Banking 
23
comments

How to Combine ING Direct Accounts

My lovely wife and I both opened individual ING Direct accounts before we were married. In the latest step towards consolidating our financial accounts, we’ve decided to take all of our individual accounts and work towards combining them when it made sense. We’ve left investment and retirement accounts alone but online bank accounts are perfect for combining. Our latest move was to combine those ING Direct accounts into one.

I called a CSR yesterday to discuss consolidating our accounts and learned that the process is much simpler than I imagined. You can’t consolidate two separate ING Direct login accounts but you can add a joint account holder to an existing savings or checking account. This will turn an individual savings account into a joint savings account, let’s see how easy it is.

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 Banking 
10
comments

How to Close ING Direct Subaccounts

In my ongoing quest to simplify our personal finances, I started cleaning up some of the connections in my Financial Network Map. The target today was my ING Direct account, which played host to both my CD ladder and my bank account firewall, two financial constructs that have proved invaluable in my financial planning and protection schemes.

What I didn’t disclose to you all earlier, when talking about the bank account firewall, was that I created a firewall account for each individual external account. Creating ING Direct subaccounts is and was so easy, I created one for each external connection. I had one for Paypal, one for E*Trade, one for … the list went on to the tune of about half a dozen accounts. Along the way, I also created a checking account to take advantage of a free money promotional offer that has since expired. Between the CD ladder, the five external accounts, the checking account, and the main online savings account, I knew I had to pare it down.

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 Banking 
10
comments

How to Close an FNBO Direct Account

A couple weeks ago I closed my HSBC Direct account and today I closed my FNBO Direct account. As was the case with HSBC Direct, I’m not closing the account because I don’t like FNBO Direct or the online savings account itself. I’m trying to simplify our financial lives, post-marriage, and we have far too many financial accounts. Part of it is because you take two adults and make them one financial unit and part of it is because as a personal finance blogger, I open a lot of accounts so that I can provide a first-hand opinion of them.

Now that we’re in the simplification phase of our lives, something has to give and unfortunately it’ll be FNBO Direct today. I do have to say, the customer service lines were very fast and I appreciated talking to someone in Omaha (the “O” in FNBO). It’s nice to see a business provides jobs locally, especially in our economic environment.

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 Personal Finance 
4
comments

Your Pen Holder and Personal Finances

Pen Holder & Personal FinancesThe picture you see is a picture of my jam-packed pen holder filled to the brim with all manner of pens, pencils, highlighters, scissors, Sharpies, and even a fake Mont Blanc pen we found on the flight back from Shanghai last year. Why is my pen holder a perfect analogy for my personal finances? The pen holder is an collection of all the pieces of junk I’ve collected over the years, from the free pens at trade shows to the ones I’ve taken home from the office. There is no rhyme or reason to it, no organization, just everything in one wire-frame pen holder.

Our personal finances, as I’ve learned when I put together our Personal Finance Users Guide, are very much the same way. I have a credit union account with my former employer, I have a bank account from back home in New York, I have a lingering 401(k) account, etc. etc., the list goes on. The fact of the matter, especially when you’re talking about simplifying your life, is that I don’t need all these pens much like I don’t need all those accounts. I have these pens because I’ve accumulated them over the years, which is a bad reason to ahve them.

So, how do I declutter the holder and declutter my personal finances? Easy, just remove the things I’ve accumulated over the past few years and reduce it to only that which I absolutely need. When it comes to pens, I honestly only need a few ball point pens, a highlighter, a Sharpie or two, and the scissors – everything else is going into a bag in the supply closet.

As for the personal finances, I’ve consolidated all my former 401(k)s into my Rollover IRA at Vanguard, closed all the unnecessary extraneous checking and savings accounts, consolidated credit cards, and cleaned up my paper records (shredding anything I didn’t need, it was two big bags worth). All that was after only five years of post-college working life! Now, every account that we’ve kept has had a reason for being there and that’s how it should be.

In the future, I think decluttering my personal finances will be an annual affair along with rebalancing investment portfolios. So, what does your pen holder look like? :)


 Debt 
2
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Banking, Credit Card Debt & The Paradox of Choice

The paradox of choice is that the more options we are given for a particular choice, the less likely we are able to make a choice. Penelope Trunk discussed it in her article about taking a job, any job and references Dan Ariely, an MIT behavioral economist, and his book Predictably Irrational. In the book, Ariely discusses a study about how people ended up buying more jam when given six potential samples versus twenty four. Twenty four potential samples was simply too much and people ended up not deciding, even though they had more information.

