As featured in The Wall Street Journal, Money Magazine, and more!

August 2011


Earlier this year, AT&T announced its plans to acquire T-Mobile, a plan that would change the landscape of wireless service in the United States and pave the way for an industry dominated by two large players: the new AT&T and Verizon Wireless. Today, the U.S. Justice Department stepped in, issuing a complaint to block the acquisition.

T-Mobile is currently a lower-cost option for wireless service, and the acquisition would most likely result in less competition and higher prices. Earlier this year, the Department of Justice blocked a merger between H&R Block and TaxAct, and the move was questioned when deals like the one between AT&T and T-Mobile were allowed to continue. As we can see now, the government is attempting to take the anti-duopoly approach across industries.

The Comcast acquisition of NBC was a different type of acquisition, and the Department of Justice did not seek to block it. The unified company can now control media from their creation to delivery, and this type of vertical integration seems to not be seen as anti-competitive, even though it could result in increased cost for the consumer and content exclusivity where none existed before. Deals like the one between AT&T and T-Mobile or between H&R Block and TaxAct take a marketplace and offer the consumer fewer choices.

Cell PhoneSprint, the distant fourth player in wireless, lobbied the Department of Justice to block the merger. While the block may be in the best interest of consumers, it’s definitely in the best interest of Sprint, likely to be pushed out of the market after the proposed acquisition. If the shoe were on the other foot, and AT&T were to buy Sprint, T-Mobile would be the company seeking to block the deal on behalf of consumers.

Consolidations and acquisitions can be good for the economy when there are major inefficiencies. Capitalists, for the most part, don’t want the government stepping in to block he progress of business and the growth of corporate empires. In theory, if one company gets so large that the consumer is left with poor choices, the market will eventually correct itself with new players willing to meet the neglected needs of the consumer. But when the cost of becoming a large enough presence in a market dominated by one or two companies is prohibitive, as it most likely is for offering cellular service due to the necessary infrastructure, blocking an acquisition might be a better solution than waiting a decade, a generation, or more for new competitors to re-shape the consumer landscape.

In its own words, the Department of Justice explains the decision:

The Department filed its lawsuit because we believe the combination of AT&T and T-Mobile would result in tens of millions of consumers all across the United States facing higher prices, fewer choices and lower quality products for their mobile wireless services.

Consumers across the country, including those in rural areas and those with lower incomes, have benefitted from competition among the nation’s wireless carriers, particularly the four remaining national carriers. This lawsuit seeks to ensure that everyone can continue to reap the benefits of that competition.

This isn’t the only acquisition of concern recently; Capital One was the winning bidder for ING Direct. Although the deal would make Capital One “only” the sixth largest bank in the United States when measured by deposits, the government and regulators are not taking this deal lightly, seeking more comments from the public.

Do you think the Department of Justice should block the AT&T acquisition of T-Mobile?

Photo: whiteafrican
Department of Justice

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In early October, I will announce the winners of the Second Annual Plutus Awards, which will include the best bank, best credit card, best brokerage, and a number of other categories. Later today, the Plutus Awards website will list the finalists. Money Magazine has already completed its survey and announced the publication’s editor’s picks for best bank this year.

For an alternative to these selections, I’ve reviewed what I believe to be the best online savings accounts, looking past the antiquated notion that a physical branch is necessary for a good banking experience.

US BankFor the best national checking account, Money Magazine recommends U.S. Bank, citing the bank’s high customer satisfaction ranking in J.D. Power & Associates. With no branches in my region and one ATM within 100 miles, U.S. Bank is not an option for me. For checking accounts, I appreciate having not only nearby ATMs but convenient branches. Wells Fargo is not my favorite bank, and like other national banks they rely on increasing fees to maintain their profits, but I have a checking account there because the branches are ubiquitous. I prefer TD Bank, but a less professional website prevents me from keeping my primary checking accounts there.

