How to Leverage Free Tools for Your Business

In order to launch and grow a successful business, you must stay on top of an endless list of tasks. That can become overwhelming in short order unless you find a way to make all of these processes a bit easier to manage.

Sometimes, you can do that by hiring more staff, but that’s pretty cost-intensive. Your other option is to use technology to get things done. There are some great tools out there to help you in nearly every area of your business, and many of them are free.

Benefits of Using Free Tools

Why should business owners seek out free tools? What are the benefits of this, especially when paid versions often have more features?

There are times when it is better to invest in a paid tool. If you can’t find what you need to operate your business for free, then you should absolutely spend the money required to get what you need. Still, there are a surprising number of tools that are free, and they deserve consideration for the following reasons:

  • They let you save funds to invest in growth and staffing
  • You can test run tools via free trials
  • They can automate processes without spending money
  • You can improve your ability to grow via bootstrapping

If you are unsure that your business will benefit from a particular tool, look for a free version first.

Identify Where You Need Help

If you look, you can find a tool for nearly every business function. However, before you choose tools, it helps to identify where you’ll get the most benefit from a bit of extra help.

Businesses generally benefit from tools that help them increase productivity, improve communication and collaboration, and handle functionality that is outside of the core area of expertise.

For example, a free messaging tool could lead to better communication. Similarly, a free VoIP trial would be ideal for testing out increased telecommunications capabilities.

Additionally, it helps to consider where your team is struggling. Sometimes, a tool can help by automating processes. You can also implement free tools to free up time and resources to dedicate to mission-critical tasks such as research and development, sales, and growth strategy.

Get the Details

Before you implement any free tool, take time to review all of the pertinent details. Free or not, you want to know what is included and any terms involved.

You’ll want to verify that the free version of the tool includes the functions you need to gain any meaningful benefit. Double-check for time-based constraints too. You don’t want to rely on a tool that suddenly becomes unavailable.

Many free tools will convert to paid versions without warning. If you provide a credit card to obtain a free tool, make sure you note the end of the trial period. This way, you can choose to continue with the paid version or cancel.

Borrow Smart, Avoid High Fees

Whether you are looking for long term credit or a short term loan, ensure you are getting great interest rates from reputable lenders without damaging clauses that loop you into rising interest, extra penalties or loan calls. By searching out all your options before you decide to get credit or a loan you can save yourself a lot of money in interest and penalties.

Government Grants or Loans

Many municipal, state or federal governments offer loan programs for a wide array of needs to consumers and small businesses. Depending on your need some of these programs are grants. The difference between a grant and a loan is that a grant is usually for a very specific purpose but does not actually need to be paid back as it is a gift essentially.

So if you need to upgrade the heating in your home, its insulation or windows, many programs exist for that or if you need to invest in capital equipment or labor training there are grant programs for those as well from your government. Although these programs have more strict application basis their repayment terms are much more favorable including lower interest rates, longer repayment periods and even grants that are free.

Most governments also provide specific funding loans for different sectors of the economy based on need. There are almost always student and business funding opportunities available at all three levels of government. Other types of need include agricultural loans, disaster relief, veterans and housing loans. Whichever your need there is most likely a government loan with an easy payment schedule and a reduced interest rate to match.

Non-Profit Lenders

If you are a small business or an individual in need of quick cash for an emergency purchase or other qualified lending need, these lenders are often the right choice. Without the same regulations that large financial organizations bear, these lenders offer a service that can meet your needs.

Forget alternative lenders, which offer quick cash for a portion of your business revenue or wages in return for exorbitant interest rates. Instead choose a non-profit lender that is in the business of helping people with reasonable rates that do not exceed 15% per annum of interest. Other short term loans such as cash advances or pay day loans can often equate easily to 100% interest or more over a per annum charge.

These alternative sources such as pay day loans can often write in extra admin or deferral charges as well, ballooning your principle loan amount leading to even larger debts. Common financial wisdom generally dictates that if you cannot afford the fees of the loan, you cannot afford the loan. In the case of cash advances and pay day loans, unfortunately most people that get them cannot afford them.

