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Question: My wife and I keep $20,000 in a passbook savings account as an emergency reserve. What's driving me crazy is that we're getting only 60 cents a month in interest. I like the security of the account and the immediate access, but 60 cents a month on 20 grand???? How can I do better? --Dale F., Waldorf, Maryland
I remember a few years ago when credit card companies would send out $5 checks to customers. The catch with the $5 check was that it enrolled you in some sort of service, usually identity theft or employment related, that was free for a month. After a month, there was a monthly fee that was either flat, in the case of the identity theft service, or a percentage of your balance, in the case of the employment related service.
Last week, I received two letters from two banks reminding me of their complimentary offer of Accidental Death & Dismemberment AD&D insurance. It’s cle
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ar in both cases they’re marketing promotions trying to get you to buy AD&D insurance from their partners. However, the two offers are very different in how they approach the customer.

The first letter was from M&T Bank and they offered $1,000 of complimentary bank-paid AD&D insurance coverage through The Hartford. I had the option, but not the requirement, to increase that coverage up to $300,000 at the cost of $1.10 a month per $10,000.
The second letter from Bank of America was a little different. It stated that I could get “$10,000 of Permanent and Total Disability coverage for one full year, at no cost to you. *” The asterisk goes on to explain I actually get $1,000 of coverage per month for 10 months, which makes it a 10-month version of the offer from M&T Bank.
There’s one little catch to the Bank of America offer that isn’t a catch in the M&T Bank offer:
Coverage increases to $240,000 for $9.95 per month which is automatically billed monthly and remitted to National Union from your Bank of America checking account at the end of your one-year complimentary coverage period.
Ahhh, the 2009 bank version of a 2007 credit card marketing technique. Instead of $5 checks to customers who may unwittingly sign up for some service, Bank of America customers may be getting $1,000 AD&D insurance for ten months but put themselves on the hook for $9.95 in a year (or is it ten months?)… when they may have forgotten they signed up for this in the first place!
If you’ve been thinking about taking advantage of the free AD&D insurance, be sure to read the fine print to see what you’re committing yourself to.
(Photo: thetruthabout)
Beware Bank-paid Complimentary AD&D Insurance from personal finance blog

Low interest rates and the recent stock market surge make this a challenging time to find the best places for your extra cash.
Membership Rewards is the name of American Express’ rewards program and this is the second post in my series on reviewing credit card reward networks. As I said before in the Citi ThankYou Network review, with every credit card rewards catalog, the points to dollar ratio changes with the product you “buy.” My hope is that with this review, we will both have a better understanding of the catalog, how the programs work, where the best exchanges are, and ultimately help you decide whether this rewards program is rig
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ht for you.
Membership Rewards
The Membership Rewards program is the reward program for all American Express cards that offer points, rather than cash. With AMEX’s program, there is no limit to the number of points you can earn and they never expire.
The Membership Rewards catalog is a lot like the Citi ThankYou Network’s catalog. There are plenty of gift cards, airline rewards, and travel perks; but there are a few “swankier” rewards at the upper tiers such as a business class round-trip ticket to Tahiti on Air Tahiti Nui (348,000 points) and a sub-orbital space flight for 20,000,000 points.
You can fly in space!
OK, now that we’re all worked up, here’s some more about the program. Let’s find out where the good deals are, if they exist, and whether this reward program is right for you.

