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Earlier this month I attended FinCon12, the financial blogger conference. While at the conference, I was met with wonderful greetings such as “So what are you doing here? You don’t even write anymore?” via Greg from WiseBread AND Ben from MoneySmartLife — at two separate occasion, no less.  To which I immediately scoffed and replied to these two fine gentlemen with: “I’m escaping from my parental duty, duh.”

But in all seriousness, one of the main reasons why I frequent conferences such as Finovate and FinCon is to keep an eye out for innovative and interesting financial tools and startups — to which BillGuard.com is one such nifty web app.

While hanging out with Jim and Jeremy, we got a brief wind of BillGuard from its CMO, Mary Anne Keegan, and before she can gave us the full pitch, one of us pulled up the site on our smartphone and immediately thought the whole premise was in fact pretty neat.

“Antivirus for bills”

BillGuard pitches itself as a service that finds bad charges on your bill and help you get your money back. The service is pretty straightforward in its promise. For anyone out there that ever had to call customer service after discovering a charge on their bill from THREE months ago, you’ll know how helpful and stress-relieving the whole process would be if the bad charge was caught earlier, before it gets charged again and again, month after month.

BillGuard.com Main Transaction Page

BillGuard catches bad charges on your bill by analyzing millions of customer billing complaints (crowdsourcing) in order to find deceptive, errorneous and fraudulent charges on your credit and debit card bills. A good example of this would be if everyone and their mom flags “NIGERIASHIPPING.COM” as a potential fraudulent transaction, if BillGuard scans your bill and see this transaction (or variants of it) on your bill, they will flag it and alert you.

The best part though is if you’re dead sure the transaction is a bad one, BillGuard helps you with the dispute process, saving you some time and headache.

Cost and Service

BillGuard is currently free to signup, with up to 3 cards protected for the free plan, and up to 10 cards protected for the “Family plan” which runs $79 a year. Given the free price tag, you really don’t have much to lose to give the service a whirl, provided you’re comfortable with handing your credit card login credential to a third-party web application.

The good news is that BillGuard’s data comes to them via Yodlee, a well-known data aggregation platform that is in used by over 600 leading financial institution, and of course comes with bank-level security. Data is also read-only, meaning that what BillGuard access can only be used to scan and analyze your transaction to find bad  charges — even if your BillGuard login is somehow compromised, the unscrupulous person wouldn’t be able to transfer money or make any changes to your financial account.

BillGuard Add Card Page

The sign-up process is pretty darn straight forward. You put in an email address you’d like to use to sign-up and choose your password. Once the account is created, you can add the credit/debit card account of your choice (screenshot above). For those with multiple credit cards from a single issuer, you can select the specific card you’d like BillGuard to scan vs the defunct one you rarely use (e.g., you use your Costco Amex card more than your Amex Blue card).

For my review, I picked my more frequently used cards: my Delta Amex Card, Chase Freedom Card, and finally the good old classic Amex Blue Cash. Once logged in, BillGuard immediately gets to work, scanning your previous transaction and organizing them in a fairly visually appealing format. The user interface, as you can see from the first screenshot above, is clean and concise. Even if you’re not a savvy web user it should be easy to identify and absorb information.

Making Your Life Just a Tad Bit Easier

One reason why BillGuard immediately caught my eye on initial impression is how simple (and helpful) the proposition is. The service is especially appealing to people like me, who make about 90% of their transaction on a credit/debit card. I simply don’t carry a lot of cash, especially due to my Schwab checking account refunding ATM fees — plus, its nice to get the occasional credit card perks such as cash back, or miles for that first-class ticket to a Euro vacation (but not on Delta Air Lines).

The problem with charging 90% of your transaction on credit/debit is that things can get a bit hectic at the end of the month if you review your bill for any errors (because errors do happen, and to be honest your bank isn’t going to proactively help you find bad charges from nefarious merchants).

As you can see below from my screenshot, I’ve had over 182 transactions in the past 90 days (Cap, you buy too much crap). This comes out to an average of 60 transactions per month — quite a bit of charges to remember and keep in mind.

With BillGuard, you can immediately skim some of the latest charges for potential hiccups.

BillGuard flagging an unsure transaction

On my initial scan, BillGuard flagged a transaction called “Pho Lu” as an “unsure” charge. Mainly because this isn’t something in their database yet. For those quick with their Google-fu (or well versed with Vietnamese noodle soup), you’ll know that this is an Asian noodle joint in Southern California. I suspect as more people in my area uses BillGuard, the merchant categorization will get more rounded-out and the less popular merchants will be identified more precisely.

Another not-quite-as-well advertised functionality of BillGuard is “transaction search,” which lets you look up some of the more questionable transactions & merchants out there. Unsurprisingly, you’ll see lots of complaints on credit score charges or various fees — and funny enough, lots of complaint on unknown World of Warcraft charges.

Quick Skim on Recurring Charges, Fees, and New Merchants

Another helpful portion in BillGuard is the immediate ability to see your recurring charges, potential fees from your bank, and new merchants that you recently frequent (so even if its flagged as OKAY, you can double check later to see if all is peachy).

