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

avatar You are viewing an archive of articles by Michael Pruser.

Michael Pruser

Starwood Preferred Guest American ExpressThe Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express is continually one of the best-reviewed cards from this issuer. Card owners are also the most likely to rate high on customer satisfaction surveys. This is probably due to the fact that the card offers excellent incentives and a low interest rate.

NEW LIMITED TIME OFFER (Ends 4/5) – New cardmembers of the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express have the opportunity to receive a limited time bonus offer. This includes 25,000 Starpoints® after spending $3,000 in purchases during the first three months, and 10,000 Starpoints® after spending an additional $2,000 in the first six months. Points can be redeemed at more than 1,300 hotels and resorts in nearly 100 countries, and over 150 airlines with SPG Flights.

This welcome bonus offer is not available to applicants who have had this product within the last 12 months.

The normal rewards program for the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express is fairly straightforward. It offers points on the following:

  • Earn 2 Starpoints® for each dollar of eligible purchases spent on the Card at participating SPG® & Marriott Rewards® hotels
  • Earn 1 Starpoint® for all other purchases

Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) is the rewards program associated with the Starwood network of hotel brands. The participating hotels include Sheraton, Westin, W Hotels, Four Points by Sheraton, Element, Meridien, Aloft, The Luxury Collection, and St Regis, for a collection at over 1,100 hotels in nearly 100 countries. The points members earn can be redeemed for hotel stays, upgrades, flights from over 350 airlines with SPG Flights without blackout dates. At many of the hotels, you can redeem Starpoints for the hotel’s amenities and luxuries designed for guests, often unique to each location. Note that some hotels may have mandatory service and resort charges.

The Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express offers a decent variable purchase APR, currently 15.74% – 19.74%. There is an annual fee of $95 associated with this card like most American Express cards. However, there is a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then the annual fee of $95 commences for year two.

With an excellent rewards program and big perks from American Express, many customers choose this card as their number one credit card. For more information or to fill out an application, visit the secure Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express application page. Terms and Restrictions apply.

  • Find out how you can apply for this card here.

learn_more

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

Important Note! The information in this article is believed to be accurate as of the date it was written. Please keep in mind that offers change frequently. Therefore, we can not guarantee the accuracy of the information in this article. Please verify all terms and conditions of any credit or charge card prior to applying.

{ 0 comments }

Full disclosure alert, I’m a bit of a bitcoin junkie.  Globally, access to bitcoin is much easier with dozens of funding methods for international investors. However, the US of A has yet to embrace the bitcoin, so being able to buy and sell the cryptocurrency is a lot harder than you might think.

When bitcoin started making waves in 2010, I wrote a brief introduction about the cryptocurrency. At the time, the value of one BTC was just $13 (and was a mere $3 just a week before that!).  Today, the currency holds a value of $900 per bitcoin (as of 1.8.2017). Had I been a bit more clairvoyant — or maybe just less of a wuss — I could have taken my 8,000% profit and retired already.   Lucky for you, I’m still writing and am able to tell you the three most reputable websites to buy and trade Bitcoin.

bitstamp-logoBitstamp

All of my current bitcoins are held with Bitstamp, which I believe to be the greatest bitcoin exchange on the web today.  Current market price is always spot on and their blockchain tracking software is the the fastest at displaying hundreds of buy and sell orders every minute.  Bitstamp has been around for over five years and has three offices worldwide, one located in New York.   And while I love to use them to store my coins, the difficult part is being able to buy them.  Currently, the only funding method Bitstamp has available is via international wire (as they are a European-based company).  That transfer can take a few days and the volatility of bitcoin means the money I’m depositing may or may not have more “buying power” by the time I can use it.

bitstamp-trading

A view of the Bitstamp trading platform

Account verification is quick and painless with Bitstamp and their fee structure is the lowest you’ll find on any bitcoin exchange.  The most you’ll pay for a bitcoin purchase is 0.25% over spot (and that can be reduced all the way down to 0.10% if you trade more than $20M in BTC over a 30 day period).  For withdrawals, a transfer back to your bank account will only incur a 0.09% fee ($15 minimum). However, depending on your bank, you could incur additional fees (my bank, Citizens, does not impose any).