Reward Specials
The “Specials” section is the American Express’s version of a sales section. Whereas the ThankYou Network had maybe a dozen items, Membership Rewards has more like fifty items in the list. There are products as well as gift cards and the specials aren’t necessarily just a discount on the points price. For example, there is a box of a dozen Srixon AD333 balls for 4,100 points. The special is that it’s a buy 1 get 1 free promotion, or 50% off. You can buy them from Amazon for $12.88 a box so the special isn’t such a great deal, but you get the idea.
As for point discounts, the discount is usually in the 15% range. An All-Clad Stainless Nonstick 10-Inch Open Stir Fry Pan that’s normally 17,500 points is now only 14,800 (15.4% discount). It’s not that awesome of a deal because you can buy it on Amazon for $120.
The Best Rewards
My personal favorite reward are Southwest Rapid Rewards points because I live near a popular Southwest airport, Baltimore-Washington International. I value a rapid rewards flight at approximately $300, which used to be how much the vouchers sold for on eBay (well, you bought the drink tickets and they included the voucher ). I never sold the vouchers personally because I would use them to fly to California, which is a minimum of $300 a ticket.
It takes 16 points to get a voucher and each point costs 1,500 Membership Rewards points. Doing all the math, that values a Membership Reward point at 1.25¢. That’s right, by converting points to a Southwest voucher, you are getting more than a penny a point. If you live near an airport that Southwest flies to, you can get a heck of a deal. In fact, if you get a voucher and use it on a flight of at least $240, then you are getting a penny a point of value (16 x 1500 = 24000).
What if you don’t live near a Southwest airport? No worries, most of the gift cards give you a penny a point of value even at the $10 gift card level. You can get an Old Navy GiftCard for only 1,000 points. A $25 California Pizza Kitchen gift card will run you 2,500 points.
Cash Rewards
Most reward networks give you the option of getting a cash check or a statement credit. American Express doesn’t offer a cash check or statement credit but they do offer the ability to pay for “everyday expenses” with Membership Rewards points at a rate of 0.60¢ per point. The only restriction is that it must be an everyday purchase, the system will indicate which expenses are eligible, and you have to pay for the whole thing with points at that rate. It’s a little bit of a discount over Citi’s conversion to a statement credit, valued at 0.69¢ vs 0.60¢, and it’s a little more restrictive.
It seems like a lot of effort, especially when you can just give statement credits without this extra infrastructure, but it’s an improvement over the past when you couldn’t convert points into dollars. You can learn more from this brief tutorial about the program.
My Rewards Math
As I mentioned in the Citi ThankYou Network review, I am always looking to get a penny per point. In the Membership Rewards program, almost every gift card will give you a penny per point conversion, which is great, and none of the products will, which is pretty standard.
Buying Points
American Express does not let you buy points, but it does let you borrow points against future spending. When you log in, you will see a “Available Points Advance” section at the top, which indicates how many points they will advance you for up to twelve months:

  • 5,000 points for Membership Rewards Express

  • 15,000 points for Membership Rewards

  • 60,000 points for Membership Rewards First

All in all, I’ve been pretty happy with the rewards program because of the student loans. I don’t spend a great deal each month with my Citi card so I never had reason to review the catalog until recently. In the case of student loan checks, I had to call in to redeem the reward and always found their customer service to be fast and courteous. It’s an entirely separate call system set up specifically for the ThankYou Network, which probably cuts down on wait time.
If you have a Citi card, do you have a go to “reward” that you always redeem it for? I’m leaning towards some of the $100 gift cards like a Macy’s or Staples.
(Photo: Andres Rueda)
American Express Membership Rewards Review from personal finance blog

With the price of gold as high as it's ever been, more people are rummaging through their dresser drawers, safe-deposit boxes and anywhere else they can to trade their forgotten bling for a thick wad of cash.
Every time I get home, I pull out any change I have and throw it into a small container. As I was pulling out quarters to put in my car, I noticed a nickel that looked different from the one beside it. It was a 1941-P (it actually didn’t have a letter, which means it was minted in Philadelphia) and looked more gray than the 2001-P right next to it. Not being a numismatist, I searched online to see if there was anything special about it.
There wasn’t, it was just old and beat up. They wouldn’t be a little more special until mid-1942, until 1945) when “Wartime Nickel
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s” were produced. Wartime nickels were made of 56% Copper, 35% Silver, and 9% Manganese rather than 75% Copper and 25% Nickel.
That led me to reading more about coins and learning about the most valuable regular U.S. coin. I wanted to find a coin you could conceivably have in your pocket or piggy bank and just not know. I wasn’t looking for the 1805 Silver Dollar, worth $10.1 million, or the 1933 Double Eagle, worth $8.5 million (more exceptionally valuable U.S. coins). If you have one of those, you know it.
No, I wanted a regular coin.

Do you know what the most valuable U.S. coin is? If you guessed it’s the one pictured above, the 1969-S Doubled Die Obverse Lincoln Cent, then you’d be right. It’s a penny minted in 1969 at San Francisco where the obverse, the side with Lincoln’s face, was doubled up. The blurriness of the obverse isn’t because the picture is blurry, it’s because it’s been doubled stamped.
The coin is worth $86,250 according to this auction, which ended earlier this year.
Do you have one of these?
Most Valuable Regular U.S. Coin from personal finance blog

Low interest rates and the recent stock market surge make this a challenging time to find the best places for your extra cash.
A couple weeks ago I received a letter from my former employer’s 401(k) benefits company notifying me that I had $0.83 in my 401(k) account. Despite my best efforts avoid dividends and distributions on funds, I must have missed one in the process. I was told that since my vested account balance was less than $1,000, I’d have to roll it over or take a distribution, which would be taxed and penalized.
I was in a quandary. At such a small dollar amount, it certainly wasn’t
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worth the time to roll it over. If it appreciated at an average rate of 7% a year for forty years, it’s would be worth a mere $12.43. That’ll be enough to buy me a pack of bubble gum after taxes in 2049.