Discover BankMoney Magazine picked the Discover Bank Online Savings Account for best savings account. It’s difficult to argue with this selection. Although I closed my Discover account to consolidate my savings, I had a positive experience with that bank, and the interest rates they have been offering have been solid. The rates have been higher than the online banking mainstay, ING Direct.

Ally BankAlly Bank wins Money Magazine’s selection for best online package, thanks to great rates, unlimited ATM fee reimbursements, and remote check deposit. The magazine also mentions that Ally introduced a debit rewards program at the same time other banks are eliminating them. I expect this benefit to be short-lived, though. Ally Bank is a result of General Motors and its subsidiaries distancing themselves from the negative public image of the company. The rebranding worked so well that more GMAC departments eventually changed their names to Ally. Here’s my review of the Ally Bank Savings Account.

Alliant Credit UnionMoney Magazine chose Alliant Credit Union for the best credit union category. Credit unions often have regional or local associations, making it hard to determine a best credit union relevant to all Americans. I’m a fan of moving away from large banks towards credit unions, but not everyone can qualify. I’ve searched, and it doesn’t appear that I can become a member of any credit union near me.

The survey also recognizes the best regional banks: Bank of the West in the west, Huntington in the mid-west and TD Bank in the east.

Overall, the above selections are good choices for best bank. I think it’s good that the formerly innovative ING Direct receives some serious competition in the online space. With ING’s large customer base, the company has little incentive to staying competitive. Executives know that most customers will not switch to other banks just to chase higher interest rates. The more other online banks can improve their services and offer compelling products, the more ING Direct will need to worry about staying competitive.

National banks, with their overzealous fees and impersonal customer service, should be concerned about losing business to regional and local banks, credit unions, and online banks that offer more convenient services like remote check deposit and ATM reimbursements.

Money Magazine

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Several times, I’ve done what is considered unthinkable by most personal finance experts: I signed up for store credit cards at the point of sale. I have a Macy’s card, which I signed up for a discount on clothing I was planning to buy — clothing that is probably overpriced in the first place. But when I was first starting to get some freelance web design off the ground after college, while working at a non-profit and in need of another source of income, I needed to stop using my roommate’s computer. My own desktop computer was insufficient for working on the latest technologies because it was about six years old and couldn’t handle broadband internet connections. I couldn’t afford a computer, but to get my business off the ground, I bought the computer with a 0% APR store credit card, having qualified for just enough credit to make the purchase possible (what a coincidence).

That card was an earlier incarnation of the Best Buy Reward Zone® Credit Card. For me, the attraction was the 12-month 0% APR offer on the store purchase at the time, and the card was not free from problems. Because of how they tend to trap you, and are used to encourage purchasing of items you cannot afford, you should stay away from store cards in general. But for those who frequent Best Buy, the latest incarnation of the card has a decent rewards program.

Keep in mind that if you’re buying your electronics and most other items at Best Buy, you’re already likely overpaying. I still manage to find good deals, but only on discontinued items when I can haggle with the manager. Unlike 1999, I prefer Amazon.com or specialty discount stores like B&H Photo and Video and NewEgg over Best Buy. The rewards program might make it worthwhile, especially if you manage to find good deals at Best Buy.

Like most credit cards offers, the Best Buy Credit Card offers an incentive for signing up, but it varies. If you sign-up in person at a Best Buy location, you may receive a discount on your first purchase using the card. If you sign-up online, there is no discount. The card also includes a rewards program. You have the option of Flexible Financing options or become a Rewards Zone Member and you may be eligible for 2.5 points for every $1 spent (that’s 5% back) on all Best Buy purchases with the card using standard credit financing, a $5 reward certificate for every 250 points, exclusive discounts and events.

The largest detraction of this card is the interest rate, which is generally higher than other cards I write about on Consumerism Commentary. The purchase APR on the Best Buy Credit Card Preferred is 25.24% or 27.99% variable. Select purchases may be eligible for a 48 month reduced rate credit plan, but be sure to check the current offer for details.