BillGuard.com New Merchant Transaction Page

A quick look at my recent new 7 merchants  shows:

  • Paypal Blackdecker – Bought a refurbished handheld vacuum cleaner for $17.
  • Wayfair – New crib, mattress for the kiddo at Wayfair, my new favorite online shop.
  • Walmart – Funny that I don’t visit enough that this got flagged as new merchant.
  • Cox Orange – Internet bill. AT&T DSL is so much cheaper but oh-so-unreliable.
  • Gamefly Digital – Guild Wars 2 for the wife. No joke.
  • Vons – Didn’t have a Vons in my previous location so this came up as new.
  • Hyatt Hotels Denver – For my recent aforementioned FinCon12 trip.

This is pretty handy as it gives me a quick glance of the charges thats happening, plus reviewing recurring charges also reminded me that I really need to cancel my monthly Equifax subscription (which I no longer actively use):

BillGuard Recurring Charges Scan

Come to think of it, I probably should cancel the Netflix account since I hardly use it these days too…

Who It’s For and Who It Isn’t For

All-in-all I find the service to be pretty impressive and useful and the free price-tag is icing on the cake. Having said that, there are definitely some people who might not find BillGuard attractive what-so-ever.

BillGuard is perfect for you if:

  1. You charge most of your transaction on your credit/debit cards.
  2. You’re the family “CFO” and you can always use an additional tools to help make sense of things – especially when there’s multiple cards to juggle
  3. You still read every line of transaction in your bills, but can use the “extra pair of eyes” (or in this case, millions of eyes) to catch things you may miss
  4. You have a transaction on your credit card you’d like to dispute with the merchant and you don’t know where to start

BillGuard isn’t right for you if:

  1. Cash is king. You simply don’t use your credit/debit cards enough to warrant such a service (though you can make the argument that if you don’t use your card enough, its nice to have a service checking it for unsuspecting, real fraudulent charges vs finding out months later)
  2. You’re adverse to online banking, let alone giving your login to another website other than your bank. Some people just aren’t comfortable with this aspect, even if no transactions can be made via their bank’s credit card login information. And to be honest that’s okay. You shouldn’t use a service you’re not comfortable using.

A Quick Glimpse Into the Near Future

For those who live & breath their daily transactions on credit/debit cards, BillGuard will seem like a no-brainer service that should have been available years ago. While some current PFMs do offer part of the features (e.g. notifying you when you have a fee on your account), crowdsourcing merchants and transactions goes a long way in identifying fraud (and scales much better). If the service hits a certain critical mass, I suspect its data will be fairly robust and the transaction dispute process will be even more painless (how awesome would it be if you can solve a dispute and get your money back within 24 hours?).

While the service is US-only so far, its potential is pretty big for markets such as Europe and Japan, where mobile payments / NFC transactions are already populating in abundance, and consumers are already comfortable with moving to a cashless system. As the US eventually plays catch up (or maybe not, I still personally like to spend cash at small mom and pops even though I’m a credit lover), I can see how services like BillGuard may come built-in to your bank logins or third-party banking apps.

BillGuard seems to be gravitating towards the mobile market too as they just released their service for Passbook in iOS 6. They will most likely have an Android/iOS app version soon, though the web app worked fine enough on my iPad and Galaxy Nexus.

At the end of it all, its a good time for financial nerds and OCD personal finance people such as myself. We now have much more tools at our disposal — not only to help us figure out our financial life, but also keep a safe watch over our financial nest eggs. Personally for me, even if the fraudulent charge is some measly $5 charge, if I can dispute it in a painless and non-time-wasting manner, then I’m one happier camper.

Related Links & Resources:

If you think this review was handy, keep an eye-out for some more financial startup/tools I’ve been meaning to review through the years: SaveUp.com, ReadyForZero, FutureAdvisor, Betterment, and you’ve probably already heard of CreditKarma and CreditSesame.

One of the best thing about the current trend on the web is the increasing abundance of free financial web services.  You’ll find one such service provided by Quicken Loans at Quizzle.com. This is a review of Quizzle.com, where you can get free credit score, report, and home value. Super sweet!

Like many new “Web 2.0 ish” websites, Quizzle has a clear emphasis on simplicity and ease of use. Slap in your zip code, fill out the personal information, answer a few credit-related questions to verify your identity (soft credit inquiry) — and within minutes you’ll have access to the free credit score, report, and home value (or if you rent, value of home you can afford). No need to fork over any credit card, the service as promised, is free.

Upon initial login, you’ll be greeted with a Quizzle score, which is formulated base on your overall home and money performances: credit, rainy day fund, budget, mortgage, and home affordability.  If you rent like me, you may not have a mortgage factored into your Quizzle score. [Click image above for larger screenshot]

Free Credit Report and Credit Score

Quizzle’s free credit report and score offering is actually pretty decent.  The credit report, although not as in-depth as a specific report from Experian, has all the necessary information you need to have a proper understanding of your credit history.  At the summary tab, you’ll find details of your personal information along with a list of financial accounts on your credit report.