How does this apply to banks and credit cards? Too much information paralyzes us. It paralyzes me. In the case of jams, there’s no pain in not buying a particular flavor. In the case of credit card debt, there’s a significant pain in not paying down a card. With a bank, there’s a bit of pain in interest not earned and a bit more if you overdraft because you forgot which account held how much (or you forget how much you need to keep in an account to avoid fees because you have too many accounts). Too much information, like juggling many balls, hampers our ability to make good decisions and causes us unnecessary pain.

The solution is the simplify your finances.

If you have credit card debt, pay down the smallest amounts first. This may sound similar to Dave Ramsey’s Snowball technique and that’s because it is. However, rather than focusing on the psychological benefits (yay! another debt conquered! let’s get the next one!), I argue that removing one headache from your life, even if it’s not the most financially distracting one, is beneficial. Next, try to consolidate bigger debts into as few accounts as possible without sacrificing the interest rate. By not sacrificing the interest rate, I mean don’t consolidate lower interest cards to higher interest cards (which sounds obvious but sometimes we make mistakes). The number of credit cards offer zero fee 0% balance transfers are dwindling but they often have a fee transfer cap that could be to your benefit.

With banks, don’t keep accounts you no longer need. I kept an old employer’s credit union account open for a year and a half and it cost me $20. I had transferred money into that account from my Emigrant Direct account and written a check. The check didn’t get cashed for several weeks and before it could be cashed, I went into my account and saw some money sitting around. Not remembering why the funds were there earning a low interest rate, I transferred them back and got dinged with an NSF. While I was able to get the NSF removed, it was entirely my mistake but caused by keeping an account I didn’t need or use anymore. There are no negative credit impacts of closing bank accounts, so close the ones you don’t need anymore and drop juggling that ball.

Simplify your life and reduce the number of things your brain has to manage, you’ll be happier and richer for it.

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On a happier note, my post on the Top 5 Online Banks made it into this week’s Carnival of Personal Finance hosted by Canadian Dream.


 Banking 
5
comments

Simplifying Finances Saves You Money

The other day, as I was preparing my taxes, I saw a curious little $3 maintenance fee on my Bank of America Savings account. For the last five months, I’d been paying $3 a month in a maintenance fee that didn’t appear until November of last year (the account had been opened over a year ago). When I called, I was informed that the fee was because I had less than $300 in the account despite much more than that in the linked checking account. I had moved the funds over to the checking account because the difference in interest, much less than 1%, wasn’t worth me logging in to move funds as needed (vs. the risk of forgetting and taking a NSF fee). In my mind, I had figured that the account was one of those “minimum balance of $something, or combined account value above $something-else” and that I was safely in the $something-else category (usually it’s like $2,500 or $5,000 for something-else so I figured I was okay). Wrong, and they dinged me for $15 (of which I was able to recover $9 with a polite phone call, the other $6 were more than 90 days back and they couldn’t do it, which seems plausible).

The lesson for me here is two-fold and both are related to simplifying your finances. The first, is that as my life becomes more and more complicated, my ability to keep things “on the table” in my mind will diminish. When I was in college, concerned only with a handful of classes and almost nothing else, managing a dozen accounts was no big deal. Now, there are significantly more demands on my mindshare and thus my ability to keep track of everything lessens. One of the things that fell off the table was a monthly review of bank and credit card statements. By simplifying my finances, I can save money because I can more closely monitor my financial accounts. I can catch the $3 fee in the first month, not the fifth, and nip it in the bud.

The second lesson for me was that sometimes what appears to be a smart money move is really more hassle than its worth. More hassle means I’m less likely to do it, which can the smart money move into a stupid money move. The savings account, with its pathetic < 1.0% APY interest rate, exists only because I thought that we could maximize interest earnings. An external transfer would take several days but an internal one takes mere seconds. The savings account could be a holding tank and I would simply move funds as needed. A year later, the hassle of "mere seconds" became too great and I scrapped that strategy, thus costing me a cool $6 and 15 minutes of phone time. Simple is almost always better because I am inherently lazy.

In the future, I’ll be continuing to simplify our finances and operating under the belief that simple is almost always better (because I’m lazy), a valuable $6 lesson.


 Personal Finance 
6
comments

Simplifying Your Finances Interview with Liz Weston

I had the fantastic opportunity to email interview Liz Pulliam Weston, a personal finance columnist for MSN Money as well as the author of several books including Easy Money: How to Simplify Your Finances and Get What You Want out of Life and Your Credit Score: How to Fix, Improve, and Protect the 3-Digit Number that Shapes Your Financial Future. I’m going to be getting a review copy from her publicist after we get back from our honeymoon but I wanted to ask Liz a few questions about simplifying our finances and she was happy to oblige!