Cashiers are often rewarded bonuses when they successfully pressure or otherwise convince shoppers to open up a new credit line at the point of sale. It’s a very effective technique, and dangling an immediate discount and future discounts traps even educated consumers. I still use my Macy’s card, and when I arrive home after shopping, I access my account and pay the bill right away so I don’t get caught in any high interest traps.

As a rule of thumb, no financial decision should be made spur of the moment. The Best Buy Reward Zone® Credit Card may look good initially but its high interest rate and strict rewards program will benefit too few. Unless you are an expert at finding deals at Best Buy, you’d be better off looking into an all-around cash rewards credit card that offers big bonuses with a low interest rate and no annual fee. Offers may change frequently, and without notice so please visit referenced sites for current information.

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Bank of America is settling the overdraft fee class-action lawsuit that alleges the bank knowingly manipulated customers’ deposits and withdrawals in order to maximize the fees they would receive. Although the banks aren’t completely to blame for the proliferation of overdraft fees, policies were so much of a problem that the government and regulators needed to step in. As a result of new regulations brought on by the Credit CARD Act of 2009, banks now require customers to opt in for overdraft protection, which about 90 percent of customers do. Those who do not would suffer the embarrassment of a declined debit card or, perhaps worse, the expense of a bounced check.

While limited by new regulations, banks are constantly looking for ways to increase profits, and when they can’t earn money by lending out deposits as much as they have in the past, they turn to increasing fees. According to recent research, banks project earning $38.5 billion from overdraft fees alone in 2009, up from $24 billion in 2008. In 2010, profit from overdraft fees set a new record, but due to a variety of fiscal accounting years in the industry, I don’t have the number on hand yet. 90 percent of these fees come from only ten percent of customers, so it would be fair to say that it’s more common to see a serial offender than a one-time offender.

You may find that it has been more difficult for those one-time offenders to talk their way to a reversal of a fee through customer service. In times like these, when the banks want to protect their money as much as possible, it makes sense for consumers to avoid overdraft fees in the first place.

If you follow these suggestions, there should be no reason for you to be charged an overdraft fee unless you make a mistake.

Nickel and Dime1. Balance your checkbook. There is a disconnect between the checking account balance according to the bank and how much money you have to work with. If you have a traditional personal checking account, the bank doesn’t know when you write a check. It’s your responsibility to know how much money you have available at any one time. The best way to do this is to keep a register. Start with your opening balance, and subtract from it every time you write a check and add to it every time you make a deposit.

2. Don’t forget about your debit card. It gets difficult to balance your checkbook if you also use a debit card to get cash or to pay for purchases. When you sit down at your desk to write checks to pay your bills, all of your financial information is in front of you and you can easily enter the check amount in your register. But when you use a linked debit or ATM card, you need to hold onto your receipts so you can enter the transaction into your checkbook at a later time. If you remember.

3. Access your checking account online. Online banking is one of the greatest benefits of the internet. Rather than waiting for your monthly statement in the mail, you can log onto your bank’s website and check your recent transactions at any time. If nothing else, checking the bank’s records for your account more than once a month helps you become familiar with the transactions that flow through your account and how low you like to keep your balance.

4. Keep your balance well above the minimum. Some checking accounts charge a fee if your balance dips below a certain minimum, but almost all will charge a fee if that minimum is $0. Give yourself a buffer. If you withdraw an average of $2,000 each month for your mortgage and other bills, don’t let your bank account float below $2,000. This way, you always have a month’s worth of expenses ready to protect you from $0. Since checking accounts often offer lower interest rates than savings accounts, particularly high-yield savings accounts, you will be giving up a small amount of interest income, but the protection might be worthwhile.

5. Link your checking account to a savings account. Many banks offer the option of linking a checking account to a savings account. In the even that your checking account dips below $0 due to a cashed check for which you have insufficient funds or a charge on your debit card, the bank automatically transfers money from your savings account to cover the withdrawal. Some banks will charge a fee for this service, but the fee is often lower than an overdraft fee.

