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Banking


The best high-yield online savings accounts offer strong interest rates and great customer service, making them a popular option for savers. Studies also show online savings accounts often come with lower fees.

“High-yield” is unfortunately a bit of a misnomer these days; a decade ago, interest rates were 4% and 5% among select savings accounts and money market accounts. Today, the best rates are around 2% while a fair amount are still hovering around 1% or more. This trend will continue until banks and credit unions need more cash from depositors.

Interest rates.

Interest rates are important because money shouldn’t lose too much purchasing power. In a perfect world, interest rates offered by banks should beat inflation while preserving the balance without risk. I am not aware of any bank offering a savings option with ongoing interest rates high enough to beat inflation, whether measured by the government-reported CPI-U or by any other meaningful measure of consumer prices. Nevertheless, if your savings is at a brick and mortar bank earning below 0.25% APY, choose one of the better options below.

Customer service.

When evaluating customer service, there are two important factors to consider. The best banks offer all account maintenance and transfers through a professional, reliable, and easy-to-navigate website. Secondly, live customer service representatives should be knowledgeable, helpful, and available, although customers should have to deal with a representative infrequently if at all.

Based on my own experiences and reviews from other Consumerism Commentary readers, here are the most-recommended accounts for short-term savings. All of the listed interest rates directly below from our partners and in the table that follows are current but they are subject to change by the banks. Although I have nine accounts listed below the table of rates, you don’t need to have accounts with that many different banks. Choose one that fits you the best.

First, here is a list of the latest interest rates. Following this table, I offer a few of my own observations and opinions about savings accounts from nine popular online banks. Read the full article →

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The Occupy Wall Street movement seems to have faded away, but it is fair to say that banks are still not very popular institutions. Fairly or unfairly, the prevailing impression many folks have is that bankers are fat cats who make their fortunes at the expense of ordinary people. However, instead of being mad at bankers, perhaps consumers should be mad at themselves. Time and time again, people let banks get the better of them through careless banking habits.

Here are six ways people willingly give up money to their banks when they don’t have to:

1. Savings account rates

Whether you use an online savings account or traditional brick-and-mortar one, savings account rates have dropped to nearly nothing. According to the FDIC, the average U.S. savings account pays a rate of 0.06 percent. That means a $10,000 savings account would earn just $6 a year in interest — hardly worth the trouble it takes to open an account.

Why are deposit rates so low? Part of it has to do with the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy of lowering interest rates to stimulate growth, but some of the blame has to go to consumer behavior. Banks generally have more deposits than they know what to do with these days, so most do not feel compelled to offer a higher interest rate to attract deposits. What exacerbates that problem is that consumers are all too willing to settle for mediocre rates.

Review up-to-date savings rates

While the average savings account pays just 0.06 percent in interest, some of the top savings accounts pay over ten times that. If consumer behavior were a little more rational, deposits would flow toward the top-paying banks and away from the low-paying ones. This would force those low-paying banks to raise their interest rates or risk a severe drop in deposits.

Unfortunately, too many bank customers fail to take an active approach to shopping for rates, and thus settle for less than a tenth of the interest they could be getting should they go for a high-yield savings account.

2. CD rollovers

Let’s give consumers the benefit of the doubt and say that they actually compare rates for certificates of deposit when they first open a CD. After that, though, too many people just let their CDs roll over automatically at the same bank, without even comparing to see if they could get a better rate somewhere else.

Face it — if the bank knows a CD is going to roll over passively, do you think they will go out of their way to give it their best rate? Different banks have specials on CD rates that come and go, so there is always a good chance of finding a better offer when your CD is due to mature. The nice thing about a CD is that, if you make the effort to shop for the best rate, you can then lock that rate in for the term of the CD.

Besides missing out on the best CD rates, people who let their CDs roll over passively are also missing an opportunity to reevaluate the length of their CD terms. The right term depends partly on interest rate conditions and partly on your financial situation, both of which are likely to have changed since the last time you chose a CD.

