Would You Like $50 for Doing Almost Nothing?

$50 could buy you an unlimited shrimp dinner at Outback Steakhouse for a pair of gluttons like my friend and I if you time it right. Bonus points if your friend says everything in an awesomely obnoxious Australian accent the entire time!

My most faithful readers may have noticed that last week, I missed the Friday post in the Monday, Wednesday, Friday pattern I’ve been following for a while now. This was one of the results of a little adventure I had while on a trip to the oil country. I plan to write a post about that trip next week because I think there were some worthwhile things to mention about it. But for now, just know that I wound up spending an extra night in a hotel room there. For some reason, I decided to read through some emails and for a less mysterious reason, I decided to act on one of them.

Not too long ago, I wrote about my new SoFi checking account. I’m happy to report that it has been a great experience so far. I haven’t been charged any fees (not even for checks, which most banks do charge for now), the bill pay functionality has worked smoothly, transfers to other accounts have been likewise, and I’ve been paid 2.25% interest on the money I’ve run through the account. So I’m very happy. But like any company that truly finds a place in my heart, that wasn’t good enough for the people at SoFi. So they found a way to put a little more money in my pocket and emailed me their idea. And on a scorching evening in a west Texas hotel room, I read that email.

Simply put, SoFi will pay me $50 for everyone I refer to them who starts a checking account. But they didn’t just give me an incentive; they wanted to welcome new customers into the SoFi family in style. And they’re going to do that by depositing $50 into the new accounts of everyone I refer to SoFi who starts one. That’s right folks, everybody wins! And it gets better. Once you’ve gotten your free $50, you can turn around and make $50 more for everyone you sign up. This means that anyone with a spouse or significant other who also likes free money has just been handed $150…or more! You can multiply that $50 times as many friends as you have who are interested in having a free $50 of their own.

Up to this point, I have written this blog for zero compensation. No advertising, no referral links, nothing. Simply put, income is not my goal in doing this. That said, if you have enjoyed reading my blog to such an extent that you’d like to toss a little cash my way as a thank you, make a little for yourself in the process, and try out a checking account that comes recommended by someone who has had them at literally dozens of different banks, feel free to use this link – which will do all of those things. If not, I will probably still manage to survive and will definitely keep writing this blog as long as I continue to enjoy doing so. And either way, I wish you a wonderful Wednesday!

P.S. As an extra little bonus, if you click the link above, you will learn what the B in B. Money stands for.

This Is What I Do When Conditions Change and I Start to (Gasp!) Lose Money

Can’t be getting paid subpar interest rates on savings if you want to visit the Texas themed lazy river cause there’s no way in hell admission is cheap! Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

Recently I was taking my routine, virtual stroll through all of my financial accounts when I noticed something funny – and I most certainly don’t mean “ha ha funny”. My CIT savings account was only returning 2.4% APY. That’s odd, I thought. I’m almost sure that had been at 2.45. I did a little checking and sure enough, I was right. Now I don’t want to miscommunicate here; I understand why this happened and I don’t blame CIT Bank for it. Our long overdue recession has started and not only have rates stopped rising, but they’re actually already coming down slightly. Futures traders have even priced in one to two decreases by the FED by the end of the year. So I’m far from the only one making this call and it doesn’t surprise me in the least to see CIT Bank, a for profit business, doing what management feels needs to be done to protect the bottom line in changing conditions.

That said, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. When conditions change, I also re-evaluate what I’m doing to make sure it still makes sense. Here’s a recent example in case you think I’m making this up. So I spent a half hour or so on good ol’ Doctor of Credit doing a little research. It turns out that currently, the highest rate on online savings accounts that don’t require absurd shenanigans like 10+ debit card (yes, people apparently actually use the things; but they shouldn’t) transactions per month is currently 2.51%. However, interest rate isn’t the only consideration. Many bank accounts also pay bonuses up front, which can quickly shift the balance when we’re talking about such low numbers. After all, in the grand scheme of things, 2.51% is still an awful return on investment, even if I do feel that cash is king in current circumstances.