6. Link your checking account to a line of credit. If you have good credit, this is a legitimate option. Rather than withdrawing funds to cover your overdraft from a savings account, the bank taps your line of credit. You will owe interest on the amount you borrow from your credit line, and you may owe an annual fee for use of the credit line, but the total fees could be substantially lower than a typical overdraft fee.

7. Ask to remove overdraft protection. Banks believe overdraft protection, even for a fee, is a service customers want. In many cases, that is true. If you send your mortgage or rent payment, you might prefer the large check not to bounce. Bounced checks cause problems for the recipient and the sender; overdraft protection eliminates this hassle. If it is not likely that you will bounce a major payment, it might make sense to ask your bank to remove the overdraft protection feature for your account. Keep in mind that you will still be charged a “returned check” fee if you bounce a check.

8. Track your finances electronically. There are many tools now that let you connect directly to your bank’s databases to download and list your transactions automatically. My current favorite is the desktop version of Quicken, but even with its robustness, this type of software may be more than what is necessary for avoiding overdraft fees in a checking account. I suggest signing up for a free service like Mint to monitor all your financial accounts in one place.

9. Create reminders and notifications. Many banks continue to improve their technological offerings for checking accounts. I know of at least one bank that will, if you enable this feature, send you a text message if your bank account decreases to a balance you define. For example, you might receive a notice when a cashed check reduces your balance to $95, five dollars below your established warning minimum of $100. If your bank doesn’t offer this feature, one of your linked services will. Although I don’t use this service often, I receive an email from Mint when my Wachovia personal checking account balance dips below $2,000.

10. Look for free overdraft protection. Some credit unions offer checking accounts with free overdraft protection. You can start at the Credit Union National Association’s credit union finder.

Overdraft fees happen to the best of us because we are all human and make mistakes. The best thing we can do is reduce the occurrence of these fees to a point at which it will be much easier to talk with the bank when the mistakes do happen. Opening a line of communication can help, and if you maintain a good conversation with customer service representatives, you may be able to convince banks to make an occasional overdraft fee disappear.

This negotiation works best when you have a positive history with the bank. The more overdrafts you have on your record, the less likely the bank will be willing to forgive your fees. If you prove yourself to be a good customer, you have a better chance of being rewarded.

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How to Qualify for a Mortgage Without a Steady Paycheck

by Luke Landes
Dollar

It’s been almost nine months since I had a regular paycheck. Last year around this time, I was starting to make my plans for leaving my day job. One of my concerns was the possibility of qualifying for a mortgage with only self-employment income. Banks are still tight with their lending. Although mortgage rates are ... Continue reading this article…

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Should You Stop Saving and Investing When Paying Off Debt?

by Luke Landes

The concept of multitasking, for a person, is a myth. When someone says they are multitasking, they are quick task shifting. We can move our attention quickly from one task to the next, and shift back again, but it’s practically impossible to focus on two different things at the same time. To excel at anything ... Continue reading this article…

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American Express Credit Card Reviews

by Luke Landes

American Express is consistently one of the highest rated credit card issuers. This could be because the customers are demographically different than average Visa and MasterCard customers. American Express customers are generally individuals and businesses with higher credit ratings, and they are more likely to make better financial decisions. Additionally, many American Express cards are ... Continue reading this article…

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The Debt Snowball

by Luke Landes
Debt Snowball

The “Debt Snowball” is one of the most popular methods for approaching a variety of debts, with the intention of paying them off. The process has existed for as long as debt has been around, but the method has been commoditized, packaged, and popularized by a variety of personal finance experts, gurus, and speakers. Dave ... Continue reading this article…