Navigating through each tab in the Credit page will reveal a list of open accounts, closed accounts, negative accounts, and whatever public records that may or may not be on your credit report.  You’ll also be able to see the recent hard inquiries on your Experian credit report (soft inquiries were not listed).

The free credit score is straightforward: Quizzle provides you with a score from the ranges of 360 to 840 while giving you a grade rating from A to F (just like back in school, yay!).  The score isn’t a FICO score, but its free and gives you a general guideline of where your creditworthiness may stand.

Estimated Home Value and Home Affordability Value

If you own a home, Quizzle will provide you with an estimated home value and an appreciation grade using the automated valuation model.  Like Zillow.com, Quizzle will provide you with data about your home, giving some brief info on living area in sq ft., bedrooms, lot area in sq ft., and the year the house was built.  You’ll also see the home purchase history, estimated available home equity, and comparable home sales in the area. Although I don’t have a screenshot of this function, you can visit Quizzle’s tour page and click on “more info about your home” to see an example.

If you don’t own a home and you rent, Quizzle will spit out a simple affordable home caulation, based on your household gross, debt, and estimated down payment.  Thanks to Quizzle, I now know home ownership in my area is never within reach! Yay. (Slightly kidding, as Quizzle didn’t factor in assets that aren’t being calculated).

Budget Calculators

The budget section at Quizzle is fairly simplistic (in a good way). Quizzle will give you a brief look at your available cash by subtracting your living expenses and debt from your household income.  This is based on your initial input, but you can further refine the income, living expenses, and debt section by heading into each of the tabs — add, edit, and remove necessary information.

For example, in the debt section, Quizzle will automatically input all the balances from your credit card accounts based on your credit report — but since the credit report may be outdated or inaccurate, you can adjust and fine tune the amounts to your actual debt responsibilities.

Mortgage, Refinance, and Home Equity Loans

The mortgage section of the site will depend again on if you already have a mortgage or you’re looking for one.  If you’re looking for a mortgage, Quizzle will calculate a few different mortgage recommendations based on numbers you input.  Utilizing offers they have from the Quicken Loan program, Quizzle will provide the usual recommendations of fixed loan, ARM, and variance of interest-only loans.

If you already have a mortgage, Quizzle will provide you with some recommendations on refinance loans and home equity loans.  They give you a general guideline if you need to take out a home equity loan to pay off other higher interest debt, but you definitely shouldn’t rely solely on Quizzle’s recommendations to acquire a mortgage, refinance, or apply for a home equity loan.

You should be aware that the mortgage section of Quizzle is where the site generates potential revenue in return for providing the free service.  Just something to be aware of if you choose to use the “contact an expert” option when you check out the mortgage recommendations. Even with refined and accurate recommendations from Quizzle, you’ll be well served if you do additional research by trying other comparison services.

Rainy Day Fund

The last section of Quizzle is the Rainy Day Fund (emergency fund).  It is calculated based on 4 months net income and Quizzle will either give you a pat on the back for already hitting the 4 months net income goal for the rainy day fund, or give you other recommendations on what you need to do to build the emergency fund.  Not a mind-blowing feature, but a nice touch and good reminder on the importance of a well funded emergency fund.

Overall Quizzle.com Impression

Try as you might, you’ll find little to complain about at Quizzle.com.  They offer exactly what they say they will: a free credit report and score, along with free estimation of your home value, and a free budget tool.  The site is easy to use and navigate, and has enough information for you to dissect your current financial situation, especially if you carefully edit and input all your financial information.

Quizzle’s free report and score can be a nice supplement to the three free annual credit report you’re already entitled to from the credit reporting bureaus. Of course, if you’re not comfortable with giving out your personal information to a third party site, you won’t be using Quizzle.com to get the free credit report and score; never mind their mortgage recommendation services.

Quizzle’s overall revenue model appears to be referring potential customer to their Quicken Loan offerings in mortgages, refinance, and home equity loans — which makes perfect sense as Quizzle should be able to acquire more targeted customers that converts better. In short, if Quizzle continues to provide valuable free analytic, tools, and estimation along with refining their loan recommendations, this should be a clear win-win situation for both the mortgage-related consumers and Quizzle.

Pros:

  • Free credit report and score. No strings attached.
  • Free estimated home value via AVM method.
  • Decent and free budget calculators.

Cons:

  • Mortgage, refinance, and home equity recommendations can be more refined.

Choosing a high-yield online savings account can be quite a headache, so hopefully this review will help you in your search for an online savings account.

As with all federal savings bank, E-Trade Bank is a member of the FDIC (certificate #30746), with all deposits in E-Trade banking accounts insured up to $250,000. E-Trade currently offers a few different options for their banking products, including high-yield savings & CDs, and high-yield checking.  For this review, we’ll be taking a look at the high-yield Complete Savings Account.

E-Trade Complete Savings Account Features:

  • No minimums or account fees. FDIC insured.
  • Yields more than 8x the national average.
  • Easy access to money with Quick Transfer.
  • Secure electronic statement.

