What’s Brilliant About Avoiding Bank Overdrafts?

It may seem like a simple question: Why should anyone avoid overdrafts on their bank account? But the simple answers – that they cost money in fees, plus end up as a “ding” against your credit score – only tell half the story.

The other half is learning how to be savvy about how you do it. The road to financial freedom is not one smooth highway. There are bumps, curves, narrow and wide sections, times when you’re stuck going slow and other times when you have to decide if you want to risk aggressively passing the other guy – all points where smart decisions must be made. It’s about developing the skills and becoming familiar with important tools.

Take the bank overdraft problem (please!). These days, we have many automatic withdrawals for everything from utilities and telecom (phones, cable TV and broadband Internet hookups) to car and home payments, insurance and condo fee assessments. The problem is when an emergency expense happens – it can drain your bank account even as those automatic withdrawals loom in the days ahead.

What to do?

You have several options:

Get cash advances from your credit card – The fees can be steep, particularly if the cost folds into your credit card balance.

Get a cash advance from your next paycheck – The fees are steep when you take a year to pay them off. But few borrowers require so much time. These payday loans are usually paid with the next paycheck to come, taken care of in a matter of weeks, not months or years.

Ask family members for cash advances – This actually works in some families, although data suggest it’s a rare phenomenon. When you borrow personal loans  from friends or family, be sure to articulate the transaction on paper before money changes hands.

As should be clear, each of these approaches requires you to do something different or something new. While that is difficult for most people, to change a routine or try something they’ve never done before, it’s all a part of good stewardship of your resources – money and intellect – to give it your best shot. When you do, you are practicing your God-given brilliance at finding solutions to sticky, costly problems.

Guest Post by Elisa

SmartyPig Review: The Piggy Bank of the Future

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I’ve been using SmartyPig for over a year now and I recently completed a goal so I think I have some good insight into this revolutionary service. The basic concept is similar to a piggy bank. Save up for something we need or want to buy. So instead of using credit cards or debt to pay for something, how about paying cash for it? What a concept. It’s something many people can’t grasp and are the exact people who are in trouble today.

This is what I teach. This is what the Bible teaches. Live debt free. SmartyPig can help you.

The reason SmartyPig works is that it makes saving automatic. All you have to do is to set a goal and set the date you want to accomplish it. SmartyPig will automatically calculate your monthly contribution plus interest that it would take to fulfill your goal. You can add money in addition to the monthly amounts at any time. They’re currently paying 2.01% which is pretty high compared to most savings accounts. Interest accrues daily, but is paid quarterly. When I started, the interest was at 4.30% which was high back then. Their rate is still competitive in my opinion and management has expressed that they want to stay competitive with their interest rate.

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Once you’ve set up your goal, monthly recurring amounts will be transferred into your SmartyPig account. Once you’ve completed a goal or you’ve decided to stop a goal, they will allow you to do 3 things with it. You have a choice between transferring your money back to your linked account or receive a SmartyPig debit card, or receive a gift card from participating retailers. Honestly, I would probably just transfer the money back into my linked account. That takes 2 business days. I probably wouldn’t even consider the debit card as it takes 10-15 business days and it’s not the same as cash even though it can be used for ATM withdrawals.

The other option only makes sense in certain cases. If you had something specific to buy that you know you can get at one of SmartyPig’s participating retailers, it makes sense. The great thing is that the retailers are offering a percentage boosts to your money. Current retailers include Amazon (1.75% boost), Best Buy (0.75% boost), Home Depot (1.00% boost), Lowe’s (1.00% boost), Macy’s (3.75% boost), Overstock (6.00% boost), Sears (2.50% boost), and others. As you can see, you can get a better deal if you get a gift card, but it only makes sense if you’re sure you can get the item that you’re looking for at a great deal. It can take 7-10 business days to receive the gift card.

Not only is SmartyPig a virtual piggy bank, they’ve also made it social. You can share goals with family and friends and they can contribute to your goals. Funds that are added by credit card are charged 2.9%. However, if they have a SmartyPig account, it’s free to send money to family and friends as long as it’s from their SmartyPig balance.

The other great thing about SmartyPig is their willingness to listen to the customers. I have seen many changes that have come about because customers have complained. For example, in the early days, people were complaining because there was no option to transfer the money back into the savings account. A recent change that has come about is reduced ACH transfer times. It used to take a little longer and they’ve recently sped the process up. The company is very accessible through their blog as well as email.

The account is free to sign up and is FDIC insured up to $250,000 (until the end of 2013). You must be 18 to open an account and the process doesn’t take long at all. You’ll pick your user name, password, security questions, input your personal and bank information, and verify your account.

Now I wouldn’t use SmartyPig as a traditional savings account. Because it’s not. It’s not quite as liquid as a regular savings account. So don’t put your emergency fund there. If you need to save for a specific goal, however, SmartyPig makes a lot of sense. Next time you want or need something, think SmartyPig. Whether it’s a new car, a new washer, a family vacation, Christmas money, or even a wedding, give SmartyPig a try. It’s made saving automatic and fun. I just bought my MacBook Pro without using my credit card because I saved with SmartyPig! I can’t wait until it arrives. Remember, debt free is the only way to be!

New Legislation You Need to Know About

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You’ve heard of the “Cash for Clunkers” government program that recently ran out of the original $1 billion. The Senate just approved an additional $2 billion for the program last night to extend the popular program and President Obama is expected to sign it into law as early as today. But just because it’s popular doesn’t mean you should take advantage of it.

