never to lose money if you win, which otherwise technically could happen if enough people win.)

Your winnings can be withdrawn either via PayPal or paper check, but you have to pay a $5 fee and make special request for a paper check. When withdrawing via PayPal, you won’t pay any fees, and I was sent my money within a hour. Here’s screenshot proof of my winnings payout showing no fees.

Warnings. When signing up for a challenge, Dietbet will automatically add $20 of “Official Weigh-in Tokens” to your cart. These are not mandatory. I think using the word “Official” is misleading. They should use “Optional” or “Additional” instead. You should treat them as extra raffle tickets for prizes like Fitbits and such. If you want that, fine, but otherwise be sure to remove them otherwise it’s just wasted money.

Bottom line. I committed to a Dietbet Challenge to lose 10% of my initial weight over 6 months. You can see upcoming Dietbet games here. I lost the weight, completed my verifications without hassle, won the bet, and was paid my winnings. There were a lot of factors that helped me lose weight and change my eating habits:

  • Loss aversion is quite a strange thing. Even though 25 bucks a month isn’t all that much money, the prospect of losing it was a powerful motivator.
  • The Dietbet community board for my challenge was quite positive in supporting other people towards their weight-loss goals.
  • I created extra motivation by telling people about the challenge as I didn’t want to admit publicly to failure.

While Dietbet was not there to cook my healthy meals, exercise for me, or keep me away from the late-night Doritos, it was the missing catalyst that I needed to get my health back on track. For other people this might be a heart attack or other medical issue. I’m glad I didn’t have to wait for something like that. Even if I “lost” the challenge but also lost 5% of my body weight, I might have still seen it as an overall positive experience.

See my separate Healthwage Review, a similar service. You can do both at the same time.

Blue Cash Preferred from American Express Review: 6% Cash Back on Groceries

Blue Cash Preferred w ButtonThe Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express is a cash back rewards card with a unique feature that still hasn’t been copied by competitors: 6% cash back at US stand-alone supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases. If you spend $500 average per month on supermarkets, that alone will earn you $360 every year in rewards. Highlights:

  • $200 statement credit after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card within the first 3 months.
  • 6% Cash Back at US stand-alone supermarkets up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%).
  • 3% Cash Back on gasoline at at US stand-alone gas stations
  • 3% Cash Back at select major US department stores
  • 1% cash back on all other purchases.
  • Intro APR: 0% for 12 months on purchases and balance transfers, then a variable rate, currently 14.24% to 25.24%.
  • $95 annual fee.

For more information about this card and to apply online, visit CardRatings.com.

Tracking and last-minute holiday shopping. Every December, I personally use this card to buy gift cards at standalone grocery to use up the annual limit and get 6% back. My local Safeway has an entire wall of options, but I usually go with Amazon, Apple iTunes, or Starbucks. You can easily track how much you’ve spent on groceries on your online account. Just go to “Statements & Activity” > Chart logo (Graph and Filter your Transactions), and then click on “Merchandise and Supplies”. Adjust dates as necessary. Screenshot:

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Supermarkets details. “US stand-alone supermarkets” means that superstores, convenience stores and warehouse clubs are not considered supermarkets. This means no Super Wal-Mart, no Super Target, no Costco. Examples of merchants that count (and this is not a complete list!!) are Safeway, Meijer, Vons, Whole Foods, Winn-Dixie, and online supermarkets such as FreshDirect.

Gasoline details. “US stand-alone gas stations” means that superstores, supermarkets, and warehouse clubs that sell gasoline are not considered gas stations. This means no Target, no Costco, no Sam’s Club. Examples of merchants that count (and this is not a complete list!!) are Exxon, Mobil, Hess, Shell, Gulf, Murphy USA, Murphy Express.

