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A good prepaid card? It’s no longer an oxymoron

Credit card backgroundFinally, there’s a prepaid card that may deserve a place in your wallet.

The American Express Serve card eliminates, or at least makes it easy to avoid, most of the niggling fees that make typical prepaid cards a bad deal:

  • Users will be able to load the card with cash for free at 14,000 CVS and 7-Eleven stores, according to Stefan Happ, Amex’s senior vice president for U.S. payment systems. (The usual procedure involves a reload fee of $3 to $4, and it’s a hassle: you have to first buy a reload card at a store, then call a toll-free number or go online to add the money to your account.)
  • ATM withdrawals are free at 22,000 MoneyPass network machines. The fee for out-of-network withdrawals is $2. That compares favorably to the $2.83 to $2.88 the average prepaid card charges, according to NerdWallet.
  • There is a $1 monthly fee that can be waived if you use direct deposit (have paychecks or government checks loaded directly onto the card). The fee is also waived if you load at least $500 that month.
  • Getting a card is free through the end of the year; after that, buying one will cost $2.95.

The card has a bill pay function and will have mobile check capture (where you can take pictures of checks to deposit them) later this year.

And get this…the card even has a savings account, called Reserve. You can set up one-time or recurring transfers that can help you save up for a purchase or get started on that all-important emergency fund.

American Express has a similar product called Bluebird, developed with WalMart, which provides free cash reloads at its stores. Not every community has a WalMart, however (shocking, I know)—New York City being one example of a WalMart-free zone. Bluebird has been singled out, by NerdWallet and others, as one of the best prepaid cards; Serve makes a good thing even better.

This is the first card I’ve seen that could actually be a viable alternative to a real checking account. That’s the audience Amex is targeting, of course: the tens of millions of Americans who are “unbanked” or “underbanked.” Many either can’t get an account or have given up on traditional banks because of all the fees. But because so many cards have hidden or less obvious fees—reload fees charged by third parties, or ATM surcharges—they often wind up paying more than they might at a consumer-friendly

“We want to be consumer advocates,” Happ told me. “We really put our money where our mouth is.”

Normally I’d dismiss that as PR happy talk. This card, though, delivers on the premise.

It’s also a decent alternative for delivering allowances to teenagers. Happ has set up two subaccounts for his daughters (who are over 13, the minimum age for such subaccounts), and delivers their monthly allowance to them via Serve cards.

The one bummer—it’s an American Express product, so it’s not accepted everywhere that Visa and MasterCard are. I haven’t experienced that as a huge problem; most stores I use accept Amex, and typically the only time I have to pull out an alternative I’m at a smaller independent store or a doctor’s office. But it’s something to keep in mind.

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Coping with a lost generation of income

coins on a scale weightThe typical American family makes less than it did in 1989, according to a recent Washington Post analysis of Census Bureau data.

Although some pundits seem to have completely missed the point—one even argued that we’re better off now because electronics are cheaper—most people instinctively understand how not-good this actually is.

It’s a reversal of trend when family incomes rose pretty much across the board between the end of World War II and the 1970s. Add in the skyrocketing costs of health care and education—a college education costs twice what it did in 1980, in inflation-adjusted terms—and you have a real squeeze going on.

What income growth there has been since 1991 has gone to households headed by someone with a college degree. Furthermore, most of the job losses during the latest recession were in middle-income occupations. The growth since then has been in low-wage jobs.

That’s actually been the trend for at least the last decade: Mid-wage jobs got clobbered in the 2001 recession and never really recovered before getting whacked again. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the income and wealth gains have gone to the wealthiest Americans.

Even without these economic headwinds, you can’t necessarily count on your income heading steadily skyward. People who lose jobs, especially during or after a recession, can have a tough time finding the next one and may have to take a pay cut to get it. Illness or accident can reduce your ability to work. Employers can decide to contain costs by reducing your hours or even outsourcing your job.

Stuff, you know, happens.

And no one is charging to the rescue. Congress can’t even agree to pay its own bills, let alone help you figure out how to pay yours. Even the easier stuff—making college more affordable and closing tax loopholes that favor the rich—is beyond our lawmakers’ abilities.

So it’s important to be as nimble financially as you can be. You’ll want to be in the best position to adapt to changing circumstances, because change is the pretty much the only thing you can count on.

That means:

Keep your nut small. Your “nut” consists of your basic expenses, the bills you have to pay to avoid serious consequences such as eviction, repossession, credit score damage, job loss and ill health. These must-haves include shelter, utilities, food, transportation, insurance, child care and minimum loan payments. Keeping these costs to half or less of your current after-tax income will help you weather job loss or other income interruptions.

Buy less house than you can afford. As I wrote in “The 10 Commandments of Money,” the old advice that you should stretch to buy a home is seriously out of date, and often downright dangerous. In the old days, you count on rising incomes to make a big house payment more manageable over time. That’s no longer the case, and shelter payments that exceed 25% of your current income can make it tough to make ends meet.