1. I recently got married and discussed how we were going to try to simplify our finances, consolidating accounts and reducing the number of mailers we received each month, did you have any tips or advice for us on how to best do this?

First of all, congratulations!! Not only are you embarking on a wonderful journey, but it’s bound to provide lots of great fodder for your blog.

My best advice with trying to combine married finances is to ease into it and figure out what works for you. I’ve noticed people have VERY strong opinions about what you SHOULD do, but the only thing that matters is what works for you and your spouse.

Also, what works for you now might not work in a few years, and that’s okay, since people’s needs evolve.

What’s worked for my husband and I is to have one joint account where our paychecks/income streams are deposited and from which the bills are paid. But we also have “no questions asked” money—an “allowance” that we’re allowed to spend whatever way we please. Will keeps his in a separate bank account—the money is transferred there automatically each week. I take mine out of the joint account.

As I mentioned in the book, technology makes it pretty easy to move money around in accounts, so you don’t necessarily have to combine everything at one bank.

I’m NOT a fan, however, of hidden accounts—credit cards or bank accounts that are kept secret from the other person. I think the accounts themselves should be transparent and available for both parties to see.

If both of you have good credit, then getting a joint credit card or two for household expenses is a good idea (or you can add each other as authorized users to existing cards). Just don’t close old accounts since that can hurt your credit scores.

To reduce credit card offers, sign up for the credit bureaus’ opt out service, www.optoutprescreen.com or 888 5 OPT OUT.

2. There isn’t a single person out there who isn’t happy to simplify their lives, personal finance or otherwise, but there is always the fear that in “simplifying,” you accidentally cut something out that you never intended. Is there a proper way to approach this so that you make sure you don’t cut out something that was actually quite important?

The biggest fear is probably that you’ll toss something that you’ll need later. But remember that in the rare instance that you’re likely to need financial paperwork, it’s probably “living” somewhere that’s relatively easy to access. Your bank is required to keep your statements for at least six years; ditto your credit card company.

Just take a moment to ask yourself: “What’s the worst that could happen if I consolidate or eliminate this?” If you don’t know the answer, call a pro (like your tax preparer) or post it online in a forum where there are some financially savvy folks.

I’ll reiterate that your simplification generally shouldn’t extend to shutting down credit cards, unless your FICO scores are over 750 and you’re only closing recently-opened, low-limit accounts. Always keep your oldest and highest-limit accounts, regardless of your scores, and don’t close anything if you’re in score-improvement mode.

3. I’m hardly a Luddite but what would you recommend for people who are less trusting of the internet or less able to navigate it when it comes to simplifying finances? Bill pay works great if you trust the system and yourself to set it up properly, but people make errors.

People who monitor their accounts online tend to catch fraud faster and limit the damage compared to folks who wait for their statements to arrive in the mail. And remember that the U.S. mail is not encrypted and there’s no electronic trail showing when a payment left your account and landed in your biller’s account—in contrast to when you’re using online bill pay or other electronic payments.

As with everything else, if you’re new to this, start slowly. Pay a few bills electronically to get the hang of it. Monitor your bank account so you see what’s getting paid. Don’t put everything on automatic all at once.

4. If I only had the time to do three things to simplify my finances, what would you recommend and why?

Use online bill pay. Safer, faster and more efficient than using checks.

Aggregate your accounts. It’s easier to track your money if you can see all your accounts in one place. If you use one bank for everything, you can use its Web site; some bank sites, including Bank of America, have an account aggregation feature that lets you add accounts from other institutions. Yodlee is another account aggregation option that’s been around for awhile and that has lots of features. If you’re wary of having a Web site store your financial info, then use Money or Quicken.

Consolidate to one or two credit cards. The fewer due dates, rates and terms you have to keep track of, the better. Pay off your credit card balances as soon as possible and get in the habit of paying your cards in full every month. Then consolidate to using one or at most two cards for your spending. Try not to use more than 30% of your credit limits at any point during the month to keep your credit scores healthy.


 Personal Finance 
3
comments

Simplify Your Personal Finances

One of the benefits of creating my Personal Finance Users Guide was that I learned that we an overabundance of unused bank accounts and credit cards. In years past, each one had their purpose but have since been made obsolete. For example, one is a credit union near my home town that linked my finances with my parents and was important while I was in college. Having graduated many years ago, this link has become less and less important.

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