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Podcast 123: Mint.com’s New Bill Reminder Feature

by Luke Landes

Today on the Consumerism Commentary Podcast, Tom Dziubek talks with Mint.com‘s Vice President of Product, Aaron Forth, about Mint’s new bill reminder feature. Aaron also discusses ways the smartphone app can help you acquire a more accurate bank account balance and also talks about what savings and spending trends they’ve seen. Consumerism Commentary Podcast #123 ... Continue reading this article…

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Spirituality and Money: Hope in Hard Times

by Ellen Cooper-Davis

This article is written by Consumerism Commentary’s new columnist, Ellen Cooper-Davis. Ellen’s column will look at the role of spirituality within the context of personal finance. For an introduction to this column, see Ellen’s first article, The Pastor and the Purse. Your feedback is welcome. “There’s a phrase we live by in America: ‘In God ... Continue reading this article…

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Hurricane Irene Approaching

by Luke Landes
Hurricane Irene

I hope that my town is inland enough to escape the worst of Hurricane Irene, but living near a canal increases the likelihood of flooding. I live in a second-floor apartment, so I don’t need to worry about a flooded basement. I believe I am stocked for the possibility of power loss, though I ventured ... Continue reading this article…

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Setting Money Ground Rules With Your Partner

by Luke Landes
Couple

Do you lie to your spouse or significant other about money? Money may be one of the most popular issues causing strife in a relationship, but deeper issues are usually communication and values. Lying about money is one way to ensure that a relationship will fail over time, but for most people, small, occasional lies ... Continue reading this article…

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Capital One Cash Credit Card Review

by Luke Landes

Editor’s Note:  Thank you for your interest, this limited-time offer has expired. See our review of the best cash back credit cards.

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Bank of America Paid Warren Buffett $1.4 Billion for a $5 Billion Investment

by Luke Landes

If you’ve been reading the financial news today, you might have heard that veteran investor and market-mover Warren Buffett invested $5 billion into the battered Bank of America. For this $5 billion investment, Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway receives preferred shares, a type of investment that’s beyond the reach of most other investors. These shares come with ... Continue reading this article…

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The 2011 Economic Stimulus: Mortgage Refinancing

by Luke Landes
Mortgage Refinance

The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009, the 2009 economic stimulus bill, provided an opportunity for homeowners in trouble to qualify for mortgage modifications. The Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) and the “Making Home Affordable” provided support for lenders who worked with homeowners. Part of the requirement for qualifying for the modification program is ... Continue reading this article…

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How to Hedge Against Gasoline Price Increases

by Luke Landes
Gas Pump Fuel | crowt59

When gasoline prices at the pump increased to the point where the cost was a major news item engendering backlash among the public, oil companies were sporting big profits. Consumers reacted by buying more fuel-efficient cars and traveling less, but there is another approach for investors — an approach that mimics what commodities and hedge ... Continue reading this article…

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Citi ThankYou℠ Premier Card Review

by Luke Landes
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The offer you are interested in has expired. Read our Citi Card reviews.

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High-Yield Investing In a Low-Yield Environment

by Investor Junkie
Tokyo Stock Exchange Investing

This is a guest article by Investor Junkie, focusing on alternative investments. This is a broad topic, so this article functions as a brief overview. There are many ideas within that deserve deeper explanation, something I’ll consider for future articles here. Market turmoil is all around us. Last week, the 10-year US Treasury bond went ... Continue reading this article…

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Low Income Families Paid More for College While Everyone Else Paid Less

by Luke Landes
College Graduate

Sallie Mae and Ipsos Public Affairs, a research company, shared some good news for college students and their families. In the latest research results, gleaned from a representative sample of 1,600 undergraduates and their families, the total amount paid for a year in college has decreased. With tuition costs increasing every year faster than the ... Continue reading this article…

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The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express OPEN Review

by Luke Landes

Editor’s Note: Thank you for your interest, this offer expired and is no longer available. The incentive for becoming a customer of American Express’s business cards is continuing to improve. The card formerly known as the Gold Card from American Express OPEN is now known as The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express OPEN. ... Continue reading this article…

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