Best Credit Card Reward Programs

December 6, 2011 by staff 

Best Credit Card Reward Programs, What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to five word summaries. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. SmartyPig update
2. Figuring out debt repayment order
3. Buying elderly mom a home
4. NCUSIF insurance
5. Ending naptime
6. Credit Card use
7. NACA question
8. Splitting regular and Roth 401(k)
9. Paying off student loans quickly
10. Spousal Christmas presents

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My mother came to visit recently, so I put aside the time to just spend a day with her. It was really enjoyable to just spend several hours together. We wrapped some Christmas gifts, played a couple of games, went out for a light lunch, and visited a bookstore (neither one of us bought anything, but we browsed for a while).

When I take time out to do things like this, it somehow makes my life seem better even if it makes other aspects of my life that much busier.

Q1: SmartyPig update
My question relates to the interest rate on SmartyPig. I have opened multiple goals with them since seeing your post on them awhile back. But I can’t help but take notice of the several interest rate decreases that have occurred recently. I understand (or I guess) that the economy is driving the interest rates down; I’m just wondering if they’re still the competitive savings resource they once were. Do you still recommend SmartyPig to your readers?
- Jill

Right now, SmartyPig’s interest rate is comparable to a lot of other online savings accounts. Early on, SmartyPig offered a rate that was significantly better than online banks, and that interest rate was a big reason to use SmartyPig.

However, SmartyPig’s appeal isn’t just interest rates. They offer a lot of nice tools for saving for specific goals, like saving for a vacation or for an appliance replacement. Often, they work with the retailer from which you’re buying that item to get you a reduced rate on that item. For example, if you’re saving for a goal that is an item that you can buy on Amazon (say, a MacBook Pro), you can choose to cash out when you reach your goal in the form of an Amazon gift certificate instead of cash, and they’ll add 3% to the face value of that certificate.

I think SmartyPig is a worthwhile tool for saving for specific short-term goals. In fact, I’ve used it myself when saving for a replacement computer.

Q2: Figuring out debt repayment order
I’m a proponent of paying highest interest rate debt first, so as to minimize total amount paid over time. However, lately I’ve been concerned about my three loans. I have one private student loan for ~$47K at a variable 4% (mo. payment: $354) and two fixed federal loans for $2,308 at 5.75% and $2,491 at 6.55% (mo. payment $32.50 each). My snowball is $1,856. With all the negative economy talk, I started getting nervous about a surge in inflation that would cause my variable interest rate to skyrocket, and therefore, really hurt me since the variable but lowest rate has the largest balance. So I was going to ask you if it would make sense to pay off my variable-low-interest-rate-but-high-balance debt first, and then start paying by highest interest rate.I am extremely risk-averse. But after I ran the numbers, this scenario really didn’t pan out. It became quite obvious that only in the event that interest rates soared past my highest rate loan now, would it make sense (of course!) to pay off my biggest balance (which would then be the highest rate) loan first. Does this check out/have I done this right?
- Lauren

The best mathematical way to pay off debts is always to pay debts in the order of interest rate. If the rate of a debt changes so that a new debt is now the highest interest rate debt, then you should switch to the high interest rate debt.

The only alteration I would make to that statement is that if you’re informed in advance of an interest rate change, it makes sense to immediately switch your extra debt payments to whichever debt will have the highest interest rate.

I would not make extra debt payments based on a feeling of what interest rates will look like in the future.

Q3: Buying elderly mom a home
My 75 year old mother is in mediocre health. She’s losing the place she’s living in and needs to move in the new year. She hasn’t one penny of savings, has a beater car and routinely drives to our part of the state twice a month to visit some vulnerable relatives. This is a 2 hour ride each way, but I agree that these relative actually need her.

I will be earning a big chunk of money in the first part of the new year and would like to buy a home for her to live in and as an investment. I’d like to take advantage of the crazy low prices in the suburbs near our home. Here are several questions for you.