Of course even non-profit lenders can charge high interest rates and you will need to assess the total cost of the loan in comparison to the next two options.

Exhaust these areas of loans and grants before you attempt financial institutions with higher interest rates or less forgiving repayment models.

Easy ways to cut the cost of your lunch hour

Update: Even though it’s four years since I first wrote about this, I’m still very aware of it today. The streak has ended (can’t pass up $6 food truck lunches in Portland), but I’m still very far from buying lunch every day.

125 Days.  That’s how long since the last time I bought myself lunch on a workday.  That’s 92 consecutive workdays (and counting).  To me, it’s a huge feat that I’m proud of and has also saved me a ton of money.  Conservatively assuming that eating out for lunch costs $5 more than bringing my own lunch, I’ve saved $460 in about one-third of a year.  This is not to mention that I’ve undoubtedly eaten much healthier lunches by bringing them from home (most days I eat a salad, soup, or leftovers).   I can honestly say it hasn’t been too hard for me to do, but I owe this in a large part to the preparations I continue to make to keep this possible.  Here’s what’s part of my strategy:

1) Stock foods that can be taken for work.  I grocery shop once a week, and I make sure to buy plenty of things that I can bring to work.  My grocery store of choice is Trader Joe’s, and they have a lot of options that work well for lunches. I make sure to have lettuce or bagged salads at all times during the week.  Fruits and vegetables are definitely important, too, such as carrot sticks, bananas, and apples.  I really like soups that Trader Joe’s carries as well as some of their frozen selections.  While I prefer to eat fresh food whenever I can, Trader Joe’s stocks fronzen foods that are made mostly from natural and organic ingredients.  I feel a little better about these options versus frozen meals from Weight Watchers and the like.

2) Cook enough each night to provide leftovers for the next day.  I typically cook dinners consisting of fresh vegetables.  When I do, I make sure to cook enough to take to work with me the next day or two.  I can often add other meal components that are easy to cook in bulk, such as rice or pasta.  Certain meals are very good for leftovers, like soups and chili.  All of these are easily reheated at work and taste great compared a sandwich or other takeout options.

3) Keep (healthy) food at work. Aside from what I bring to work each day, I make sure to keep food at my desk just in case.  Occasionally, I do forget to bring my lunch.  Other times I don’t have enough food left at home.  That’s where having food at my desk comes in handy.  I keep nuts, granola bars, and crackers stored in my desk.  I try to keep these desk foods somewhat healthy since I don’t want to encourage high-calorie snacking.  But when I really am hungry and I think about going out to buy something, I can pull a variety of things out of my desk drawer instead.

4) Don’t keep menus or let people talk you into lunch. I don’t keep menus or other temptations around the office.  If I don’t see it, I usually don’t think about it or consider it.  If others are going out to lunch, I politely decline.  After saying “no” for a few weeks, my office mates realized I was never going to say “yes” and gave up on me.

5) Make the lunch that you would buy.  A lot of the lunch options out there are things that you could make yourself.  If you’re going to go out and buy a ham and cheese sub, make it yourself instead for a fraction of the cost.  Salads are super easy to make, especially with pre-mixed bags of lettuce and the wide variety of other toppings available.

6) Find other productive things to do during your lunch break.  This makes the case for spending as much of my lunch break as I can not eating food but doing other things I want to do.  Rather than spend all of the time it takes to order food, go out and get it, bring it back, and then eat it, I just settle for the lunch I have in the office fridge that I brought to work.  I heat it up and eat within 15 minutes or so.  That leaves me another 45 minutes to do what I choose.  I often read books or blogs or I pay bills and do other tasks that I would need to do at home anyway.  Now, I look forward to my lunch break to do these productive things I enjoy rather than look forward simply to eating.