Why not just take the $0.83 distribution? I did this last time when I had a little less than $5 because the hassle just wasn’t worth it. They withheld 20%, which was less than a $1, and my accountant, upon seeing this, laughed. Since the tax withheld was less than a dollar, it was rounded into oblivion. 20% was withheld and I never even got credit for it… so I was doubled taxed on the rollover.
Out of principle (and, to be honest, stubbornness), I wasn’t going to let it happen again. The tricky part is that at such a small dollar amount, the cost of a stamp would make it a losing proposition. The solution was to have the 401(k) plan mail the rollover check directly to Vanguard. In the past I’ve always had the check mailed to me and then I mailed it to Vanguard along with instructions of how the funds were to be invested. I was forced to do this because one of my employer’s 401(k) plan refused, as a matter of their protocols, to mail the check directly to another plan. Fortunately, this was a different employer and they were willing to mail it direct.
As with any rollover, find out the information that the receiving institution requires before sending the check. In my case, Vanguard needed the check to be made out to VFTC (Vanguard FTC or Vanguard Fiduciary Trust Corporation), FBO [Account Holder's Name] (this is typically automatically on a rollover check), and a Fund-Account Number pair. Then you mail it to their standard PO Box 1110, Valley Forge PA address.
Should be settled in 7 business days and hopefully this is the last I hear about this account!
Get 401(k) Rollover Checks Mailed Directly to IRA from personal finance blog

Low interest rates and the recent stock market surge make this a challenging time to find the best places for your extra cash.
Did you know that TransUnion started as a parent holding company for a railcar leasing company? Or that Experian is not based in the United States? I started reading about the history of some of the credit bureaus and was fascinated with what I found. For example, did you know Experian was founded in 1980 while Equifax was founded in 1899?
Read on to find out more about the major credit reporting agencies.

Equifax is the oldest of the three bureaus, having been founded in 1899 as Retail Credit Company. It began as two brothers, Cator and Guy Woolford, keeping a lis
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t of customers and their creditworthiness for their local Retail Grocer’s Association. He would sell the book to other merchants in the association and credit reporting was born. They eventually settled on Atlanta, Georgia as their home and founded the Retail Credit Company.
By the 1960’s, when TransUnion was formed, Retail Credit Company was one of the largest credit bureaus with data on millions of Americans and Canadians. After years of criticism of the credit reporting industry in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Congress passed the Fair US Credit Reporting Act to regulate the collection, dissemination, and use of consumer information. It is believed that Retail Credit Company changed its name to Equifax to improve its image.
Equifax is based out of Atlanta, Georgia.
Experian began as CCN Systems in 1980, making it the youngest of the three bureaus. It’s only the first one founded outside of the United States, as its birthplace was in Nottingham, England. It acquired a US presence by purchasing TRW Information Services in 1996. TRW Information Services was a subsidiary of TRW, also one known as Thompson Ramo Wooldridge Inc., a conglomerate that included defense, which was acquired by Northrop Grumman in 2002.
CCN Systems was established by Experian’s former parent company, GUS, and was to provide internal credit checking services to other parts of GUS, most likely the Home Retail Group. In late 2006, GUS completed the demerger of Experian and Home Retail Group.
Experian is based out of Dublin, Ireland.
In 1968, TransUnion was created as the parent holding company of Union Tank Car Company. Originally they manually collected business intelligence information about consumers. One year later, they acquired the Credit Bureau of Cook County (CBCC), who collected consumer information on about 3.6 million people stored in 400 seven-drawer file cabinets, and a credit reporting agency was born.
As an aside, their story reminded me a lot of American Express, which started as a shipping company in 1850 and slowly morphed into a credit company by 1958. When they began shipping financial instruments for banks, they started to move into money orders and traveler’s checks in 1882, then credit cards by 1958. You go where the business takes you.
TransUnion is based in Chicago, Illinois.
Did you know that there is a fourth credit bureau? It’s called Innovis, or CBCInnovis, but it’s believed that very few companies use them. They aren’t even mentioned on, the website set up by the government for free credit reports. Innovis was founded in 1970 as Associated Credit Bureaus (ACB) and, after some renaming, acquired by CBC Companies in 1999. I don’t know much about them but I figured you should at least be aware they exist.
Innovis is based out of Columbus, Ohio.
A little background on the credit reporting agencies useful for those trivia nights!
History of Credit Bureaus: Equifax, Experian, TransUnion & Innovis from personal finance blog

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