1. Would you pay all cash for a house? Pros and Cons (My spouse makes more than enough money to support us, so our life would not be affected by this)
2. Would you make her pay a small portion of her social security toward rent? She currently has to pay half her social security for rent and is barely making it. I’ve always heard it’s a good idea to make people pay a small amount toward what they need. I was thinking 1/4 of her SS.
3. I want to spend about $200K and these homes might not be well insulated, etc. What things would you do to a house to make it as frugal as possible for her. She currently lives in a very old drafty house and her heating bill is killing her.
4. She is know for her very poor decisions. Is it practical to set a list of rules for her? She has completely disregarded the rules her current landlord imposed (a relative) and this is part of why she has to find a new place. I’d like to make her promise she won’t let deadbeat relatives move in. That she can’t have too many animals, etc. Is this too parental?
5. We use a property management company for one other rental we have. Should we do this with her? It costs us 10%, but then she would have them to call for maintenance. It would cost me money, but it may be a great buffer. I’m wary of putting a handyman at her disposal since she might possibly have them put on a new deck or build a turret rather than just have them unclog a drain or fix a sticky door. She has very qualms about doing what she thinks is “necessary” with other people’s money. “But I needed a greenhouse, my plants were dying”. If I do use a management company I might not tell her I bought the house since she might try to do less “quirky” things if she doesn’t think a relative will let her get away with it.
- Sheila

I would be really hesitant to enter into this type of “landlord” situation with a parent for much of the same reasons that I encourage people not to lend money to family and friends. It just adds an element to a valuable relationship that you really don’t want.

When there is something wrong with the house, you will be the person called. Because you’re family as well as the owner of the house, you’ll be expected to fix the problem very quickly and efficiently. Unless you have an exceptional person for a mother, this will hold true whether you have a management company or not.

There’s also the concern that the house that might make for a good investment might not be the same house you’d wnat your mother to live in given her current health situation.

If I were you, I would rent an apartment for her. If her health is slipping, it’s likely that the period of time you would rent would be limited. It would also put the burden of the “landlord” role onto someone else, and it would also allow you to purchase a house solely as an investment.

Q4: NCUSIF insurance
I have a couple questions: I am interested in a local credit union, with a checking account that has 2.51% interest if you have an automatic depost/withdrawal and minimum 12 debit transactions which I already do. What do you think about going with a credit union who is NCUSIF insured, which they claim is equivalent to being FDIC insured.
- Ron

NCUSIF insurance is extremely similar to FDIC insurance. Both are insurance programs on savings and checking/draft accounts backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government. In terms of the end user, they’re pretty much identical, as they both offer $250,000 in insurance against the failure of the financial institution that manages your account.

So, why the difference? Credit unions, in terms of the law, are different entities than banks, with different restrictions and requirements. One could go into a long list of these differences – for example, credit unions are not-for-profit while banks are inherently for-profit, to name just one. Because they work differently, it makes sense that the same insurance policy wouldn’t work for both entities.

From my perspective, your money is going to be just as safe in an NCUSIF-insured credit union as it would be in an FDIC-insured bank.

Q5: Ending naptime
I’m a stay-at-home mom who also runs a small online business. I usually do work needed for this while my daughter (3) is napping. However, lately, she’s been really restless at naptime and requiring lots of attention. My business is suffering. Any suggestions?
- Tessa

If you want to prolong the magic of naptime, the best way to do that is to utterly wear out your child in the morning. Engage in activities that require a lot of energy prior to lunch so that your child feels a strong energy lull after lunch.

Eventually, though, your child is simply going to grow out of naptime – and it sounds like this is happening right now. This is simply going to mean that your daily schedule is going to change. You can no longer bank on naptime as a time to get things done.

For us, our approach was “quiet time.” We continued the same routine as nap time, except that we simply mandated that they lay down and be quiet for a certain period of time. If they were still awake at the end of that period, they were free to get up and usually engage in a solo activity that would allow me to finish whatever task I was working on.

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