3. Mortgage refinancing

This is another situation where banks are more than happy to benefit from a home-court advantage. If they already have your business, they may feel less compelled to offer a better rate when you do additional business with them.

Certainly, it is worth including your current bank in any refinancing comparison you make. If they still own your loan (which is far from a sure thing), they have already approved of you as a credit risk and so may be more likely to approve you for refinancing.

At the same time, though, understand that mortgage rates can vary significantly from one lender to another. Also, risk assessment is a subjective thing, so some banks will feel more comfortable with you than others and thus offer you a lower mortgage rate. Don’t let the convenience of refinancing with the same bank cause you to be locked into paying more mortgage interest than you need to for years to come.

4. Checking account fees

Free checking used to be quite commonplace, but now it is the exception rather than the rule. Still, free checking is there for those who are willing to look for it, even with interest-bearing checking accounts or high yield checking accounts.

Monthly maintenance fees on bank accounts run to over $150 a year on average, so avoiding them can be a big win. Your best bet is to try online checking, since online accounts are more likely to offer free checking than traditional, branch-based accounts.

5. Overdraft protection

Protection sounds nice, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to be protected? Well, when you look at the cost of overdraft protection, it may make you feel a little less safe and warm.

Overdraft fees typically exceed $30 per occurrence, and stories abound of people who bought a $3 cup of coffee and ended up paying a $30 fee. What’s worse is that you might make several transactions before realizing that you’ve overdrafted your account and so pay a multiple of that $30 charge.

By law, all banks, including FDIC insured banks, are supposed to leave people out of overdraft protection unless they actively sign up for it, but banks actively encourage people to opt into overdraft protection when starting an account. It may sound like a benefit, but the inconvenience of having a transaction denied is less damaging than racking up multiple $30 overdraft fees.

6. Credit card rates

You know how interest rates generally have come way down in recent years? Well, apparently credit card companies didn’t get the memo. The average rate paid on a credit card is about the same today as it was seven years ago. This means that, relative to other interest rates, credit cards have become a more expensive form of debt.

Rates can be especially high if your credit history is less than perfect. Remember that when you shop for a credit card, they are probably going to advertise their very best rate. That is not the rate you are going to get unless you have excellent credit, so before signing up for a card, find out what rate they would offer someone with your credit history.

Overall, it is a mistake to think of banks as if they were all pretty much the same. There are over 6,000 FDIC-insured banks in the US, which means you have plenty of choices. How you exercise those choices makes the difference between enriching yourself or enriching your bank.

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If you have any questions for me, I encourage you to go ahead an ask. It’s great to hear from readers, whether it’s to ask a question or challenge me on my opinions. The link to contact me is unfortunately now buried at the very bottom of this website, or you can just click here to send me a message. For financial questions where anonymity might be important, particularly if you have a question about your personal situation and would like me to ask the readers, there is an option to send me a message without providing your personal information. This has come in handy with readers many times.

A question I received recently pertained to my savings accounts. Here it is, from reader Mike:

Do you still have an account with Capital One 360 and their 0.75% APY?

I ask this in a sarcastic manner. Having recently found your article from November 13, 2012 talking about how Capital One was at the time taking over ING Direct and that you did not see enough reason to close your account. Even though a savings account is for protection and not an investment I still find it hard to swallow that all Capital One and the other online savings account sites can only offer a pitiful 0.9% at most.

When I first opened an account at ING Direct, the interest rate was more than 4% APY. Those were good times, at least compared to the world of deposit accounts since the recession. I was earning those higher rates on a much smaller balance than I had at the bank later on, when rates all across the board tanked to below 1%.

Banks offer higher rates on savings accounts to attract customers. But with a facility to borrow money from the Federal Reserve at insanely low rates, close to zero, there’s no incentive to offer higher rates to average depositors like you and me. Experts who watch the Federal Reserve Board believe they may start raising rates, or at least hint at the possibility of raising rates sometime in the future, after the next meeting this month. It could be a long time before banks decide to offer rates on savings accounts that exceed the historical rate of inflation.

Savings is an important part of a household’s financial picture, regardless of the interest rate. Low rates make savings more painful.