Account Opening Process

After opening more than eight other high-yield online savings account, you’ll start to appreciate online accounts with simple opening processing. E-Trade made the account opening process fairly painless. You start with the usual personal information, follow by a quick identity verification (no hard credit inquiry, screenshot below).

E-Trade Identity Verification E-Trade Opening Process Complete

Once you verify your identity, your account will be opened and you’ll be presented with a screen providing you with your Complete Savings account number. It is recommended you print this page or write down the account number so you can immediately set up your online account functionality.

Within about a week or so, you’ll receive a mailer from E-Trade Bank. This was a pleasant surprise as most other online savings usually don’t bother to follow up with a banking and website usage guide.

E-Trade Banking Quick Start Guide E-Trade Banking Guide with Account Forms and Terms

The E-Trade’s Banking Quick Start Guide provides you with three quick step to get you started. 1) Log-on to account 2) make a deposit 3) maximize your money (by setting up automatic savings, online bill pay, etc.).  Included in this mailer is also a sheet of deposit slip for those that needs it, pre-addressed envelopes,  account agreement terms, privacy statement, and rate and fee schedule.

You’ll also find an “Account Holder Signature Card” in the mailing, which you’ll need to sign and mail back to E-Trade to complete your account opening. If you forget to send in your signature card, E-Trade will send you another mailing in about a few weeks to remind you.

Account Usage and Transfer Speed

Although E-Trade’s site has more navigation and menus that you’d clear to examine, once you’ve logged in, the account usage is pretty easy and straightforward. You’ll be presented with an overview page, listing the type of accounts you have (screenshot below), along with a Quick Transfer interface, giving you quick access to the ability to transfer your funds in and out of E-Trade.

E-Trade’s Quick Transfer setup is the same as any other Automated Clearing House transfer setup, put in the routing number and the checking account number for the banking account you want to link to your E-Trade account, and you’ll be presented with two methods to verify your external accounts (screenshot above).

You can choose the instant verification method which takes only a couple of minutes, and is available if your financial institution has an online website. You provide your website username and password and E-Trade will verify your account ownership.

If you’re not comfortable with the online instant verification method, you can use the good old deposit verification method, which entails E-Trade making two small random deposits into your external account, which you’ll have to verify. The deposits usually takes about 2-3 business day to show up.

Once you’ve finished setting up the Quick Transfer accounts, you’ll find that E-Trade fund transfer is one of the fastest in the industry. Tested fund transfers usually gets withdrawal from external account at the very next business day (if you initiate transfer before 4 P.M. EST), and is cleared for withdrawal from your E-Trade savings on the evening of the 3rd business day after the day of deposit.

Without a doubt, E-Trade’s fund transfer is as fast ING Direct’s transfer speed (if not faster), and E-Trade clearly beats out HSBC Direct or FNBO Direct in terms of fund transfer speed.

Customer Service and Overall Impression:

Contacting E-Trade is straightforward enough. If you click on the “Online Service Center” link on the upper right hand corner of your screen, you’ll be brought to the Service Center page, which includes a link for you to send a secure message to an E-Trade representative.  Some basic questions regarding withdrawals and transfers were sent to customer service for testing, and an E-Trade customer service representative was able to reply (correctly) to the question within about 48 hours.  Not too bad, but nothing stellar either.

Customer service is of course, a your-result-may-vary issue that deeply depends on the complexity of your question or problem.  If you need immediate customer service, you should consider calling E-Trade Bank at 1-800-387-2331, from 7 A.M. to midnight ET.  You can also fax E-Trade Bank at 1-800-664-4641.  Take note that these customer service numbers are different than those of E-Trade Securities.

Overall, E-Trade’s Complete Savings account is a no frills high-yield online savings account.  It’s account opening process was easy to navigate, and they provide you with useful literature and instructions by paper mail once you’ve signed up. The annual percentage yield rate has been competitive with other high-yield savings, thus making rate-chase a lesser issue.

If you’re already an E-Trade brokerage customer, you’ll have instant access to your cash to/from your savings to your brokerage account.  If you’re looking for a new savings account, you should have little issues with E-Trade’s offering — whether you’re a veteran online banking user or a newcomer.

E-Trade Bank Online Savings Review Rating:

Account Opening Process: 5 out of 5

Rate Competitiveness: 4 out of 5

Ease of Use: 4 out of 5

Customer Service: 3 out of 5

Pros:

  • Account opening a breeze. Useful account usage literature provided after sign-up.
  • Rate has been consistent and remains competitive, if not the best at times.
  • Transfer speed is one of the fastest, compared to other high-yield online savings.
  • Perfect for those with an E-Trade Brokerage account for faster fund transfer between savings and investment accounts.

Cons:

  • Customer service via phone is a bit lacking.
  • E-mail customer service is better but response time could be faster.

Related Links and Resources:

Billshrink.com - find better cell phone plans and credit cards

Frequently getting overage charges from your cell phone plan? Billshrink.com may be able to help you sort through hundreds of different cell phone plan and help you find the best plan to save you money.