US-based customers can also request a debit card onto which the money will be loaded.  The fee for loading the card is $10 for amounts up to $1,000. Anything greater than that is a fee of 2%.  A fee structure for using the debit card can be found here.

coinbase-logoCoinbase

I do a lot of my buying of bitcoin on Coinbase because it’s the easiest of all websites to buy from. (Then, I transfer the coin to Bitstamp to hold and trade.)  Coinbase has two major selling points for any US-based customer looking to buy bitcoin:

  1. A credit/debit card can be used (with a 3.9% fee).
  2. A bank account can be connected for direct deposits and withdrawals (with a 3.9% fee). There is a four business day clearing period to buy, and a one business day clearing period to sell.
coinbase-account

Coinbase account interface

The verification process for Coinbase is a little bit more complex than that of Bitstamp.  Depending on how much of your identification they can verify immediately, your buy and sell limits may be pretty small to start (think $100 USD per week).  You simply need to go through the process of uploading documents, verifying your address with a utility statement, and waiting the initial 30 days after making your first purchase, though. Then, the limits to buy can quickly be raised to $1,500 per week via credit card or $10,000 per week via bank account transfer.

I’ve personally made 50+ purchases with Coinbase over the last couple of years and their BTC delivery has always been on time. Plus, their security is top notch.

cexio-logoCEX.IO

CEX.IO is a relatively new exchange, having been around for just under three years (and really only able to buy and sell BTC for two). I’ve recently begun to use them for trading and have dabbled in buying bitcoin through them.  Two immediate differences I have noticed in using CEX.IO to buy bitcoin recently are:

  • The amount of bitcoin I can buy in a 24-hour period is substantially more than I can buy anywhere else, when using a credit card.  After going through their verification process (which is extensive, requiring a passport among other things), I can deposit up to $3,000 per day with a credit card, up to a $10,000 per month max.  They actually have another verification step available for customers looking to increase their limits even further, but I didn’t bother to go the extra step because this is more than enough for me.
  • The fee for depositing is a reasonable 3.5% + $0.25 per credit card transaction, which is just above interchange fees (and cheaper than Coinbase).  However, what is not reasonable is that to convert your cash to bitcoin, you pay a steep ~8% fee to CEX.IO.
cexio-trading

CEX.IO Bitcoin price tracker

There are dozens of other exchanges and websites that charge even more than the 8% you see listed for CEX.IO. Some are even as high as 60%, so this is about my limit in terms of trying to purchase cryptocurrency.  That said, the trading exchange on CEX.IO is my favorite to use and they’ve now launched a margin trading platform.   If for some reason I need to buy bitcoin and cannot do so via the first two exchanges above (my limits are up, for example), CEX.IO is the way to go.

Through all three exchanges listed above, you have the ability to transfer your bitcoin to and from instantly (confirmed on the blockchain generally within an hour).  So buy on one, transfer to another, trade into Ether, then into litecoin, back into bitcoin, and so forth. Just know that you can move your money around for little to no fees whatsoever (the miner fee to transfer $1,000 of bitcoin between wallets is roughly four cents).  And if you don’t understand anything I just said, I urge you to have a look.  I believe that bitcoin is here to stay, and the number of new exchanges being invested in worldwide is increasing by the hundreds.

If you’re lucky enough to live near one of the 600 US based Bitcoin ATMs, you can buy bitcoin there.  The average ATM fee is 7.9%.

 

{ 2 comments }

philadelphia-beverages-taxLast year, the city of Philadelphia decided to pass into law a “beverage tax,” which taxes the sugary drinks you consume at the rate of 1.5 cents per ounce.  At the time, there was some considerable outcry from residents of the city. Nevertheless, the government stuck to their guns.

Well, at the turn of this new year — on 1/1/2017, in fact — the tax was enacted. Consumers are quickly feeling the effects, and are none to happy about it.

What It Is

Taken directly from their city government website, Philadelphia lawmakers explain where the tax is to be levied.

The tax is not just on sodas. This tax is on any non-alcoholic beverage, syrup, or other concentrate used to prepare a beverage that lists as an ingredient any form of caloric sugar-based sweetener, including, but not limited to sucrose, glucose, or high fructose corn syrup.

Drinks considered “diet” or “zero calorie” are also taxed. Specifically, this tax is on any non-alcoholic beverage, syrup or other concentrate used to prepare a beverage that lists any form of artificial sugar substitute, including stevia, aspartame, sucralose, neotame, acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), saccharin, and advantame.

A quick look at social media shows hundreds of posts today from people taking screenshots of their receipts to show just how much this tax will actually cost you.  You hear the details of 1.5 cents per ounce and might not think much of it. When you start to buy gallons, six packs, 12 packs of your favorite soda or sports drink, though, you’re going to pay quite a bit more than you expect.  Let’s have a look at an example.

philly-soda-tax

On the receipt above, you’ll notice a consumer purchasing a 10 pack of Propel Water (w/ Berry) for a retail price of $5.99.   These are just over 20 oz. a bottle, so the pack is a little over 200 oz. of total liquid. At a tax rate of 1.5 cents per ounce, the consumer ended up paying $3.04 just in the beverage tax alone.