Let’s get to my savings accounts, which were the real focus of the question. My last public financial statement was from December 2011 and didn’t include anything in my business accounts. The statement indicated I had $66,531 in savings, and almost all of this was in ING Direct (now Capital One 360) savings accounts. This was technically after the sale of my business (Consumerism Commentary), but I didn’t include any proceeds from the sale in my public balance sheets. But that ING Direct/Capital One 360 account remained roughly the same after the sale.

Since the time of that final balance sheet, I’ve occasionally withdrawn from the savings account, but it is still open. And, in fact, the $17,000 in my Capital One 360 account reflects nearly the totality of my cash savings; everything else is invested. I’ve left my investments alone for the most part, and have been living mostly on the income from the company that purchased Consumerism Commentary. But in order to make that work, I have to occasionally dip into my savings to assist. It’s a better choice than selling investments. Had I planned my taxes a little more carefully, and had I better anticipated what my tax bill would be with the change in investment income rates, I could have kept more cash ready to go, but it didn’t work out that way.

Capital One’s purchase of ING Direct and the resulting Capital One 360 brand have had no impact on the quality of the account. I am certain the interest rate would be the same regardless of the name of the company or the corporate owner.

My account at Capital One 360 has survived the Great Consolidation.

Over the last eleven years, I’ve opened savings accounts at dozens of banks to review the process and the experience of being a customer for readers. I don’t know of many other reviewers who have gone so far to review savings accounts; most reviewers take a look at the terms or the advertising copy and base their reviews on that. Since selling the site, I’ve had no need to continue opening savings accounts across the country and the internet. And I wouldn’t advise most people to have savings accounts at dozens of different banks. So I took some of my own advice and began closing accounts, moving cash to either Capital One 360 or Wells Fargo, the latter of which is where I still having my primary personal and business checking accounts.

That was the Great Consolidation. It took a few years, with the last account (American Express Personal Savings, currently offering 0.8% APY) closed a few weeks ago. Why close American Express when it’s five basis points higher than Capital One 360? It really doesn’t make a difference. Well, it makes a difference of $8.50 a year. Although, I wouldn’t like paying an $8.50 yearly fee for a savings account, the difference in interest earned isn’t that much of a big deal. I’m not chasing rates now — in fact, I never chased rates.

Considering it would take as much effort to close the Capital One 360 account as it would take to close the American Express Personal Savings account, there’s no reason I can give other than habit. I’ve had the Capital One 360 account longer (as ING Direct), and even though it’s no longer the hub for electronic transfers from dozens of other savings accounts, it has made its impression. And despite all the bad customer service stories from Capital One’s credit card division in previous years, none of the bad behavior seems to have leaked to Capital One 360.

I would prefer, however, to keep most of my cash where my investments are. My investments are almost all housed at Vanguard. The investment company offers a money market fund, but over the last few years, the returns haven’t been much better than online savings accounts. In fact, it’s been worse.

The point of the reader’s question seems to be about interest rates. Why stick with Capital One 360 when the rate has been lowered so much? Well, rates everywhere are down. The better options are not better by enough so that it makes too much of a difference. And if the other option is to invest in stocks or real estate rather than keep money in cash, you’re trading liquidity for the chance of income or appreciation, and adding risk on top of that. Savings and investing serve different purposes.

In short, the cash I have currently is almost all in a Capital One 360 account, the continuation of the ING Direct account I’ve had since July 29, 2002. (The Wells Fargo account is a continuation of the one I’ve had since 1993 or so.)

Where do you keep your savings? What’s your favorite savings account today?

If you have more questions for me, contact me now.

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According to a new survey, 63% of Millennials own no credit cards. For this poll, the Millennial generation is defined as those in the United States aged 18 to 29.

The survey, put together by BankRate, attempts to get to the root cause for the lack of penetration of credit cards among this younger demographic, despite the attempts to sell the idea of credit cards to this generation. These attempts mostly come from those older than Millennials. BankRate’s survey points out that each successively older age group is more likely to own multiple credit cards.