Billshrink is pretty easy and straightforward to use. Choose the service that you want to compare (wireless or credit cards), input your calling or spending pattern and Billshrink will spit out a list of possible alternatives.

   Billsrhink cell phone comparison page      Billshrink credit card comparison page

You can also get a bit of phone usage analysis and better accuracy on cell plan comparison when you upload your phone bill to Billshrink. The site didn’t work too well for me as I already have a low price, discounted T-Mobile plan through Freelancer Union. The monthly bill of $36.85 is also a bit off since my plan was recently pro rated. If you have a regular consumer cell phone plan, you should definitely see better saving results.

BillShrink Cell Phone usage breakdown

As you can tell, I don’t use too many minutes or text messages. Lack of friends and all.

Heck, most of the calls is from the probational officer. Damn you James, I’m staying away from trouble, stop forcing me to call you already…

Features of Note:

  • Get quick cell phone usage analysis by importing your bill. See who you call the most and which calls are costing you money.
  • Sort through different plans from across different networks and choose the best rate.
  • Estimate additional cost for extra features on cell phone plans.
  • Compare and contrast best credit card for your spending pattern.
  • Let Billshrink “watch your back” and get notification when better rates and service are available (plans and credit card terms changes all the time).
  • Choose the type of phone you want to use and get even more specific comparison for plans that support the phone.

Billshrink can work fairly well if you’re not satisfied with your cell phone plan or not earning the proper rewards from your credit card spending. If you’ve already went through the process of doing heavy research to get the best cell plan or credit card — then Billshrink wont really help you save additional money (most likely the case if you’re reading a personal finance blog).

The credit cards comparison section is very detailed in terms of how they calculate the rewards; whether its point or miles, Billshrink converts them all into dollars so you can better compare the offerings.  Problem is, how the calculations are presented can be a bit confusing. If I had to re-read some details a few times just to understand how the calcuation works, then others that are less financially geeky may not be willing to take the time to understand the differences.

Despite that minor drawback (and I’m sure they’ll tune the site as time pass), BillShrink can be particularly helpful for the less research inclined. If BillShrink can continue to provide fast, easy, and objective recommendations, then it has the potential to establish itself as the place to go for service recommendations.

Pros:

  • Best for people looking for quick ways to identify best service for them.
  • Easy to use, especially if you import your cell phone bill.
  • Notification service lets you know if there’s better offerings out there.

Cons:

  • Credit card comparison calculations are a bit confusing.
Related Links and Resources:

Quicken Online Home Page View Overspending

In a move to no doubt better compete against other free online personal finance management tools, Quicken Online is now free (axing away the monthly $2.99 fee). I took the beta for a test drive sometime last year, but haven’t really checked back as I seriously had too many different tools to use.

Updated 9/14/2011: Quicken Online, for those that didn’t know, has basically been updated & replaced by Mint.com. It has same functionality and more features.

The above screenshot has one credit card account added (well technically three, with two balance transfer cards in the Chase account).

Geared for the fast and simple crowd, Quicken Online is fairly easy to use. You add in financial accounts of your choice (banking, credit, some investments), and Quicken Online will quickly chug out data on if you’re living within your means (money in vs money out).

Features of Note:

  • Quicken Beam: Access your balance info faster via a smartphone friendly site: m.quicken.com or text BAL to 636363 to quickly get your balances.
  • Set monthly budget at the My Budget tabs for categories you want to track.
  • Am I Living Within My Means calculation on front page. Works well enough if your cash flow is simple and straightforward.

Once accounts are added, the last 90 days of data will be grabbed and chugged into your Quicken Online account. Transactions are categorized well enough, but you’ll most likely have to tweak quite a few transactions. You won’t be able to import data from your other Quicken products, but Quicken Online isn’t really designed for in-depth personal finance analysis anyway.

You can only add in major investment accounts, as I don’t see too many other discount brokerages listed in the add accounts page. Which is well enough, as besides balance and transaction listing, there’s not much you can do when you add in investment accounts.

Quicken Online is overall pretty light when compared to Quicken’s desktop offerings. There’s a small categorization bug where they listed a Jack in a Box transaction as a monthly bill, but other than that minor quirk the service can be attractive for those needing a simple personal finance solution, especially considering the new free price tag.

Look for a full review in the future when I get around to taking it for a deeper test spin.

Related Links and Resources:

Mmm... more credit than you really need.

If you don’t want to deal with the process of researching your credit worthiness before you apply for credit, this new service may just be what you’re looking for.

A fitting name for the service, as it gets you a credit “grade” in seconds, then provides you with a list of credit cards and home loans that you may qualify for (home loan portion didn’t seem to work for me when I tried this). Click on the picture above to see a snapshot.

Launched just recently in early September 2008, KnowBeforeYouApply.com is owned by Centrro Inc., a financial-search company founded in 2006, with one of the founder being the creator of the website OSpace, one of the first internet provider of credit reports back in 1997 (the service was later acquired by Experian).