7) Consider the trade-offs.  I’m not simply skipping lunch to deprive myself of “the good life.”  It’s more that I’d prefer to spend my money in other places, even if it’s still on food.  I’d much rather eat out for dinner than buy a sub or pizza for lunch every day.  Lunch just doesn’t excite me in terms of what’s available as take out.  However, a well-prepared and exciting dinner, like Ethiopian food, is what I’d much rather enjoy.  I’m also much more interested in eating healthy than loading up on the high-calorie, quick lunch options.

Perhaps one of the main reasons that people do eat out for lunch is that they don’t want to take the time to make lunch every day.  This is a poor excuse.  Most alternatives don’t take much time to prepare, and packing leftovers takes virtually none.

If you must eat out for lunch, definitely set limits.  Once a week is plenty.  Consider cutting down on this number gradually while getting used to making lunches for yourself.  It really isn’t that bad, and it’s an easy step to padding your wallet.

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Photo by: I Love Egg

Why I’m Writing One Letter A Day to Thank 365 People

Today, I’d like to announce a new project that I’ve been working on and keeping a secret for over a month now. It’s called “365 Letters of Gratitude.”

The concept is simple: every day, I spend a few minutes writing a letter to a different person whom I’m grateful to have in my life. Usually it’s just a few paragraphs detailing why these people mean so much to me and the ways they’ve affected my life, large or small.

It’s been hard, but I’ve kept it going for 45 days now. And I’m so grateful that I’ve done that, too. While reminiscing, I’ve laughed, I’ve cried (a lot), and mostly just been really happy for everyone in 26 years of life.

Here’s more on the project.

Why am I doing this?

There are a few reasons why I created this project:

  • I wanted to be and feel more grateful. In the past, despite always feeling like I live an awesome life, I’ve felt like I’ve wanted or expected more from life. This is my way of calling “bullshit” on myself since it makes me think every day about who and what I’m glad to have in my life.
  • I’m terrible at expressing my thanks to others. There’s a lot of times I’ve wished I could say something to someone in person, but I just never find the right words to say it. By writing a letter, I can put my true feelings out there. So far, it’s worked as I haven’t really been afraid to say anything in letters I’ve written.
  • I wanted to do something challenging yet fun and rewarding for every day for a year. Truth be told, I just thought this would be an interesting project to take on for a bunch of reasons. I’ve already wondered if I could do it every single day (and I have, for 45 days and counting). I’ve also thought: How am I really going to come up 365 people? That’s definitely going to be a creative challenge to tackle. For now, I just wanted to get started and concentrate on taking it a day at a time rather than getting overwhelmed with the details.

Where’d the idea come from?

In September, I caught a talk by Noah Scalin who created the skull-a-day project. He challenged everyone listening to be creative and make something new every day. If you know me, you’ll know I’m much better with words than I am visual art, so 365 Letters of Gratitude was born the next day after hearing Noah’s idea.

What you can do

Just like Noah challenged me, I’d like to challenge all of you to do something like this. It can be really simple and take just a few minutes, but the idea is to do it every single day. Some of the other crazy ideas out there:

If you don’t want to commit to a full year, try doing something for just a month. See how it makes you feel, and maybe you’ll find you enjoy it enough to keep going for another 31 days.

This has been an amazing experience for me so far, and I truly believe I am more grateful and happy with life now. I know I have a long way yet until I’m done, but I’m loving the journey to get there.

If you’re curious about my project, you can read all the letters on 365 Letters of Gratitude. You can read more about why I’m doing this and some of the FAQs by checking out this page, too.

Multiple Bank Accounts: Is Having More Better or Worse?

Note: Welcome to those coming over from Yakezie! Glad to have you here! Be sure to check out some of my most popular posts on the right side of the page. Cheers!

With brick-and-mortar banks, credit unions, and online banks, the options for where to open an account are limitless now. You could open dozens of accounts in a day without much effort. But should you?

While there’s no financial penalty for having many accounts, there are pros and cons to having many or having just one or two.

Why have multiple?

Having multiple bank accounts can lead to great organization if you manage it correctly.