Instead of credit cards, Millennials prefer to use debit cards. Despite all the information that’s available that shows how debit cards are worse that credit cards for active use, credit cards aren’t gaining traction. Banks have also spent the last few years making debit cards more attractive by adding rewards and new consumer protections that approach the offerings of credit cards, yet they tend to fall a little short. And they still don’t provide the benefit of building a credit history, something older Millennials have already discovered as they’ve attempted to finance a car or house purchase with a loan or mortgage.

Millennials are tied economically to the recession. In the development of an adult, the age range currently associated with the Millennial generation is when world and political awareness sets in. For Millennials, this came at a time where the events of the world were defined by the economy. This period of maturity included the Great Recession, the credit crunch, significant penalties for the banking industry, new regulations, and banks behaving badly. It’s no surprise those who came to understand the world during this time are wary of banks and the products they push.

That doesn’t explain why credit cards are shunned while debit cards are praised. After all, debit cards are bank products, as well. There must be an element of distrust of debt, not just the banking industry. And that might come from the recession, too, as Millennials saw their older relatives and friends struggle with debt.

On top of this, there are quite a few loud voices in the media who prefer debit cards over credit cards, and even though the reasoning they preach is often faulty, the message contains an aspect of contrarianism that Millennials, as a group, seem to like.

The survey is missing something obvious. The use of credit cards among different age groups isn’t a comparison that makes a lot of sense. We shouldn’t be comparing the 18 to 29 year-olds with today’s older generations. These can be interesting data, but it can’t be used to prove any hypothesis that might be suggested by the survey other than “younger people use and own credit cards less than older people.” The better comparison would be between the use of credit cards among Millennials today and the use of credit cards among other generations when they were the age of today’s Millennials.

That would result in some clearer conclusions. We do know that Millennials today are often entering the workforce with higher student debt loads than any other previous generation. That could be a reason Millennials are wary of anything that has the potential to increase debt, as credit cards might. Debit cards are marketed much more heavily today. They didn’t even exist when some older generations were as young as today’s Millennials. Some of these facts should be considered when trying to determine why Millennials don’t carry credit cards.

In general, as one gets older, one progresses in one’s career and builds more wealth. With more wealth, people will grow more comfortable using financial tools like credit cards. I would be surprised if the situation with Millennials today is much different than the situation with Generation X, twenty years ago. In the 1990s, Generation X was coming of the age where awareness of politics and the world kicks in. There was a recession in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

This is from an article from the Los Angeles Times in 1995:

By graduation, [Michael Puccini from Chapman University] had a wallet full of plastic and was $3,000 in the hole. Plus he owed $13,000 in student loans. Overwhelmed, he moved back home after a tearful phone conversation with his father.

“I had a lot of fun with credit,” says Puccini, 30, who has found work in Los Angeles as a public relations agent. “But I’m really paying for it. It’s kept me from doing a lot of things.”

More than any other generation before them, today’s young adults are emerging from school and beginning their careers weighed down by a heavy burden of debt. And fresh data suggest this burden is growing. A Southern Californian’s average credit card balance increased 20% from 1993 to 1995, according to the market research firm Claritas Inc. But for those in their 20s, the balance jumped 70%, to $2,159 as of Sept. 30.

These numbers may look small compared to what surveys throw around today, but debt at this level was a significant burden at the time. Generation X hasn’t truly recovered, and are not poised to be able to live in retirement the way investing firms advertise and the way many among the generation prior to the Baby Boomers, the Silent Generation, often appears to be able to afford. Generation X clearly took advantage of credit cards as they were marketed to them, and it may have been to their detriment.

Yes, the use of credit cards did allow Generation X to spur one of the greatest runs in the real estate industry by buying town houses, condominiums, and single family homes before they were able to afford it, but Millennials may see the struggle of Generation X today and be familiar with stories of the struggles of Generation X in the early 1990s. If they are, it would make sense that Millennials would try to avoid these problems by avoiding credit cards.