Cliff Notes:

  • You’ll have to provide your personal information: name, address, and last 4 digit of your SSN to do the credit pull.
  • The credit pull is done on your behalf so it won’t lower your credit score.
  • You can receive free monthly credit “grade” rating if you invite three friends to join (otherwise updated every 90 days).
  • KnowBeforeYouApply doesn’t mention which of the three (or all) credit bureaus it use to pull your report.
  • Offers presented doesn’t guaranteed approval. Remember, just because you have a high credit score/rating from whatever party that provides it (this includes a real FICO score), other factors are involved in granting credit (especially installment loans such as home or auto loans).

Pros:

  • No need to provide your full social security number to use the service.
  • Quick and easy, does exactly what it says.
  • Free avenue to track your general credit worthiness movement.
  • Useful place to drop by to have an additional peace of mind before you apply for credit.

Cons:

  • Personal information on yet another website.
  • Offers may not tailor specifically to your needs, so you should still do your own research.

Similar Services:

Related Post:

When you consider the myriad of rewards credit card out there, it’s no wonder Chase introduced the Chase Freedom card. With over 15 bonus reward categories and the ability to switch from cashback to point-based reward system, the Chase card is aptly named for its versatility (if not a bit cheesy and designed a bit fugly).

If you’ve had the unfortunate experience to have been subscribed to this blog for over a year, you may remember that I wrote a “preview” to the Chase Freedom card back in 2007. As promised, here’s a full detailed review for those that may be interested in a decent cashback rewards card.

Quick Facts: Chase Freedom Credit Card

  • Comes in Visa Signature or regular Platinum if you don’t qualify for Signature card.
  • No annual fee for either version of the credit card.
  • Good to Excellent credit needed to apply, 680 to 720+ in FICO score.
  • Chase will pull any of the three credit reporting agency to get your credit info.
  • Variable APR with the a current APR of 14.99% (like many rewards card, a bit high)
  • If you apply with FICO scores below 650, some delinquency on your credit history, and was declined, you may be able to ask for reconsideration by calling the number on the rejection letter.
  • Save time and trouble by converting one of your old Chase credit cards into the Freedom rewards card.

Chase Freedom Rewards Card

Applying for the Credit Card

A quick scan of the credit pulls database shows that those receiving an approval without issue have 700+ in FICO score, with no blemishes on their credit history. These people generally received instant approval or approvals within a few days.

Those with some minor blemishes on their credit history and lower FICO score will most likely get the “notification within 30 day” notice, but unless you have major delinquency on your account, you should be able to get approval without issue (and especially on reconsideration).

If you have any doubts to your credit standing, you should NOT apply for this rewards card, as it is a prime card that requires good to excellent credit.

Most Chase credit cards (non co-branded ones) can be converted to the Freedom card without issue, so if you want to enjoy cashback, you can easily call customer service and ask them to convert your old Chase card into the Freedom Rewards card (my card was converted from a plain vanilla, 7.99% fixed APR, Chase Visa card into the current Chase Freedom card).

If you already have a Chase card, converting to the Chase Freedom is my recommended method to get the rewards card, as it’ll save you the hassle of applying for new credit and avoids the opening of yet another revolving account on your credit report.

Rewards Structure: Bonus Categories and Cashbacks

We’ll mostly look at the cashback aspect of the rewards card, as cold-hard cash is always better than points. With cashback, you can buy the crap you really want instead of being limited to the selections in Chase’s rewards catalog.

You earn 1% or 1 point for each $1 in purchases. You’ll earn an additional 2% or 2 point for purchases made in the top three bonus categories where you spend the most.

Bonus cashback: When you accumulate $200 in cashback, you can claim a $250 check, in essence making this card into a 3.75% / 1.25% cashback rewards card.

Merchants that fall into the bonus categories are:

  • Grocery store (no warehouse clubs or discount stores, or departments of superstores)
  • Gas and convenience stores
  • Quick service payment/fast food restaurants
  • Telecommunications
  • Cable/satellite and TV/Internet service providers
  • Video rentals
  • Department stores
  • Dry cleaners
  • Drugstores
  • Movie theatres
  • Pet supply stores and veterinary services
  • Beauty salons and spans, or gym/recreation membership
  • Local and suburban commuter passenger transportations (ferries, bridges, tolls, parking garages, taxis/limos)

The trick in receiving the extra two percent in cashback (or points if you’re into that), is for the merchants to classify their merchant location as one of the following categories above.

Generally, if you’re buying groceries at a supermarket, or gas at a gas station, you’ll receive the bonus cashback without issues. However, if you buy groceries at a Walmart Supercenter, or gas at Costco, you won’t receive the bonus cashback.

Caveats: Although there are no cashback limits to regular purchases, there is a monthly $600 limit to the bonus categories; so in short, you can only earn about $18 in bonus cashback per month. If this limit is a concern, you can always supplement your cashback earnings with the Discover More Cashback Card. You should also note that the cashbacks and points on the Freedom card also expire in 36 months or 60 months, respectively.

Tracking and Requesting Cashback

Thanks to Chase’s new online account website, you can easily see your monthly cashback earnings once you’ve logged into your online account.