Major US Department stores details. These are the only stores that qualify:

• Bealls
• Belk
• Bloomingdale’s
• Bon Ton Stores
• Boscov’s
• Century 21 Department Stores
• Dillard’s
• J.C. Penney (JCP)
• Kohl’s
• Lord & Taylor
• Macy’s
• Neiman Marcus
• Nordstrom
• Saks Fifth Avenue
• Sears
• Stein Mart

Annual fee. The card has a $95 annual fee, so you’ll want to utilize that 6% cash back on groceries to maximize your value. If you spend the max cap of $500 a month at supermarkets, at 6% back that would net you $360 cash back in a year vs. $60 at 1% cash back. Note that spending $31 per week at supermarkets at 6% cash back will result in over $95 Reward Dollars per year to cover the annual fee.

If you don’t like the idea of paying an annual fee, the Blue Cash Everyday Card from American Express offers 3% at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases with no annual fee. It currently offers a $150 statement credit after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card within the first 3 months.

Cash back is officially given in the form of Reward Dollars that can be redeemed as a statement credit, gift cards, and merchandise. Statement credit are as good as cash, so I just stick with that.

Bottom line. The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express has a top feature of 6% cash back at US supermarkets, along with 3% cash back at gas stations and select major department stores. I treat this card like one of my 5% cash back cards, except there are no rotating categories or activation to worry about. Supermarket purchases all go straight on this card, while I try to remember it as well for my occasional department store purchase. Then in December, I use up the rest of the $6,000 annual spending limit on gift cards for holiday presents.

For more information about this card and to apply online, visit CardRatings.com.

“Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the issuer. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the issuer. This site may be compensated through the issuer’s Affiliate Program.”

Ally Bank 11-Month No Penalty CD Review: 1.60% APY for $25k+

(Update: As of 1/4/18, Ally has dropped some of the rates below. Please refer to their website for the most current rates.)

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Updated. As of 12/19/17, Ally Bank raised the rate on their 11-month No Penalty CD and their 12-month traditional CD. Here are the new interest rates for the No Penalty CD under their tiered structure (as of 12/19/17):

  • 1.75% APY at $25,000 minimum opening deposit
  • 1.35% APY at $5,000 minimum deposit
  • 1.15% APY at no minimum deposit.

The 11-month No Penalty CD is unique in that while the 1.75% APY rate is locked in at deposit, you can still withdraw your principal and interest without penalty at any time (well, you do have to wait at least 6 days from the deposit date). In other words, your interest rate can never go down, but you can still jump ship if rates rise or if there is a better promo elsewhere.

If you recently opened one of these, remember that Ally Bank offers a “Ten Day Best Rate Guarantee”:

When you fund your CD within 10 days of your open date, you’ll get the best rate we offer for your term and balance tier if our rate goes up within that time. The Ally Ten Day Best Rate Guarantee also applies at renewal.

If you have an existing No Penalty CD past the 10-day rate guarantee, this means you may consider closing it and then opening up a new one at a higher rate. You will have to withdraw everything at once – there are not partial withdrawals. If you have an Ally savings or checking account, you can close the old CD, see the deposit in your savings/checking, and open up a new CD all in minutes online. (Note that savings accounts are limited to 6 withdrawals per month, so use your checking if possible.) You will be extending the term out another 11 months, but since you can also close it at any time it isn’t much of a concern.

Here’s a screenshot of my withdrawal showing no penalty and instant availability when withdrawn directly into an Ally account:

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You can use my Ultimate Rate-Chaser Calculator to get an idea of how much additional interest you’d earn if you switched over.

Alternatives to consider.

  • Top online savings accounts rates offer slightly lower rates, but you have more liquidity in and out.
  • Ally 12-month CD is now at 2% APY with no minimum balance, which is a current top rate if you are willing to be locked in with an early-withdrawal penalty.
  • CIT Bank 11-Month No Penalty CD is a similar product, currently at 1.55% APY but with a lower $1,000 minimum deposit. These two banks have leapfrogged each other in the past, so it will be interesting to see what happens in the future.

Ally No Penalty CDs and traditional CDs can be a convenient companion to the Ally Bank Online Savings and Interest Checking accounts, which are my primary bank accounts.

Rates updated 12/19/17.