Then, because democracy is so awesome, the sales tax is added AFTER the beverage tax. This means that the great residents of Philadelphia are paying 8% sales tax ON their beverage tax.  A $5.99 10-pack of Propel water (which actually doesn’t have any sugar, ironically), now costs $9.75.  This particular individual was stunned to see the cost, so they voided the transaction. And I don’t blame them.

Who Loses from the Soda Tax?

When you consider what the Philadelphia soda tax is meant to accomplish, there are two clear cut losers:

  1. The Sugar / Sports Beverage Industry – With the cost of everyday drinks like Gatorade and Pepsi being increased by as much as 150% (depending on the size of the container), the beverage industry is going to see a steep decline in demand.  There’s just no way around it. When you were paying $.30 for a 12oz can of Coca Cola at the grocery store and now are paying $0.48 cents a can, there will be a group of people that say “No, thanks.”   This decline in demand will, of course, be limited to just the city of Philadelphia. If the merits of this tax are well publicized in the coming months, though, other cities could join in for the added revenue.
  2. The Wallets of the American Consumer – I wouldn’t call myself an addict when it comes to drinking soda or sports beverages. But when they go on sale at the grocery store, I’ve been known to buy them in quantity (“four 12-packs for $10” happens a few times a year, and I like to buy just that many).  If there’s 144 ounces per case of 12 cans, that’s 576 ounces of soda in my $10 purchase.  In Philadelphia, my $10 purchase is now an $18.64 purchase… and that’s not good for my wallet.  The same goes for consumers who spend $1.99 on a gallon of iced tea (now with an additional tax of $1.92) or a liter of Mountain Dew (plus the new tax of $0.51).  Consumers will lose more money for buying the same everyday items.

Who Wins from the Soda Tax?

Once again I can find two clear cut examples of positive outcomes from the Philadelphia beverage tax:

  1. Early Childhood Education & City Programs – The city of Philadelphia anticipates that $91 million annually will be collected from this soda tax, and the majority of that money will go to fund early childhood education, parks, and libraries.  The remaining funds (roughly 20%) will target other city programs and employee benefits.  The sum raised is not as much as you might anticipate given just how much the cost of beverages will increase, but remember this is strictly for one city.
  2. The Health of the American Consumer – Allow me to speak from experience: the sheer amount of sugar in my beloved bottle of Snapple Apple is more than I should likely be consuming in a week, let alone in 15 minutes.  The reason these drinks taste as delicious as they do is because they are dripping with the sweet stuff. Philadelphia is not only looking at a new revenue source, but a way to tackle diabetes and obesity.  A “sin tax” has always been defined as a tax on things like gambling, tobacco, and alcohol, but it would appear we may be getting ready to add sugar and sports drinks to the list.  If this ever reaches Connecticut, the increased cost may just be enough to get me to start drinking water exclusively (or at least a LOT more than I do).

Grocery stores in the city are doing different things in order to inform consumers their drinks are going up in price.  Some list the full price on the sticker below the item on the shelves, some have sent out notices in their circulars, and others have decided to avoid the subject. The latter are just ringing up surprised consumers at the register, which I wouldn’t imagine going over too well for those not paying attention.

Philadelphia makes up roughly 0.5% of the entire US Population. So, while this is just one city, it’s a big one. This tax is now on the minds of 1.55 million people.

Keep an eye on this tax to see if your city adopts a similar policy and plan for a healthier lifestyle to keep your wallet and your waistline in check.

{ 0 comments }

credit-karma-tax-softwareThe first time I filed my very own taxes was with Turbo Tax, back in 2003. I was 18 years old at the time, attending college, and it was the first year my parents could not claim me as a dependent.

I had earned a fair amount of income from my jobs on campus (and my summer job) and Turbo Tax was of great help.  Living in Florida, I (luckily) didn’t have to worry about state filing costs… the entire experience of entering two W-2s and getting a refund took all of 10 minutes.  It was exactly as advertised, and I was 100% satisfied.

Before I knew it, however, my tax situation became more and more complicated.  I started my own business, began saving a small amount for retirement, got married, had children, bought a house, started a second business … the basic version of Turbo Tax wasn’t cutting it.  Upgraded versions started costing serious money (upwards of $100). Plus, even more money to file my state taxes, now that I live in Connecticut instead of Florida.  It has actually become better for me to have a CPA handle my taxes each year, rather than worry about screwing it up myself while still paying $150 via Turbo Tax or H&R Block.