For example, you can have different savings accounts for different savings purposes. Right now, I have a bike savings account, a “quit my job” savings account, an investment savings account, and more. ING Direct makes it easy to set up all these different kinds of savings accounts, and it takes only minutes to open a new one. I usually don’t hesitate to do so when I think of a new account I could use. I recent opened another new account (you can read my Ally Bank review here).

By having multiple accounts, it’s always easy to know how much money you have saved for each purpose. For example, I know that I have $170 set aside strictly for bike maintenance and repairs. If I mixed all these accounts together, it would require some other system of accounting to figure out how much money belonged to what purpose.

Since I adopted the Mint app on my iPhone, it’s been a lot easier for me to see balances in each account, too. I check it at least once a day since it literally takes less than a minute to take a look.

Why have only one or two?

While I enjoy having different accounts for different purposes, it’s definitely more confusing at times. This is especially the case with multiple checking accounts for me. I opened a PerkStreet account because of the great rewards, but I didn’t fully commit to choosing that account instead of my USAA one.

As a result, I transfer a limited amount money to PerkStreet to use for general spending when I receive each paycheck, but I still primarily use my USAA checking account for paying bills. While I enjoy the rewards, I find myself constantly checking my balance to avoid over-drafting.

Even having multiple savings accounts can probably be simplified. If I keep numbers simple and say that $5,000 is emergency savings and the rest is just general savings, I could make it work (although this still doesn’t seem preferable to me).

Which is better?

I’m going to stick with the multiple accounts plan for now. I still feel like having different accounts for different purposes keeps me more organized and on top of my current balances. I hate transferring money between checking accounts all the time, so I’ll make a decision on that soon and get rid of one. Overall, I’ll definitely consider switching back to a minimal number of accounts.

What do you think?

How many accounts do you have or do you think is best? Do you find that one system works better for you than another?

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photo by: cote

And the Winners Are…

Congrats to our three winners from the Spruce Up Your Life Giveaway!

First Prize: Kimberly C. gets the $100 prize and picked the Alzheimer’s Association for the donation.

Second Prize: Kyra B. won the $50 prize and has chosen the Autism Society of North Carolina as her charity of choice.

Third Prize: Doreen K. takes home two of my favorite personal finance books.

Thanks to everyone that entered! It was a lot of fun running the contest and getting hundreds of entries!

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37 Must-Read Posts for Tax Savings

taxesIn a quest to understand taxes to the best of my ability, I’ve compiled a list of the best posts to help you maximize refunds and minimize stress in the tax season!

To do this, I looked at bookmarked posts, asked friends on Yakezie, and scoured even more of my favorite blogs and  Google. The result – 37 awesome posts (plus this one, which clocks in at ~1,900 words).

Posts cover a wide range of topics. Not all of them are “how-to” in nature, but they’re all helpful in making tax decisions both when you’re filing your return this season and making decisions that have tax implications for 2012’s return.

Before you start reading, here’s the usual disclaimer: I’m not a a tax professional (and neither are most of the bloggers here), and you should seek professional advice before making any tax-related decisions. Also, some posts written in previous tax years and for previous tax years, so make sure to confirm that the information in these posts is still accurate.

Preparing to Do Your Tax Return

1. Getting Ready for Your Tax Return from DollarVersity

Helpful for: Saving time and stress later from dealing with taxes. It helps a great deal (and I’m really learning this now) to keep track of all your tax-related receipts and forms throughout the year rather than trying to gather them up at the end. Eric provides a great guide for making sure nothing slips through the cracks.

Doing Your Own Taxes

2. Should You Do Your Own Taxes? from DollarVersity

Helpful for: Determining if it makes sense to do your own taxes. Eric encourages using having an ongoing relationship with a professional to get your taxes done, and he discourages using storefront tax services.