5% Cash Back Credit Cards: Rotating Categories Update 2018 Q1

5percentback Activation for 1st Quarter 2018 is now open. Last chance for Q4 2017 bonuses. The credit cards below offer a hefty 5% cash back on categories that rotate each quarter. It takes a little extra attention, but I also rack up over a hundred dollars in additional rewards per year without changing my spending habits. You can also buy gift cards with the 5% back now but spend the gift cards later.

None of these have an annual fee, so it costs me nothing to keep them around. New cardmembers may also get an upfront sign-up bonus.

Chase Freedom VisaChase Freedom Visa – $150 Cash Bonus

From October 1st through December 31st, 2017 you can earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 spent in the following categories:

  • Walmart (includes SuperCenters, Walmart Neighborhood Markets, Walmart.com, and Walmart branded gas stations operated by Walmart)
  • Department Stores (includes JCPenney, Kohl’s, Macy’s, Nordstrom, and Nordstrom Rack)

From January 1st through March 31th, 2018 you can earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 spent in the following categories:

  • Gas Stations
  • Internet/Cable Phone services
  • All purchases made with Chase Pay, Android Pay, Apple Pay or Samsung Pay digital wallets

Enroll each quarter at ChaseBonus.com. As long as you activate by the end of the quarter the rewards are retroactive. All other purchases earn 1% back, with no tiers or expiration of rewards. Technically, you earn Ultimate Rewards points which can also be converted to frequent flier miles instead of cash. Currently, the Chase Freedom card is offering $150 bonus cash back if you sign up and make $500 in purchases in your first three months.

Discover it 14 ImageDiscover it® Cashback Match

From October 1st through December 31st, 2017 you can earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 spent in the following categories:

  • Amazon.com
  • Target

From January 1st through March 31th, 2018 you can earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 spent in the following categories:

  • Gas Stations
  • Wholesale Clubs

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Enroll after logging into your online account (look on the right-hand side). 5% rewards won’t apply until after you activate your rewards, so it is best to activate now before you forget.

If you are a new applicant and sign up via my Discover Card referral link by the end of 2017, you will get a $50 Cashback Bonus after your first purchase within 3 months of being approved. You will also get Cashback Match for an entire year – a dollar-for-dollar match of all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year, automatically. That means for the first year your 5% cash back purchases becomes 10% cash back, and your 1% cash back purchases become 2% cash back. Plus, at the end of the year that $50 sign-up bonus will also be doubled to $100. If you apply after 1/1/18, you’ll still get the 5%/10% and 1%/2% doubling but the bonus will become a $50 statement credit (not subject to doubling).

You can verify this on the application page by clicking on “See rates, rewards and other info” and looking for this text:

TERMS OF CASHBACK BONUS OFFER: Get a $50 Cashback Bonus after you make your first purchase within 3 months of being approved. Promotional award will be applied within 8 weeks. The promotional award is in addition to the Cashback Bonus earned on all purchases.

usbankcashplusU.S. Bank Cash+ Visa Signature Card. This card unique in that you get to choose the two 5% cash back categories every quarter, out of a preset selection of niche categories like “Fast Food” or “Department Stores”.

You also get to choose a single 2% cash back category from a preset selection of broader categories like “Gas Stations” or “Grocery Stores”. 1% cash back on everything else. No limit on total cash back earned. However as you see below getting 2% is not that special, so this card is only really good if you spend significantly in the available niche categories. Importantly, you must remember to choose your categories each quarter, even if they stay the same! If you do not choose your categories, all purchases revert to only earning 1% cash back for that quarter.

5% Cash Back at Amazon. Get 5% back at Amazon.com all year long with the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card. Prime membership required.

Citi Dividend 5%. This card is no longer available to new applicants, but if you still have the grandfathered card you can activate to get 5% cash back at gas stations and car rentals during Q1 2018. You are capped at $300 cash back for the calendar year.

Don’t settle for the “1% on everything else” that these cards offer. Get 2% cash back or higher. The following cards currently have the ability to offer cash back rewards as high as 2% or even greater. Please read my card-specific reviews for details.