So ultimately, and somewhat coincidentally, I decided not to move my savings account money very far, at least from an alphabetical perspective. I’m moving it from CIT Bank to Citi Bank. Citi’s online savings account pays 2.36%, even less than the 2.4% that started this whole conundrum in the first place. However, by performing a little financial gymnastics, which basically just involves making sure I stay within the rules of the promotion, I can also get it to pay me a $400 bonus for keeping $15k in the account for sixty days – more than the CIT account would have paid on that amount in an entire year! And meanwhile, I’m collecting the 2.36%, virtually the same rate as CIT was paying, on top of it.

How does the math work out on this? With $15k in the CIT account, I would have made $364 in interest over twelve months. But with that same $15k in the Citi account, I will make $459…in two months! If left in the account for the same twelve months as the CIT Bank account for the purposes of making an apples to apples comparison, that figure becomes $758. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call a win. The only downside here is that unlike credit card reward money, bank account bonuses are taxable income. But that’s more about credit card reward money being in an extremely privileged class of its own than it is about this being a bad deal; almost any income under the sun is taxable – even income that isn’t income at all in some cases (Ever hear of imputed interest? Look it up. It’s disgusting!).

The way I see it, there are two lessons here. One is that you should be regularly evaluating your available options, particularly when something changes with your current one. I preach that all day long. But the second lesson is one I need to be taking to heart myself going forward. Given our current economic circumstances, I’m not compromising on holding as much cash as possible until further notice. But with available interest rates on cash being as pathetic as they are, and with sign up bonuses being as large and plentiful, it could very well be worthwhile to move savings account money around two or three times a year. For example, if there were three options as good as the Citi bonus available (I don’t believe there are; but there are others that are close and again, conditions are always changing), I could make over $1500 in a year on $15k of cash – a damn good return considering it’s 100% risk free. Yes, it would be a little bit of work, but with emphasis on the “little” part. When all is said and done, I will have less than an hour into this little project. Would the extra $1200+ over and above what the CIT Bank account would have paid without any bonuses be worth three hours of my time? You bet your sweet ass it would! I do pretty well for myself (for now…) but I don’t make anywhere near $400 an hour…yet.

Good day to you all!

My 50th Post Spectacular (Yes, That is a Play on the Title of a Simpsons Episode – Yes, From Back When the Show Was Still Worth Watching)

No, I’m not sure how this relates to the post. But it does strike me as one of those cool “only in Houston” sights and since I haven’t found an occasion to use it yet, I’m using it now.

With this post we’ve reached a milestone on Health, Wealth, Power. By my count, this is post number 50. So far, readership has been going up steadily and that has been very exciting. To those of you who have been coming here for a while, I’m glad to have you along on this journey. To anyone who has started reading more recently, welcome. Today I want to highlight both some of my most viewed posts and some of my favorites that haven’t been seen as much – in many cases because I posted them before many people were reading the blog at all. Thank you to everyone for reading and here’s to the next 50 posts (and many more) to come!

Most Viewed

How Do You Respond When Your World Comes Crashing Down (Again)?

A window into my raw thought process on a recent night when I got some seemingly devastating news about my career. I wrote this almost immediately when I got home so I would have a good record of my immediate reaction to look back at later. I’m still in the midst of dealing with this situation but I have a very exciting recent development that I’ll be sharing soon.

Bank Account Basics

A basic guide to how I use bank accounts to maximize income, minimize risk, and pay zero fees in the process

The Importance of Outlook – How I Still Struggle with the Scarcity Mentality of My Past

A discussion of how even though I am more financially fortunate than 99% of the world, I still haven’t been able to completely adopt that mindset over that of my much more difficult financial past

A Happy Night of Insomnia

This is one of my personal favorite posts so far. It is a nostalgic look at the way the most difficult event of my life so far has spawned so many wonderful changes. While I and my life will never be quite the same as before it happened again, that is mostly a good thing.

My New Diet Experiment

In this post I talked about time restricted eating and how I planned to implement what I had learned about it. It has been a very positive change for me and I wrote about that in a follow up post – Time Restricted Eating Update: There is Definitely Something to This!

My Favorites

The Most Important Investment

Health and fitness is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. Medical science is keeping people alive longer and longer today. But what is it worth? My argument is that we’ve long since passed the point where quality is much more important (and elusive in many cases) than quantity. This post is my attempt to lay out the basics for anyone who feels similarly and wants to do something about it.