Create multiple income streams. One or two paychecks may not be enough. Having a side hustle of some kind can help you pay the bills if your main gig disappears.

Save prodigiously. The old advice was to save 10% of your income. These days 20% is the number to shoot for. You not only want to make sure you’re taking full advantage of retirement savings plans, but you also need a sizeable emergency fund to get you through income disruptions. If even 10% feels like a stretch, start just by saving something and kick up your contribution rate a little at a time.

Beware debt. I’m not among those who think all debt is evil. Moderate amounts of the right kinds of debt can help you get ahead. If it’s a choice between no college degree and $20,000 in student loans, by all means, sign up for the student loans. But don’t overdose. Six-figure loans for an undergraduate degree make no sense. Neither does carrying credit card debt or agreeing to a crushing car payment. If you can’t pay cash for a car, at least make a sizeable down payment (20% or better) and limit your loan term to four years. Then hang on to the car for another 5 or 6 years while you save cash to buy the next one. Avoid the temptation to have more than one car payment at a time; few households can afford that luxury in good times, and those payments can really trap you when your income drops.

Get educated (and get your kids educated). The future is looking grim for those without a college degree. Some kind of post-secondary training is going to be a virtual necessity for staying in the middle class.

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What you need to know about estate planning

Last will and testamentExclusive to Ask Liz Weston, this post comes courtesy of Ally Bank.

Whether you’ve worked for years or you’re just starting out, it makes sense to create a plan for distributing your assets after you’re gone. That’s where estate planning comes in. Estate planning may involve everything from creating a will to establishing trusts to designating guardians for dependents.

Below are a few common questions about estate planning addressed by several experts in the field.

What is estate planning?

Estate planning is the process of arranging for the disposal of your estate—your assets—during your life. In an interview with Ally Bank, Erin Baehr, president of Baehr Financial in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, stated, “all it really means is to organize the distribution of the things you own and the legacy you want to leave, large or small.”

Most estate plans are set up with the help of an attorney with experience in estate law. The core document in estate planning is the will, which describes which assets go to whom. Other aspects of an estate plan may include naming an executor of the estate, setting up durable power of attorney, and designating guardians for dependents. An estate plan usually will involve a trust.

In a recent interview with Ally Bank, Bruce D. Steiner, an attorney at the New York City firm Kleinberg, Kaplan, Wolf & Cohen and editorial advisory board member at Trusts & Estates, explained, “For most people, the focus is on what their will says. And in their will, if they’re sufficiently wealthy, and they give things away during their lifetimes, they almost always do it in some sort of a trust.”

Why establish a trust?

You want to ensure your beneficiaries receive what you intend to give with as few legal hurdles and unnecessary taxes as possible. A trust is a legal document that protects and controls your assets. Diane Morais, Ally Bank Deposits and Line of Business Integration Executive, explains, “As the economy stabilizes and Americans aim to grow their personal investments, Ally Bank suggests that savers protect the assets they have worked so hard to attain. Trusts can protect their legacies.”

Morais also noted in a recent article in The Huffington Post that many people are looking for bank products that work well with trusts: “With many Americans now able to save for the first time in years, many are evaluating bank accounts that are ideally suited for trusts . . . to firm up their own savings while simultaneously easing the burden on their beneficiaries.” Many banks, including Ally Bank, have deposit products ideally suited for trusts.

Who is estate planning for?

Anyone can benefit from planning for the future. Steiner explains that estate planning is for “Anybody who has assets and would like them to go in a way that might be different than the way they would go by default. That’s really most people.” And according to Baer, “Everyone should have an estate plan, if for no other reason than to make things easier on the people left behind.”

When should you start thinking about estate planning?

The answer is unique to you and your situation. As you age and accumulate assets, you may be more inclined to start thinking about how to protect what you’ve worked for.  Steiner suggested that a person’s family situation usually plays into his or her decision to get started with an estate plan. He notes, “It might be when [you] have a spouse, but for most people, I think it’s certainly when they have a child, since you have to decide, if you’re not around, who’s going to take care of that child? And if you leave money to a child, and the child can’t manage money, you have to decide who’s going to be the trustee for the child’s money.”

How should you prepare to meet with an estate planner?

As part of the estate-plan process, you will want to draw up a list of your assets, making it as complete as possible. You should include life insurance policies and retirement benefits. You also want to think about your wishes regarding family members, dependents, executors, trustees, guardians, and beneficiaries.

What are recent changes in estate planning law?

The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 was approved earlier this year. Explains Steiner, “It permanently fixed the federal estate tax exempt amount at $5.25 million, as indexed for inflation. It made portability permanent, which means if I have a spouse and I don’t use my entire exempt amount, my spouse can inherit my unused exempt amount.”

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