Accumulating cashback on the Chase Freedom Rewards card

As you can see above, there is about $178 accumulated in my Freedom Visa card. In addition to the previous $250 check already requested, this puts my total cashback since owning the rewards card to $428. Not too shabby for a year of frivolous spending.

Cashbacks can be requested within this page whenever you reach $50 in cashback. You can also request a check at the $100 or $150 level. But you mightas well save up to the $200 level so you can request the bonus cashback of $250.

As the screenshot shows, you can also switch your rewards system from cashback to points in this online account page. This way, instead of cold hard cash to pay off the hitman, you can now save yourself some trouble and just give your in-laws Macy’s gift cards.

Visa Signature and Additional Card Benefits

The rewards card comes in a Visa Signature or regular Platinum (if you don’t qualify for Signature). Visa Signature benefits includes: concierge service, no pre-set spending limit, emergency cash disbursement and card replacement, warranty manager service, purchase security and other common credit card benefits such as lost luggage reimbursement and auto rental collision damage waiver.

The Visa Signature concierge service is provided as a complementary service by a third party, Mondial Assistance. Although I’ve initially read good things about the Visa Signature concierge service, after a few trial runs via phone and email request, I’ve found the concierge service to be nothing extraordinary.

Generally, for fast prompt response to inquiries, your best bet is to phone the Visa Signature concierge service. You can expect decent service for restaurant recommendations and reservations in major cities or travel arrangements.

If you’re emailing for information or request, make sure to clearly state what you need and the timeframe of the request as that may help speed up the response time (2 out of 4 of my email request went unanswered).

There are two benefits that are actually fairly hot: Purchase Security can potentially reimburse you up to a maximum of $500 per claim in the event of theft, damage due to fire, vandalism, etc. within the first 90 days of date of purchase. Warranty Manager Service allows for you to register a product and extend a manufacturer’s warranty for an additional year, for products with manufacturer’s warranty of less than three years.

With these two benefits, you wouldn’t have to worry about your brand new laptop being stolen within 90 days of purchase, or the battery bursting into flames six days after the warranty expires!

Online Account Usage and Features

Chase’s online account usage is actually decent and there are a few handy features you may be interested in. You can setup personalized alerts to get notification to various email accounts, text messages to cell phones on different type of scenario and conditions (account overdrawn, balance above XX amount, activity on account of more than XX amount, etc.)

Along with personalized alerts, you can also setup automatic monthly bill payment with the online account. The type of bills you can setup to pay varies from your auto insurance to your telecommunication bills. If you don’t already have automatic bill payment setup at your respective services, this will be a good place to have everything centralized, into one account — plus, it’ll help you accumulate cashback faster.

Account statement page for Chase Freedom rewards card
click to enlarge

Like many other online accounts, you can view your past recent statements, check your balance, pending charges, available credit, payment status and due dates. In addition to recent statements, if you sign-up for Chase’s paper-less statement system, Chase will store your statements up to six-years. During the end of each year, you will also see a year-end summary, detailing your crazy spending.

Chase Freedom rewards card account detail page.
click to enlarge

Chase Customer Service

There are a few different methods to contact Chase if you have questions regarding your Chase card account. You can use the secure message center in the online account page, or if the matter is more pressing, you can contact Chase at the number on the back of your Chase Freedom card or the number on the credit card statement.

Depending on the time of the day, your call may be routed to the call center abroad, or you may reach a stateside representative. Issues that require more care will generally need a specific department from Chase, which are usually only available stateside and at normal business hours (for example, if you have an issue with a bill payment, you may not be able to reach help during the middle of the night).

I’ve had a situation where I accidentally made a significantly large payment to the wrong Chase Freedom card (I have two), and needed them to make the credit payment adjustment. To Chase’s credit (crappy pun not intended), the problem was resolved after two quick calls, with a prompt fix to my accounts within 24 hours.

Your results with customer service will of course vary, but as with any calls to a nation-wide financial institution, you’ll get better results during non-peak hours, which is usually prior to 9 AM or after 6 PM.

Overall Impression and Recommendation

If the Chase Freedom rewards card was a complete crap, it certainly wouldn’t be in my wallet for over a year. As a cashback card, it is fairly decent in its percentages, and generous in its bonus categories.

The $600 bonus spending limit in the bonus categories can certainly be a drag, but for many people, spending $600 in some of these specific categories can also be difficult, so the spending limit will only be a negative factor if your spending exceeds the limit. For those people, they tend to use the Freedom rewards card as a secondary cashback card, mainly to charge for specific monthly expenses such as telecommunications, utilities, or veterinary services.

If your monthly spending limit in those categories doesn’t exceed the $600 cap, then the Chase Freedom can be a good primary cashback card, if you don’t already have a better cashback credit card.

Generally, if you’re already grandfathered in a 5% cashback card, or have a card that suits your spending pattern, then you should definitely stick with that particular card, and only consider the Chase Freedom as a secondary choice.