The Opportunities in Life’s Challenges

I’ve written a number of posts on this theme now – the value of finding the positives in situations that don’t seem very positive at face value. But this was one of the first. As someone who has put a ton of work into thinking more positively and seen firsthand how dramatically that mentality shift can change life in often unexpected ways, it is very important to me to share my experiences in this area.

Today I’m Going to Challenge You

I wrote this post for people who struggle with depression or have in the past. It’s not comprehensive and I’m no mental health professional, but it’s a discussion of some tactics and information that have helped me in the past when the weight of the world seemed to be crushing me with no sign of relief. If it helps one person, it was worth far more than the time it took to write it.

The Internet Game and How You Can Win It

I’m trying to be less of a bastard in life. But I do tend to temporarily suspend that effort when it comes to fighting back against what I view as unethical tactics. In this post, I illustrate how I’ve been mostly successful at keeping the shenanigans of those damn ISPs from succeeding in robbing me blind.

How to Spend a Fraction of What Most People Do On Electronics Without Having to Sacrifice Much

Simply put, the methods I described in this post have saved me five figures by this point in my life. One of the many benefits of living in the richest country in the history of the world, particularly at a time when technological advancement has been unprecedented as well, is that extremely marginal compromises can result in enormous savings. There is an almost constant chorus in the media about the retirement crisis in the United States. That means that for most of us, there is no excuse for not taking advantage of opportunities like this to get so much in return for so little.

How I Occasionally Get Over Half the Cost of My Hotel Stays Back in Cash Equivalent Rewards and Why Choice Hotels is the Hotel Brand I Love to Hate (Hint: the two are related)

I try to see something interesting on every trip; in this case, Texan hero Sam Houston looks solemnly out over the highway.

Hotels offer a wonderful opportunity to make some extra money when traveling for work, and mind you none of the windfall is taxable. I personally use Marriott and Choice. My colleagues (yes, even the boss, who approves my expense reports and would seem to have reason to prefer smaller numbers) mock me mercilessly for “slumming” when it comes to my hotel preferences. But I come from a humble background and to me, it’s really not a huge sacrifice. Why those two chains? Marriott properties are where I most prefer to stay (not too fancy/expensive, but also not too “questionable,” as long as you avoid certain older properties) and the rewards program is decent. So if I’m going to pay for a hotel stay on vacation with points, Marriott is a good, solid option. Choice, on the other hand, has a rewards program that makes it number one for people who want to get PAID – during two parts of the year in particular. And if you travel to the same areas regularly, you figure out pretty quickly which of their properties are fine and which are better avoided, so that aspect of things becomes less of an issue.

The key with Choice is learning the ins and outs of the rewards program. It is clearly designed to offer a lot of potential value while quietly screwing as many people as possible out of much of it. But once you know what you’re doing, it’s pretty easy to deal with. First I’m going to show you just how valuable the program can be. Then I will discuss the pitfalls and how to avoid them. The two parts of the year when I “choose” Choice (sorry) are when two specific promotions are running. Otherwise, I’m at Marriott for the better overall hotel experience.

Right now, Choice is running its “stay two times, get a free night” promotion. It’s not quite as great as it sounds, but it’s close. A typical one night stay (more on the significance of this wording later) will get you about 1000 points (roughly $100 x 10 points per dollar). But during this promotion, two of those 1000 point nights will get you a serious bonus. It gets a little strange here since supposedly you will get 8000 points total but in reality, you get a little more and there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to exactly how many. But regardless, you get a minimum of 8000 points for two stays. Now to be fair, that will only get you a night at a select few Choice properties but that’s irrelevant to me because that isn’t how I use the points. I use them to buy Amazon gift cards, which are effectively cash equivalents. And the cost of a $50 Amazon gift card is 16,000 points. Are you one of the eight people who don’t use Amazon? No problem. There are tons of other gift card options as well and I believe they’re all priced the same.

The opposite promotion is twice as good. You still get 8000 points minimum for two one night stays but in addition, some of the gift cards, including Amazon, are discounted to half price – meaning you get a $50 gift card for every other night you stay. The catch here is that the discount only lasts while the promotion is running and if I remember correctly, there is a delay of 48 hours between gift card orders. So you have to stay on top of it or you will get screwed out of some of your bonus. But this can be an incredible moneymaker. Back when I was spending a few nights on the road in a typical week, I was making easily $500+ in Amazon gift cards during the approximately two months a year this promotion ran.