Millennials are also the most educated, in terms of college matriculation and advanced degrees, so there might be some truth to the idea that Millennials, as a group, believe they are smarter and more aware of the world than earlier generations — or at least, they might believe they are smarter today than other generations were when they were in the 18 to 29 age group. And thus, Millennials could feel comfortable keeping their approach to finances different than those who have come before.

I never like to generalize attitudes across large swaths of Americans, but there are definitely measurable trends, even if one can always find anecdotes that contradict those trends.

Should Millennials get with the program and start using credit cards instead of debit cards? I want to say yes. Credit cards are simply better products for consumers. But it’s not that simple. The same BankRate survey shows that when Millennials do use credit cards, they don’t pay the bills in full ever month. Only 40% do, compared to a larger percentage of older age groups. Again, this should be obvious; Millennials haven’t yet built the financial independence or stability through their careers that older people have built. So there’s a lot more Millennials need to do to take control of their finances besides just switching from a debit card to a credit card.

On the other hand, Millennials are in a position to change the way other Millennials relate to their finances. This has already started. Millennials — or in some cases Generation X representative who seem to be in tune with the needs and desires of Millennials — are changing the financial industry. Generation X put the banks online, but Millennials are inventing new ways to bank. Crowdfunding, person-to-person lending, mobile payments, financial advisory without human advisors, and other new technologies will shape how Millennials deal with their finances. If Millennials want to stick with debit cards rather than credit cards, in time, debit cards or some other technology will grow to contain all the features necessary to most benefit the consumers.

It might take some time, but I trust the Millennials to figure it out. If something doesn’t work to the changing needs of a generation as it gets older, that generation will change the industry. It has already begun to happen.

Here’s a story about that recent study about Millennials.

By the way, I found Michael Puccini, the Generation X representative featured in that 1995 Los Angeles Times article. He’s now a freelance writer and publicist, after a career in media publicity.

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Wells Fargo Improving Transaction Posting Order

by Luke Landes
Wells Fargo

Banks typically look for every possible instance to charge customers to fees. That’s why it’s particularly important to stay aware of your bank account balances. With the increasing popularity of automatic payments (outgoing) or automatic withdrawals (pulls), a poorly timed deposit can result in overdraft fees or insufficient funds (NSF) fees. A few years ago, ... Continue reading this article…

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How to Close Your Wells Fargo Savings or Checking Account

by Luke Landes
Wells Fargo

Two years ago, Wells Fargo changed its customer agreement, taking away the rights of customers to resolve disputes with the bank through the typical legal process afforded citizens of the United States. Current Wells Fargo customers tacitly or knowingly agreed to sign away these rights in favor of an arbitration system that favors wealthy corporations. ... Continue reading this article…

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Should the US Postal Service Offer Basic Financial Services?

by Luke Landes
Post Office basic financial services

The U.S. Postal Service could offer basic banking services to customers, many of whom do not have reliable and affordable access to mainstream banking products like savings accounts and forms of credit. From the moment I heard this, it sounded like a bad idea. Not long ago, discussions about the U.S. Postal Service focused on ... Continue reading this article…

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MONEY’s Best Banks in America 2013

by Luke Landes
MONEY's Best Banks in America 2013

The MONEY magazine published its annual analysis of the best banks in America, and I count at least one surprise among the list of 15 categories. Just last month, personal finance bloggers voted on their favorite banks in the Fourth Annual Plutus Awards, and came up with a list with some notable differences, although the ... Continue reading this article…

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Money Systems That Lead to Success: Automatic Savings

by Luke Landes
Make Savings Automatic

Last month, I wrote about the opinions of Scott Adams on his eventual success as the creator of the comic strip Dilbert. I focused on the failure aspect of the article he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, and I only touched lightly on the success factors. A system, a methodical way of approaching any ... Continue reading this article…

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Received a Postcard From Bank of America But No Check?

by Luke Landes
Bank of America Class Action Lawsuits

If you’ve received a postcard from Bank of America informing you that you should expect to receive a check as part of the overdraft lawsuit, but you haven’t received a check, you may be wondering what you can do. Consumerism Commentary receives many questions about these checks because I’ve written about them and the lawsuit ... Continue reading this article…

