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

May 2009

Kerry K. Taylor, author of 397 Ways to Save Money and creator of financial blog Squawkfox joins Tom Dziubek today to discuss her book, currently available from Amazon.ca. Kerry explains how she paid off $17,000 of debt in six months and how to make drastic life changes. She also shares some of her favorite tips from 397 Ways to Save Money.

Banking Deal: Earn 1.30% APY on an FDIC-insured savings account at Synchrony Bank.

To listen, use the player above (Adobe Flash required), download the podcast here, subscribe to the podcast RSS feed, or use the iTunes link. Note: open links in a new window (Ctrl-click or Command-click) to avoid interrupting the podcast.

[00:00] Introduction from Flexo
[00:39] Interview with Kerry K. Taylor of Squawkfox
[01:33] — Paying off $17,000 of debt in six months
[03:34] — Negotiating your first salary offer
[04:47] — Maintaining a student lifestyle and standard of living
[05:57] — Using any available tax credits and saving for retirement
[08:18] — Moving to an organic farm and making other drastic life changes
[11:36]397 Ways to Save Money
[13:55] — How renting an apartment can make you rich
[17:00] — How management fees deplete returns from your investments
[18:07] — Other surprising tips from 397 Ways to Save Money
[19:06] — Is the recent popularity of frugality just a fad?
[25:20] End

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I’ve banked with Ally Bank for years, opening both a savings account and CD. In this Ally Bank review, we’ll look at rates, fees and account types.

Ally Bank Review

Just over ten years ago, General Motors was having trouble remaining in business. Its subsidiary that provided customers financing for automotive purchases, GMAC, converted to a bank holding company. The goal was to take advantage of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

In return, it received $5 billion from taxpayers through the government. By this time, GMAC Bank, a division of GMAC, already offered retail banking. Its products included savings accounts, certificates of deposit, and money market accounts.

In an attempt to distance itself from the faltering GM brand, GMAC Bank re-branded itself as Ally Bank. It focused on offering a high-yield interest product. And it began actively seeking new customers and depositors. Later, the bank’s parent company, GMAC, also re-branded itself to become known as Ally Financial. Today, Ally Bank offers some of the most competitive banking products around.

Opening an Account with Ally Bank

Here are my experiences from the Ally Bank account opening process. As I visited the website to begin my application, Ally Bank warned me that I would need my driver’s license (or an alternate state or military identification number) in addition to my Social Security Number to proceed.

Like some other banks, Ally performs a credit check to verify identity. But they may also reject your application if they see you as a credit risk. However, getting rejected because of your credit history is unusual. But since this bank was once a financing company and then a bank holding company, this strategy may become more prevalent.

It look less than two seconds once I submitted my application for Ally Bank to inform me my application was approved. Once inside this virtual gate, I was able to choose whether I wanted to receive paper or electronic statements. I always choose electronic to cut down on paper waste. I wish more services would offer this option from the beginning.

Here’s another great feature: I can create as many separate savings accounts, with their own account names and numbers, as I want. At this point in the initial set-up, I could also add money market accounts and certificates of deposit.

I set up two separate savings accounts, both to be funded electronically from my Citizens Bank checking account. Like configuring linked accounts at any other bank, I will be required to verify two small deposits to ensure I am the owner of the linked account. Options for a one-time initial deposit or a recurring automatic savings plan are available.

Ally Bank then required me to create my security settings for viewing my account information and activity online. The bank has combined most of the security features that have become commonplace over the past few years. I created a username and a strong password, including mixed case letters and numbers.

Then I selected some secret code words and an image I can expect to see each time I log in. I also chose three security questions and answers. Ally provides the option to register the computer you use for accessing the website. This avoids repeated security questions at each online session.

If Ally Bank does not recognize the computer you are using to log into your account, they will send you an email with a single-use password to further confirm your identity. I have not seen this feature implemented anywhere else.

Using the Ally Bank Savings Account

Once logged in, I was impressed with the clean look of the interface.

You can transfer among your Ally accounts and two and from other accounts for free. But keep in mind, for money market and savings accounts there is a limit of six withdrawals per period, due to government regulations.

Ally Bank charges no account maintenance fees and requires no minimum balance. If you exceed the six withdrawals mentioned above, Ally will charge a $10 fee. Cashier’s checks and wires carry an additional cost. A returned deposit item, if a check you send bounces or if you don’t have funds in an external account to cover a transfer, will cost $25.00

The bank is also drawing attention to their 24-hour customer service availability and the plain language used throughout their website. I have not yet worked with Ally’s customer service, but I will be sure to report any future frustrations.

Ally Bank Products

High Yield Savings–This is the best product Ally has to offer in my opinion. The current APY is a robust 1.20%. Ally routinely ranks in the top 1% of all banks in terms of two very important factors: interest rate and customer service.

Interest Checking–It’s not easy to find a high yield online checking account these days. Ally tries their best, God bless ’em. For balances less than $15,000, Ally offers a 0.10% APY. And for balances greater than $15,000, the APY is a much more respectable 0.60%. Either way, Ally charges no monthly maintenance fees, which is rare today when looking for a high quality checking account.

CD’s–If you don’t mind losing a little liquidity for a higher interest rate, a CD is a great option for better returns. Ally has a wide variety of CD options, including high yield CD’s, a raise your rate CD, and a no penalty CD. The no penalty CD is perhaps their best offer, providing a 1.50% APY on balances of more than $25,000.

Money Market–Money Markets have always puzzled me. You see the interest rates above for CD’s and checking. And then you check the Ally Money Market account, and it earns a 0.90% APY on all balances. What would possess someone to open a money market account vs. a savings account? The Ally Money Market account does provide a debit card and the use of checks if needed. But you’re sacrificing a lot of interest for a touch of convenience.