This pair of promotions represents the bulk of the opportunity, but I’m all about maximizing. You can make about an extra $2-10 per stay if you use ebates (www.ebates.com), depending on how much Choice is offering when you make your reservation. On my last stay, it was 10%! Usually it’s at least 2%. Another thing that is easy to overlook is the “Extras” portion. I use it to collect an additional $2.50 Amazon gift card for every stay. There are other “Extras” options but this one is the easiest for me to monetize. Finally, if you use a proper rewards credit card to pay for your stay, you will get even more cash back. I use the Wells Fargo Propel Amex to get 3%. All of these are small on their own but together, they add up to almost $10 per stay (or significantly more depending on the current ebates rate). And other than the $2.50 Amazon gift card, you can also use them at Marriott or most other major hotel chains.

What does this all look like in practice? This week I stayed a night under the “stay two times, get a free night” promotion. For the sake of simplicity, I will round the cost to $100, which is usually pretty close anyway. For my one night stay, I got: $12.50 in the form of enough points to buy a quarter of a $50 Amazon gift card, $10 through ebates, $3 through my Wells Fargo Propel credit card, and an additional $2.50 Amazon gift card through “Extras.” So in total, my $100 stay paid me back $28. If you factor in the vomit inducing amount of taxes I pay on every dollar of earned income, and will not have to pay on this since it falls under that magical “purchase rebate” category, that $28 becomes almost $40. And if this stay had instead been during the opposite promotion, I would have earned half an Amazon gift card instead of a quarter, bringing the total haul to nearly a whopping $60 with taxes factored in!   

How can you keep the clever bastards in Choice’s c-suite from conning you out of your rewards? First, you obviously have to register for a rewards account. But it’s not that simple. The two promotions above require a separate registration each time they run. So when I make any hotel reservation, I always start with the Choice site to make sure one of these promotions isn’t running. If it is, I immediately register and then use only Choice hotels for the duration. Another way they can get you is the difference between “night” and “stay.” The promotions are for “stays,” meaning that if you stay multiple consecutive nights, you have just made a terrible mistake because your multiple nights are only getting you credit for one half of the two “stays” required to earn the bonus (when multiple nights would already have earned you the bonus once and potentially more times, depending on how many there were). I believe the extras (the $2.50 Amazon gift card in my case) run the same way. So make sure you never stay two nights in a row in the same Choice hotel unless you’re ok with halving most of your payoff – and if you’re anything like me, the payoff is the only reason you’re there in the first place.

I will note that as a guy who has been to the top tier of Choice’s rewards level and well beyond, there is very little benefit to doing so. You get some bonus points on top of your regular 1000 but nothing else of value. And for me, that isn’t enough to get my business over a superior Marriott option, which is typically priced only a little bit higher. The money is made with the two major bonus promotions. There are a couple of other promotions throughout the year (for example, one doubles the points you earn from a stay) but there again, they aren’t enough to move the needle for me.

There you have it. You now have the tools to make some serious money off of your hotel stays, especially at Choice properties. Stay tuned because I’m going to post about other ways to put your travel job to work making extra money for you – and no, it’s not anything illegal or underhanded. Happy system gaming and have a great afternoon!

The New Checking Account That Will Pay Me $67.50 a Year for a One Time Investment of Ten Minutes

Disclaimer: I am not selling anything, doing affiliate marketing, or any other shenanigans. In no way will I make any money if anyone follows my lead and signs up for the account I describe in this post.

I went into more details on this previously, but for a while now, I have mainly kept my cash in a combination of a credit union checking account and an online savings account. First, it would flow into the checking account from my paychecks and various other sources. I was paid 7.5% on the first $500 in the account and .2% on the rest. Each month, I would pay my bills, transfer some to investments, transfer some to my online savings account, and leave a few thousand in checking. The online savings account paid me a better rate than the .2% I would otherwise have been paid on the balance above $500 left in the checking account and of course the investments paid significantly more (at least most of the time). Today, that online savings account is paying 2.45% and if the FED would stop letting the stock market and our very stock market oriented president intimidate it, that rate would continue to go higher.