3. Do Your Own Taxes or Hire and Accountant? from Financial Samurai

Helpful for:  Convincing yourself that you can do your own taxes. Sam suggests that in most cases, you should be able to handle your return on your own unless your return is more complicated (i.e. multiple real estate properties, investments, businesses, etc.) He does his own in 2-3 hours each year using software, so no need to make it too complicated or time consuming.


Tax Software

4. Five Arguments for Self-Preparing Tax Software by me

Helpful for: Cheaply filing your personal tax return. I’ve always had a fairly simple return, and I’ve always filed it using Tax Slayer, which I’ve found to be cheaper than Turbo Tax yet do just as good as a job (I compared them side by side last year, and each calculated the identical refund). If you haven’t used online tax software, it doesn’t hurt to give it a shot since it’s free to try (it just costs money to file), and it’s definitely faster and more accurate than doing taxes by hand.


5. Best Tax Software for Filing Taxes from Money Smart Life

Helpful for: Evaluating the cost and features of several tax software providers. I haven’t used any of these before myself, but there’s several options from a few of the top brands of software presented.

Hiring Someone to Do Your Taxes

6. Ask Questions Before Letting Someone Do Your Taxes from DollarVersity

Helpful for: Choosing the right preparer for your tax return. Eric points out that not all options are equal, and you should ask questions like: what qualifications does s/he have? On what basis is s/he paid? Do your research and don’t pick someone at random.


7. Tax Prep Costs – How Much Will it Cost to Get Your Taxes Done from Get Rich Slowly

Helpful for: Determining how much it will cost to prepare your taxes with either software, online software, or an in-person service. This post goes into great depth, and includes various prices from across the US.


8. Essential Tips for Hiring a CPA from Budgeting in the Fun Stuff

Helpful for: a script of specific questions to ask your potential CPA, which might go beyond solely tax preparations. YFS suggests finding a CPA that is at least somewhat specialized in dealing with individuals or businesses like yours.


Paying Taxes and Understanding Tax Rates and Brackets

9. Tax Rates, Tax Brackets, and Top Tips for Filing Tax Returns in 2012 from One Cent at a Time

Helpful for: A thorough breakdown of tax brackets. Don’t know how they work and what situation applies to you? Check out this post with many easy-to-read tables of information.


10. How to Make Quarterly Estimated Income Tax Payments from Good Financial Cents

Helpful for: Information on how to make quarterly tax payments, which is helpful (and sometimes required) if you’re self-employed.


11. Understanding Tax Brackets from Money Crush

Helpful for: Demystifying tax brackets. Many people think they pay tax at the same rate on all their income. This post explains how that’s simply not true, and shows how to properly calculate your taxes (just make sure you’re working with the regulations for the right year).


General Deductions

12. Commonly Overlooked Tax Deductions from Free From Broke

Helpful for: Not forgetting some significant yet harder-to-remember tax deductions. Did you rack up mileage for charitable work? What about your breastfeeding equipment? You may be able to get a tax break on these things, so don’t forget to look into them.


13. Tax Credits vs Tax Deductions from Money Talks Coaching

Helpful for: Understanding the difference between the two. A tax credit is almost always better than a tax deduction of the same amount. Read this post to understand why.


(Bonus) Tax Deductions for Charitable Contributions and Donations from Money Crashers

Helpful for: Learning about what can be deducted on your tax return and the rules related to how those deductions can be taken. This post includes some less-common donations other than cash, like stock or physical property


14. Tax Tips for the Freelancer from Get Rich Slowly

Helpful for: Getting answers to simple self-employed tax questions. GRS tackles the Schedule C as well as typical deductions (like the good old home office deduction).


15. Blogger Tax Breaks and Deductions from Free From Broke

Helpful for: Bloggers wondering what expenses to deduct. Here’s a list from Free From Broke with examples of deductions if you can take as a blogger (and I will definitely be taking some of these).


16. Tax Deductions for Your Online Business Expenses from the College Investor

Helpful for: Deductions for online businesses beyond just blogs. Robert provides another great list of the types of supplies, services, and other expenses that may be deductions on your return.