Here are the details of the program. You can trade-in a gas-guzzling “clunker” that is less than 25 years old and gets 18 MPG (miles per gallon) or less. Check fueleconomy.gov for official MPG numbers. You must buy a new car in conjunction with the trade-in. The car must have be registered and insured for a full year before the trade-in. The program runs through November 1, 2009 or until these additional funds run out. Check out the cars.gov for full details.

If you were looking to buy a new car already (before you even knew about the $4,500 rebate), you can get a pretty good deal for a trade-in if your car qualifies. I would check out Kelly Blue Book or Edmunds to figure out a rough private party value for your car. If it’s worth way less than the $4,500 rebate and you have the money to pay for another car, I would take advantage of it. If you don’t have the money or have to take out a loan, why get into debt, especially if your clunker works just fine? It just seems like a waste to me, especially when the working clunkers have to be scrapped.

Another piece of legislation that you might not have heard about is the extension of the $250,000 FDIC insurance through 2013 that was passed back in May. The limits are expected to go back to the original $100,000 per depositor on January 1, 2014. In the meantime, you’re protected up to $250,000 on bank accounts, CDs, IRAs, and other accounts. You don’t have to worry about losing your money if a bank fails.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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$50 ING Direct Electric Orange Bonus

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ING Direct has a rare $50 bonus for opening an Electric Orange online checking. Open an account by June 20, 2009 and then just use your debit card to make 3 signature-based (non-PIN) transactions within the first 45 days. On the 50th day, ING Direct will deposit $50 into your account! Make sure you use reference code EM275 when you open the account, otherwise it won’t work.

I’ve used my Electric Orange account for years now and I like it. Mine’s connected to all my online accounts and it’s also connected to my main checking account at WaMu (Chase). The electronic checks are unique and I find myself rarely using paper checks anymore. However, I actually use this as a secondary checking account (currently WaMu’s my main). If you don’t need paper checks (you can still mail checks), this would be a good choice for you.

I’ve found ING’s customer service to be excellent and they don’t have many fees that most big banks charge like overdraft fees. Please note that they will do a hard pull on your credit because of the mandatory overdraft protection. There is no minimum deposit to open an account, but obviously you need money in there to do the 3 transactions.

The interest rate isn’t that high, but you can open an Orange Savings account and you can get a better rate (1.50% as of this writing). If you want a $25 bonus for opening an Orange Savings account with at least $250, let me know. I’m not sure if you can use both, though.

Heartland Bank Direct Online Savings Account Review

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So I told you about the Heartland Bank Direct online Performance Savings Account last week when it was offering 2.30%. It is already down to 2.10% 2.01% now, which is not a good sign. Still, it’s a great rate and one of the highest you’re going to find anywhere right now.

So I decided to open up an account and share with you my experience!

I started the application process on May 13th. Went to Heartland Bank Direct and clicked on “Open Now”. It asks for all your regular information like your name, social, address, driver’s license etc. You’re able to do an electronic fund transfer (EFT) or send a check for the opening deposit. I decided to do EFT and input my ING Electric Orange account details. My trial deposits were in my ING account the very next day (May 14th) which I confirmed. On May 15th, my initial deposit was deducted from my ING account.

After that I had to do the initial sign-in setup by clicking on “First Time Login”. There you have to verify your information again (name, social, etc.), input your email, and create two validation questions (just in case you forget your password and for extra security). It then tells you to wait 1-2 business days for login.

My login and registration was approved on May 18th. I had to change my login user ID and password (from the default). Then I had to register for funds transfer (verified with a validation code sent to email), which I verified the same day.

So I logged into my account and it shows zero dollars for my account balance. Also, my ING account is not showing up on the funds transfer section. So I decide to call customer service (877-444-5148). I didn’t know it was after hours and the automated system didn’t let me know that nobody was there, either. I found out the hours online which are 7am to 7pm CST Monday through Friday and 8am to 1pm CST on Saturday.

So I emailed them (support@heartlandbankdirect.com) that night instead and got a response the next day. They state that opening deposits can take up to 3-4 business days from account opening for initial deposit to show up. Oddly enough, my initial deposit was credited the same day, which, by the way, was the 5th business day from account opening but who’s counting?

They also state that the external account needs to be added again because the initial deposit and the funds transfers are on different systems. Seems like double work to me. So I had to go in and add my account in again and verify the same account twice.

They seem to be using the same CashEdge system that HSBC and FNBO use which means it’s going to be 3 day transfers. ING Direct takes 1-2 business days for me to push or pull which is really fast. So now my account is open and fully functional.

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The interface is similar to many other online savings accounts and works fine, if a little bland. I don’t have any problems with the interface. However, it does show an extra 34 cents on this screen with no indication of where it came from in the detail. That’s not a good sign.

There’s a $500 minimum to open an account, but you can get the full interest rate on anything under that (with no fees). Heartland Bank Direct is a division of Heartland Bank, which was established in 1887. And yes your money is FDIC insured up to $250,000 ($100,000 after this year unless they pass a law extending this).

There is the standard 6 outbound transfers a month with a $20 fee if you go over so don’t do it. There is no hard credit pull, just a soft pull. Also, interest is deposited quarterly.

If you’re looking for an online savings rate to stash your emergency fund or your vacation fund, Heartland Bank Direct is a choice you should consider. It currently has one of the highest rates that I’ve seen and it’s FDIC insured. The opening process was relatively quick and painless. Time will tell if the rates will hold up.