Mostly, this is a pretty awesome system. I only keep around $10k of cash on hand (any excess usually gets invested) and of that $10k, the first $500 makes $37.50 a year and the last $6500 makes $159.25 for an average ROI of 2.8% which covers inflation and just a little bit extra – not bad for my emergency/float cash. So what’s the problem? I’m getting crushed on the other $3k I usually keep in my checking account, which makes only .2%. Previously, I had simply lived with this and considered it a small price to pay to have enough cash on hand to deal with any minor to moderate issues that came along. But no mas! Introducing the SoFi Checking Account!

The SoFi Checking Account is a hybrid account with a ton to offer. First and foremost, it pays 2.25%. Second, there are basically no fees of any kind to have to dodge using direct deposit, minimum balances, an absurd number of debit card transactions each month, etc. Third, and this is a big one for some folks, there are no ATM fees – ANYWHERE. There is a little bit of weirdness as SoFi itself is not an actual bank. So it uses partner banks to actually store the money. But not to worry; all of them are FDIC insured, which makes them just as secure as any other US bank.

It’s not every day that I change primary bank accounts but today is one of them! My new setup will be as follows. I will leave $500 sitting in the existing checking account since I’m not about to give up my 7.5% rate on that money. A minimum monthly direct deposit of $250 is required to avoid a monthly maintenance fee so I will deposit that much and then move it into an investment from there on a monthly basis. But the rest of the incoming cash will be destined for this new SoFi account, meaning the $3k average balance will earn me $73.50 per year. Subtract the paltry $6 a year that money was making me before and I’m left with a profit of $67.50. And if the FED gets its head out of its ass and continues its long, slow march back towards responsible currency management, that return is likely to go up rapidly. If it increases its funds rate to a historically normal level, this payoff would more than double!

What did it cost me to get this money? About ten minutes. The account setup process was actually incredibly easy and that took about five. The other five minutes involved printing out the ol’ direct deposit change form, filling it out, and emailing it over to our payroll lady, who is accustomed to getting these from me on a fairly regular basis and I’m quite sure loves me for it. For those ten beautiful minutes, I made a cool $405 an hour! I would work that job 24/7/365 if I could. And every year this account keeps paying out at this rate, or preferably higher, those ten minutes become retroactively that much more valuable. Sweet!

Credit Card Fun

Well that was harsh. I lost both my adopted team and my long-time favorite in back to back playoff games. On the upside, they both had better seasons than I expected and at least in the case of the Seahawks, they are a young team again so they should be back even better next year. And they played a pretty good, entertaining game. Not so much the Texans. They came out flat and stayed that way. Also, I don’t hate the Cowboys. I just didn’t want to beat the Seahawks. Anyway, on to today’s post.

Today I will literally put money in some people’s pockets but I have to start off with a very important disclaimer. This information is strictly for people who use credit cards responsibly. Responsible credit card use is charging only what you have the cash to pay for and paying the full statement balance on time every month. If you ever fail to follow this, even once, then you absolutely should not be using credit cards because they will cost you far more than they will benefit you. I cannot stress this enough. With credit cards, you are playing a very dangerous game so if you can’t or won’t handle them responsibly, then don’t handle them at all. That said, if you choose to ignore my warning and those of so many other finance people, thank you. Without people like you fattening up the banks, those same banks wouldn’t be doing what I’m about to describe for people like me.

One more small disclaimer I should make is that most, if not all of the credit cards I’m about to mention require a credit score of 750+. If you don’t have a score above that, you will have to work on improving it before you can make much money with your credit cards. I will write a post about how to do that another day.

Credit card churning is very popular these days. Too popular in fact. If you don’t know what it is, it’s when people game the sign up bonus system. Step one, sign up for a card with a high bonus offer and a high annual fee, which is often waived for the first year. Step two, charge the minimum amount required to get the bonus in the first three months. Step three, get the bonus and close the account prior to having to pay an annual fee. Step four, enjoy your bonus – usually $500+ or 2+ round trip flights. And no, this is not taxable income; the IRS considers it a purchase rebate. Note that this is not the case when you play a similar game with bank accounts as those bonuses are paid out in the form of interest income. But the bank account version of this hasn’t been worthwhile for a while now, save for the occasional credit union giveaway that is only available to people who are eligible for membership.