17. Home Business Deduction Tax Tips from the Novel Investor

Helpful for: Deductions focused on a home business. This isn’t limited to just online businesses, and includes a few more things in addition to the other posts above.

Home Ownership

18. Why You Shouldn’t Buy a House Just for the Mortgage Deduction from Retire by 40

Helpful for: Considering the mortgage deduction and making a good decision. Since I’m a renter (4-lyf!), this post just talks a bit about the myth of the tax deduction for mortgages. YFS explains that the deduction itself, while it’s great, should never be the sole reason to purchase a house.


19. Is the Home Mortgage Interest Tax Deduction a Good Idea? from Five Cent Nickel

Helpful for: Another take on mortgage deductions. This is outside my realm, but I hope you enjoy it.


20. Sell Your Investment Losers Before 2011 Ends from Retire by 40

Helpful for: Tax strategy with investments. RB40 talks about selling “losers” at the end of 2011 for the tax benefit. It’s too late to take advantage this year, but mark you calendar before the end of 2012.


21. Looking for Another Tax Deduction? Open an IRA from Bible Money Matters

Helpful for: Encouraging you to open an IRA for the tax benefit. Perhaps the best you can take advantage of after the tax year is over, this post provides some the math to for late-season tax savings.


22. Traditional and Roth IRA Contribution Limits from PT Money

Helpful for: A thorough explanation of IRA contributions for 2012. Philip covers many (and maybe all) of the different contributions scenarios. If you’re unclear on what you can contribute, this post will straighten things out.


23. Basics of Investment Taxes from Six-Figure Investor

Helpful for: Learning how taxes on investments work, including capital gains.


24. Tax Efficient Investing from Investor Junkie

Helpful for: Investing to your best tax advantage.


Filing Late and Extensions

25. What Happens if You Don’t File Your Tax Return? from Good Financial Cents

Helpful for: Convincing yourself that it’s a really bad idea not to file your taxes. Jeff points out the penalties for not filing a return, which can be very harsh.


26. How to File a Federal Tax Extension from Moolanomy

Helpful for: Step-by-step for filing an extension. If you can’t get your return in on time, this post will guide you through the extension process.


Dealing with the IRS

27. What Should You Do if You Are Audited? from Free From Broke

Helpful for: Facing an IRS audit. I’ve never been audited, but I imagine it can be a stressful experience. This post is a quick guide for what to do, including knowing what your right are.


28. Negotiate with the IRS from Financially Consumed

Helpful for: Negotiating down what you owe to the IRS. If you owe money to the IRS, it’s possible that you can negotiate your way out of paying some of it back. Hunter provides a couple options for doing that.

Tax Statistics

29. Uncle Sam the CEO: Visualization of IRS Revenues from DQYDJ

Helpful for: Knowing how much tax is collected, and playing around with graphs. I’ve grown to love DQYDJ for all the cool graphs they make over there. This one is fun, too, as it takes your through a bit of the history of taxes.


30/31. 2011 Tax Changes/2012 Tax Changes from Wealth Informatics

Helpful for: Figuring out what changed in 2011 and for 2012 and planning accordingly.


32. Evading Tax – Legally from Frugal Confessions

Helpful for: Saving a few bucks on taxes. Amanda shares a story about how she “evades” taxes in her own life in a way that you might not have thought of before.

33. Tax Rates by Country from Squirrelers

Helpful for: Realizing we don’t pay that much in taxes in the US compared to the world. It’s true: the US has pretty low taxes (and we also have a low savings rate, too).


34. Explaining a Health Savings Account from Budgeting in the Fun Stuff

Helpful for: Using a Health Savings Account (HSA), which does have tax benefits. HSAs utilize funds not subject to federal tax when they’re deposited into the account, and these funds can then be used to pay for a wide range of qualified medical expenses.


35. How to Cheat on Your Taxes – Legally from Get Rich Slowly

Helpful for: A savvy way to look for tax savings in areas where some deductions are prohibited. My favorite: “You can deduct personal legal fees related to contesting, paying, or claiming a refund on your taxes.”