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The Occupy Debit Card

by Luke Landes
Occupy Banks

Can an organization offer mainstream financial products while being ideologically opposed to the mainstream financial industry? That’s the question I began considering when I first heard that the Occupy Wall Street movement was in the process of developing a prepaid debit card product. The Occupy Debit Card is still just a concept, but if the ... Continue reading this article…

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GE Capital Bank Online Savings Account: I Was Declined

by Luke Landes
GE Capital Bank

This article started as a regular review of an online savings account. I’ve written many of these for Consumerism Commentary over the years, and I’ve always followed a similar process: I open a new account in my own name, naturally, I link the account to an existing account of mine, I transfer money into the ... Continue reading this article…

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PerkStreet’s Closing Signals Danger for Rewards Debit Cards

by Luke Landes
PerkStreet Closing

If you have been a customer of PerkStreet, you joined to take advantage of the company’s debit card rewards program, and had accrued rewards as of August 12, you just got screwed, to put it bluntly. PerkStreet is closing, the company canceled their rewards program, and the company will not be paying out any accumulated ... Continue reading this article…

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Capital One 360 Customer Service: Unsolved Issue With Customer’s Mortgage

by Luke Landes
Capital One 360

When Capital One purchased ING Direct and ultimately rebranded the bank as “Capital One 360,” long-time customers of the online bank asked the same questions. Would Capital One continue ING Direct’s tradition of competitive rates and excellent customer service? Not everyone’s experience with ING Direct has been perfect, but overall, the bank was as beloved ... Continue reading this article…

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Debit Card Swipe Fees Could Shrink, But Will Banks Punish Consumers?

by Luke Landes
Debit card swipe fees

It’s the lobby of retailers versus the lobby of retail banks. Retailers claimed a small victory recently when a U.S. District Court struck down a rule that capped debit card swipe fees at about $0.24 a transaction. The original cap proposed by the Federal Reserve was $0.12 but as the Federal Reserve operates more for ... Continue reading this article…

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Many Low-Income Families Can’t Use Mainstream Banking Even If They Wanted

by Luke Landes
Bank

I’ve written previously about many different reasons households, particularly those in locations where families typically have low incomes and those in areas where certain minorities constitute a majority of households, are more likely to take advantage of the high-cost alternative banking system including payday loans and check-cashing storefronts. For example, traditional banks find it difficult ... Continue reading this article…

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PNC Offers Videos and Interaction With Financial Advice

by Luke Landes
PNC Achievement Sessions

Last week, I criticized the McDonald’s corporation for producing a website and a toolkit, aimed at their employees, designed to help those employees tackle the financial obstacles they are most likely to face. My first point was that financial literacy education hasn’t been proven to help the most needy, and in some studies, has been ... Continue reading this article…

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Capital One 360 Independence Day Sale

by Luke Landes
Capital One 360 Account Overview

Capital One 360, the online bank formerly known as ING Direct, is offering special deals for new customers. I’m a long-time customer, and I opened my account when ING Direct was offering one of the best interest rates available among online savings accounts. The interest rate, like all interest rates, has shrunk over the course ... Continue reading this article…

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Prepaid Debit Cards Are Riskier Than Checking Accounts

by Luke Landes

Thanks to heavy marketing campaigns, including endorsements and partnerships with everyone from Russell Simmons to Kim Kardashian to Suze Orman (it’s hip! it’s popular! it’s financially smart!), use of prepaid debit cards has surged. Prepaid debit cards were once a fringe financial product. They were intended to be used by people who have a communal ... Continue reading this article…

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Damage Control: Taking an Unwarranted Vacation (From My Finances)

by Luke Landes
San Francisco

This week should have been a vacation. It has been, for the most part, but not entirely. While I’ve traveled occasionally over the past few years, and even chosen destinations meant for relaxation and time alone with loved ones, I haven’t had one of those fabled true vacations. My cell phone was still near by. ... Continue reading this article…

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