Anyway, the banks are losing their appetite for the credit card churning game as more and more of us hop on the gravy train. American Express has made churning virtually impossible for those who aren’t willing to get absurdly creative and even Chase, the longtime favorite of every churner, has started to make things more difficult. I could write an entire book on just the ins and outs of credit card churning at this moment but by the time I finished it, half of it would probably be obsolete. The rules change rapidly in this game. So I don’t play it to the extent I did in the past. During the golden age, $3-5k was a fairly attainable annual goal. Today, that would take more dedication to accomplish than I feel it is worth.

These days I keep things simple and usually only churn two cards a year. That keeps me from running afoul of Chase’s infamous 5/24 rule (open more than 5 cards in 24 months and you will automatically be declined) and still allows me $1000+ in annual churning income. If you do want to get into churning more, I suggest exploring the business side. The restrictions are lighter and the profit potential is higher. But that is another post for another day.

In 2018 I churned Capital One Venture ($500) and started churning Amegy Amazing Cash ($550 when combined with a checking account and money market account for 90 days). I will be cancelling the Capital One card soon but I won’t need to do that with the Amegy card because it doesn’t have an annual fee. However, it’s a “sock drawer card,” meaning it isn’t for regular use. This is because it only pays 1%. I will also note that this was one of those oddball local bank deals – Texans only in this case.

My next one will be the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite. It lives up to that fancy name with a generous $700 bonus – although the $5000 minimum spend requirement means it will take some planning even for an expense report beneficiary like me. If you have trouble meeting the minimums, I recommend timing your account openings to coincide with major expenses like annual insurance renewals, vacations, furniture purchases, etc. If you still can’t meet the minimums, enlist the help of a friend you trust who doesn’t care about credit card rewards. I’ve been working the non-Chase cards lately because you can only churn each one every other year. Of those, Chase Sapphire ($625) and Southwest Rapid Rewards (2-3 round trip flights) are my usual choices. I see they have a United Airlines one too now for folks who don’t care even a tiny bit about customer service when they fly. But watch your details with any churning because all the banks have been making cutbacks and increasing hoops that need to be jumped through.

The Southwest card in particular has a sign up bonus that fluctuates a lot throughout the year so make sure it is at least 50k points when you do it. One more important point on the Southwest card is that you can get the companion pass pretty easily if you use both a business and personal card. This allows you to book a second person on any flight for free for up to nearly two years if you do it right. I don’t have a consistent companion and don’t plan to ever again but for those who do, this can be quite the golden goose, especially when you consider that you can alternate with your spouse and have a companion pass between you basically all the time. There are other churning cards as well but I’ve mentioned all the ones I regularly use now that American Express cards aren’t worth the hassle anymore. At two a year I don’t have to scrape the bottom of the barrel the way I used to.

Other than churning cards, I use non annual fee cards and I rarely change those up. Right now, my wallet has the following weapons in it: American Express Blue Cash, Citi Double Cash, Bank of America Cash, Chase Freedom, Target Redcard, and Bank of America Better Balance. American Express Blue Cash pays me 3% on groceries. Citi Double Cash pays me 2% on any purchases I can’t get a higher rate on. Bank of America Cash pays me 3% on gas and 2% at Costco (I need this to get my minimum 2% because Costco only accepts Visa right now and Citi Double Cash is a Mastercard). Chase Freedom pays me 5% on categories that change quarterly. Right now those are gas and tolls meaning until the end of March, I’m buying gas with this card and my tolls are being charged to it instead of the Citi card I regularly use. The Target card pays me 5% instantly on Target purchases on the rare occasion I still go there. And last but not least, the Bank of America Better Balance card pays me a flat $120 a year for making one small charge a month. I won’t bother going into the details of that one because it isn’t available anymore; you can probably guess why.

This may sound like a lot to keep track of but it doesn’t have to be. I have a little chart that shows me which card to use for each type of purchase. I rarely have to look at it now unless something changes which is rare outside of churning. When I’m churning, I just divert as much of my 2% spending as necessary until I’ve met the minimum. And the payoff for doing this? I average around 3% back on anything I can pay for with a credit card. Combine that with what I get from churning two cards and it comes to around $2k a year in non-taxable gifts from the banking industry. Not bad for a hobby that takes up maybe an hour or two of my time per year.