If you already have a plain-vanilla Chase Visa card, you can easily call customer service to have them do a product swap to the Freedom rewards card. This method is recommended, as you avoid opening another revolving credit line to your credit profile.

For those that are still using credit cards that offer little in terms of rewards and cashback and pay their bills in full monthly, you should consider getting a rewards card like the Chase Freedom, or a similar rewards card that suits your spending pattern.

There is of course one major point you should take note of before getting the Chase Freedom card or any other rewards credit card. As a financial tool, credit cards can easily be a double edge sword. Along with their benefits, rewards, and convenience — they can become a real financial burden with irresponsible use.

Like many rewards credit card, the Chase Freedom has a higher interest rate than normal prime credit card with lower fixed rates. Any cashback you earned will be a moot point if you don’t pay your bills in full and accumulate interest.

Having said that, if you can manage your credit and spend wisely and you already pay your bills in full each month without issue, there’s little reason why you shouldn’t utilize the cashback from the Chase Freedom rewards card. In the long run, $428 in cashback isn’t something life changing — but man, sprining for those extra-soft toilet paper with the cashback money sure is sweet.

Update: Because Chase has changed the rewards structure of the Chase Freedom Rewards card, the ratings below have been updated to reflect the new changes. Please check Chase’s official website for finalized terms and benefits of the current Chase Freedom rewards card.

Chase Freedom Review Rating:

Cash Back: 4 out of 5

Card Benefits: 3 out of 5

Interest Rate: 3 out of 5

Customer Service: 4 out of 5

Pros:

  • Good online account interface with many useful features.
  • Base cashback is unlimited and bonus cashback categories are numerous.
  • Claiming cashback is straight forward — redeem at every $50 level, or save up to $200 for the bonus $250 check.
  • Visa Signature benefit of Purchase Security and Warranty Manager is a plus.
  • With good credit, you will often be presented with prime balance transfer offer within the online account page.
  • It’s a Visa card, which means it’s accepted almost everywhere.

Cons:

  • Bonus cashback is limited to $600 in spending per month.
  • Cashback expires in 36 months and points expire in 60 months.
  • High interest rate, not recommended as a balance carrying card.
  • 3% International transaction fee = don’t bother taking this card with you abroad.

Related Posts & Resources:

$0.04 for orange juice? Sweet!

Upromise Review Summary:

  • Account free to open. Set beneficiary as yourself or your child.
  • Earn rebate/contribution from grocery, gasoline, and other purchases.
  • Higher percentage in contribution when you shop online through Upromise’s portal or toolbar.
  • Program works best for an online shopper. If you don’t shop online, you won’t accumulate much in contribution.

I opened my Upromise.com account almost eight years ago, and if it wasn’t for a recent email, I would have forgot that I had an account at the college rewards/savings site.

From their own words:

Upromise is a free service that helps families earn extra money for education. It’s that simple.

We do this by partnering with hundreds of like-minded companies who share our mission. Our partners agree to provide YOU, the Upromise member, with rewards for using their products and services… and these rewards go into your Upromise account, where they become actual savings for college, grad school or even paying down a loan.

In essence, you create a free account at Upromise, register your credit cards and grocery cards, and when you dine and shop for groceries, you receive a contribution to your Upromise account when you purchase products or services that partners with Upromise. You can then use the accumulated contribution on qualified college spending.

Free money for doing what you’re already doing? What’s the catch?

As long as you’re not swayed by the marketing, there really isn’t any real catch. Upromises’ aim for their partners is to create brand loyalty. For example, whenever you buy gasoline at an Exxon/Mobil gas station, you will get $0.01 credited to your Upromise account for each gallon of gas you buy. If all else is equal and you have a choice between a Mobil gas station or another branded gas station, you will have more incentive to pump gas at the Mobil station due to the Upromise program.


Upromise Main Portal Page
Upromise Main Portal Page

Upromise Credit Card and Grocery Card Link Page
Credit Card and Grocery Card Link Page

From the screenshot on the top, you can see that I’ve accumulated $17.16 in my Upromise account (yeah, the $0.04 for orange juice is pretty sweet). Nothing exciting for an account I’ve had for over seven years — but then again, I’ve never consciously went and change my spending habit to buy specifically at any Upromise partnered companies.


Upromise Savings by Company Page
Savings by Company Page

Upromise Account Transaction Page
Account Transaction Page

It’s interesting to see that the majority of the contribution was from Exxon/Mobil purchased, amounting at $10.19. At $0.01 per gallon, that’s over 1,019 gallons of gasoline pumped in the past eight years at only one particular brand of gas station. A hefty amount of gasoline indeed!

You can easily earn significantly more contribution ($100+) if you shop online through the Upromise portal, download the Upromise toolbar, or use the Citi Upromise MasterCard — but if you don’t want to fuss with any of that, you can simply add your most frequently used credit cards (or just grocery cards if you’re not comfortable storing your CC info) and forget that you ever have an account and simply let the contributions accumulate through gas, grocery, and dining purchases.

$17.16 is not an insane amount, but that’s 1/8th of a college textbook! Woot?

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