Ally Invest–Ally recently purchased the online discount broker TradeKing and absorbed its business. Now, you can not only open a deposit account, but an investing account with Ally Bank. Trades are charged at a flat rate of $4.95, and options contracts run you $0.65 per.

Is Ally an Ally of Your Personal Finances?

ally1

Opening my account with Ally Bank was painless and quick, and I like how the website operates so far. After my initial deposit transfers, I will have a better idea of how quickly funds are available and can be transferred back to external accounts. I will return with more information at that time.

The main question I have moving forward is how long Ally Bank will be able to maintain their position as one of the highest among high-yield savings accounts. Banks have long used high interest rates to lure new customers, only to drop the rates when they become confident in their position as leader.

The American Bankers Association (ABA) sent a letter on May 27, 2009 to the FDIC requesting that Ally Bank be forced to lower their deposit interest rates, citing the bank’s unfair competitive advantage. It is unfortunate that the ABA would take this stance with savers forced to settle for interest rates that will not reach the rate of inflation going forward. The ABA has since removed the letter from the organization’s website, and I would suspect top tier interest rates so long as Ally is in business.

If you are interested, apply for an Ally Bank savings account here and let me know about your experience by commenting below.

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Well, I sold my first stock. I agonized over when would be the right time, but then I just pulled the trigger, anyway.

Earlier this year, I started using the “free money” I was getting from this credit card to buy some stocks.

In March, we paid our tax bill of over $3,300 using that card, so the 2% rewards were higher than normal. I asked a friend of mine who knows a lot more about the stock market than me what stocks were catching her eye, and on her unofficial recommendation I bought 60 shares of CAR, the Avis car rental people.

That was April 17th. The stock price was $1.50. With a $9.95 commission at Sharebuilder, I ended up “spending” a total of $99.95.

And then I watched as the stock price just rose and rose and rose.

Avis stock performance since Apr 17th

On about May 20th I started wondering if I should sell my proceeds. We’ve had rather more pet problems than usual and I was a little worried that our upcoming vacation might suffer as a result. The “overall return” on that investment, according to Google Finance, was hovering around 200%, which is a heck of a lot more than the 7 to 9% we’re taught to expect from long-term investments.

So I sold it on May 27th. I was a bit alarmed to see that there was yet another commission of $9.95. To me, that’s like paying a toll over a bridge going in each direction.

Stock proceeds: $282.24
Minus original investment of $99.95: $182.29

Now, if I’m reading this Capital Gains Tax table correctly, we’re going to be hit with a 25% of the “cost basis” come next April. If the cost basis is the amount I spent on the investment, that’d be the $99.95 number again, which means a tax of about $25.

Profit minus upcoming tax: $157.29

So I spent $99.95 and got $157.29, a real profit of 157%. Not the nearly 200% that Google Finance was teasing me with, but not shabby, either.

The other way to look at it is that since the $99.95 was free money in the first place, I made a profit of infinity dollars.

More importantly, when we take our vacation next month, we’ll have $157 that we otherwise wouldn’t have had. That’s one fancy dinner with some very good wine. I’m looking forward to it.

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Chase is offering a $100 bonus if you open a checking account by July 7, 2009. There is no maintenance fee with this checking account as long as you activate a direct deposit or use your debit card for purchases five times each statement period. There is no minimum balance requirement, but an initial deposit of $100 within sixty days is required to qualify for the bonus.

If you live near a Chase branch, you can take this code with you when you open your account. Otherwise, you can open your account online at Chase’s website.

Banking Deal: Earn 1.30% APY on an FDIC-insured savings account at Synchrony Bank.

Generate your own $100 Chase Checking coupon here. (Expires September 30, 2010.)

In addition to the Chase $100 Checking Account bonus, Chase is also offering a $100 cash back bonus on their Chase Freedom® Visa – $150 Bonus Cash Back.

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Your House Is Not a Good Investment

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The latest data show again that you shouldn’t expect to make more money from buying and selling the house you live in than you would from investing in stocks. In fact, you could do better with government-issued inflation-protected bonds. This isn’t just a result of the recent decline in home prices, 19 percent over the past […]

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How Much of Your Portfolio Should Be in Stocks When You Enter Retirement?

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March 9, 2009 was a bad day to retire. On that day, the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit its bottom of 6,547, a low not seen since 1997. If you followed mass-market retirement investing advice, you may have entered retirement with a portfolio 100 percent invested in a stock market index, like the S&P 500, whose […]

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Un-broke TV Special on Friday, May 29th

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I’ve often written here about the disappointing lack of financial education in schools, and it’s this same dearth of vital information that has apparently led to a new special airing on ABC this Friday: Schools teach us almost everything, but not “Money 101.” For the basics on finance, turn to UN-BROKE: What You Need to […]

5 comments Read the full article →

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It is human nature to search for Truths that describe the world we live in. This is one reason why personal finance gurus are so popular amongst a group of individuals that listens. Many of the more popular authors, seminar leaders, and cult favorites stick by their mantras, Grand Unifying Theories, such as “credit cards […]

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Podcast 5: Pursuing Your Passion and a Dual-Income Budget

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Today’s podcast features an interview with J.D. Roth from popular blog Get Rich Slowly. J.D. talks with Tom Dziubek and me about how he was inspired to begin writing about personal finance and his decision to leave the corporate world behind and take his passion to the next level. Tom also speaks with Bryan J […]

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Movies Are New Again With Fan-Made Commentaries

by Smithee

When DVDs (and before them, Laserdiscs) were new, I really used to enjoy listening to the commentary tracks. Granted, some were better than others, but I couldn’t seem to get enough of the “behind the scenes” talk, and to hear the cast and crew telling funny stories about each other. Those don’t interest me as […]

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