Well, in a new and very surprising move — at least to this financial blogger– Credit Karma now offers FREE tax software for almost every American taxpayer.  And when I say FREE, I mean it costs absolutely nothing to file both your Federal and State tax returns. No matter your individual (very important) tax situation, there’s no charge when you open an account, no charge when you file, and no charge whether you’re reporting $45,000,000 or $45,000.  (**If you own a small business that files S corp, C corp, partnership, or multi-member LLC paperwork, I’m afraid you’re out of luck this year for filing your business taxes. Credit Karma cannot yet file your return — but this won’t be the case forever, says their CEO.)

Some important points to make before talking about how Credit Karma can provide such a service:

  • The software is not yet live but will be in January — you can even “get in line” now to gain access. You will absolutely be able to file your 2016 taxes next year.
  • You must have a CreditKarma.com account (it’s free) in order to utilize their tax filing platform.
  • Your 2016 Federal and State tax returns are due no later than April 18, 2017.
  • You can print and mail your return after completing it using Credit Karma, if you so desire.  You don’t have to e-file if you don’t want to.
  • Filing your return can only be done by logging into their platform; the software cannot be downloaded.

credit-karma-tax-software-image

When Did Credit Karma Become a Tax Software Company?

Earlier this year, Credit Karma purchased a North Carolina based tax preparation company named AFJC Corporation.  AFJC Corporation is a provider of online tax preparation, filing solutions, and related services for individuals, certified tax preparers, and financial institutions.  As a result of this purchase, Credit Karma is opening a new office in Charlotte, NC, entirely focused on their tax prep services.

Before this purchase, Credit Karma was known for being able to provide you with a free credit score, without even requiring a credit card.  Before them, the deal with other credit score providers was that for the first X number of days, you could see your score without charge. After that, though, your free trial period would end and you’d have to pay a monthly service.

Related: How to Get Your Credit Report for Free

Credit Karma didn’t like that system, which all of the other companies were using. They took the idea a step further and decided to make the whole damn thing free.  And as you can see from their new tax platform, it’s kind of their thing to take an existing pay-for service and make it 100% free.

How Can Credit Karma Make Tax Filing Free of Charge?

Credit Karma is likely spending millions of dollars on their new office, millions of dollars to develop the software to be able to provide 100M tax returns, millions of dollars in advertising (I just saw a TV commercial for their new software), and millions of dollars to staff it all, so that if problems arise, they have plenty of support available.  And, of course, they don’t plan to take in a single penny of revenue from tax filers.

What now? How does Credit Karma plan to make money?  Well, every piece of information you provide them when filing your taxes is going to be used to offer you services in those industries.  For example:

  • When you enter your home mortgage interest, you’ll get an email about suitable refinance options. (If you sign up for any of them, Credit Karma gets a commission.)
  • When you enter your business expense report, and show a lot of travel, you’ll get an email about potential travel reward credit cards .(If you are approved for any of them, Credit Karma gets a commission.)
  • When you enter your self employment health care costs, you’ll get an email about other medical insurance providers that might save you money. (If you apply for any of them, Credit Karma gets a commission.)

You get the idea.  Of course, this is something they’ve already been doing when you get your free credit score through CreditKarma.com. Here, though, they’ll be able to do it on a much grander scale, getting (what should be) 100% accurate information about the consumer and pinpointing offers that might suit their needs.  A lot of up front costs now and, if all goes according to plan, a lot of revenue later.

What Happens to Turbo Tax, H&R Block, TaxACT, my CPA…?

If Credit Karma is successful in offering 100% free-of-charge tax returns for tens of millions of Americans, then it’s a grim picture for the names above (and many others not mentioned).  Platforms like Turbo Tax and H&R Block make their revenues from the costs they charge to file taxes, even if some of their services are free.  Seeing as the news is pretty fresh, I would imagine many other companies are getting ready to cut prices drastically in order to keep business for 2017 and beyond.

What if Credit Karma is not successful in this venture and the revenues cannot sustain the business? Then, you’ll likely see an emboldened group of tax prep providers, strengthening their core products and platforms.

As tax season approaches, I plan to update this article with fresh screenshots and information on the Credit Karma tax prep platform. For right now, they offer no other information than to wait.  So, I wait. But be sure to check back in the coming weeks to learn more, as the Credit Karma Tax unveiling gets underway.

Oh, and don’t worry, H&R Block. My parents will still spend $300 to sit down with you for 4 hours, filing their single W-2 with no investment income. (It’s amazing I turned out so well, really.)

 

{ 0 comments }

The Price of Oil is on the Rise. Is That Good for You?

by Michael Pruser
oil-rising

After a lull in the price of a barrel, we are seeing the cost of oil begin to once again increase. With it comes increased revenue and, in turn, money being pumped into both the stock market and the economy. So, is this good news for the average person? Well, the immediate answer is no, probably […]

0 comments Read the full article →