36. Tax Forms You Need from Narrow Bridge

Helpful for: Knowing what tax forms to gather up and look for. Eric explains which tax forms will be reading your way before you file your return, so be sure to collect and save all of these!


37. 2012 Tax Deadline and Other Important Tax Dates from Novel Investor

Helpful for: Knowing tax dates for 2012. Taxes are due on April 17 (and not April 15) this year. Extended tax returns are due on October 15.


(Bonus) Romney, the Election and Double Taxation from Vaerdi Financial

(Bonus) What Tax Deductions Can I Take for Using My Car? from Your Smart Money Moves

Am I missing any other important topics or helpful posts? Let me know if there’s a good post out there that covers anything I omitted and I’ll include it!

p.s. – don’t forget that I’m running my one-year blogiversary giveaway with over $150 in prizes plus donations to charity. Enter now through 1/29/2012.

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photo by: soukup

The “Spruce Up Your Life” Blogiversary $100 Cash (+ more) Giveaway

money-spruce-giveawayWelcome, friends, to the Spruce Up Your Life Giveaway!

I’m celebrating one year of blogging on Money Spruce by giving away $150 cash plus another $50 to charity.

The Prizes

First Prize: $100 cash to you + $25 to a charity of your choice*

Second Prize: $50 cash to you + $25 to a charity of your choice*

Third Prize: One copy each of I Will Teach You To Be Rich and Total Money Makeover

IMPORTANT: Don’t forget to add all your entries in the Raffle Copter form below! Only those entered properly can be counted.

Giveaway has ended! Thanks for stopping by!

The giveaway ends on 1/30/2012 at 12:01 am EST. Good luck to all!

* I’m reserving the right to veto charity choices. Sorry, but I’m just not donating to the NRA or political campaigns or anything else that goes against my personal ideals, so we’ll work together to find something we both agree on.

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photo by: 401K

Electric Orange – Get $107 Free from ING

ING Direct is offering $107 in free cash when you sign up for an Electric Orange checking account.

I’m already an Electric Orange checking account holder.  Here are some of my favorite features:

– NO MONTHLY FEES – by far my favorite feature

– free ATM usage at 35,000 ATMs

– easy to link with my ING savings acounts

– Easy P2P payments

– No overdraft fees

This deal is only valid for 2 days, so be sure to sign up by Sunday at 11:59 pm ET.

Even if you don’t make the deadline, you can still get $50 for a new Electric Orange Account.

Click here to check it out.

Happy Saturday!

Just Switch Out of the Big Banks Already!

move-your-moneyFrustrating fact: none of the big banks offer completely free checking anymore. Most of them offer free checking, with a catch. This could be something like requiring direct deposit and/or keeping a daily minimum balance through the month. If you don’t follow the rules, you get slapped with a monthly fee. I overheard my roommate on the phone yesterday complaining to a BoA rep. about a $12 fee she was charged on her last statement because she doesn’t have direct deposit anymore. She didn’t get the memo and found out about the fees the hard way. I learned from my parents, who also have BoA, that apparently they keep free checking but aren’t allowed to use bank teller service. Um, what?

Why Are You Punishing Yourself?

Even if there are ways to get “free” checking from the big banks, why does everyone want to work around these rules for fees? I find it annoying to have to monitor certain activity and make sure I hit thresholds every month. Then, when you don’t make it one month for whatever reason, you’re hit with the fee.

Instead, let’s just consider the alternatives. There are some great banks out there that offer free checking and have lots of great options. Here’s my top 3 choices:

1) USAA –  This is what I use for my main checking account. I never get charged any fees. Even ordering more checks is free! My favorite feature is that I can use ANY ATM and can get my fees paid for! USAA is basically an online bank, so checks have to be mailed in for regular users (no military connection). USAA used to only be open only to those affiliated in some way with the armed services, but it’s actually open to anyone now! J. Money at Budgets Are Sexy loves USAA, just like me.

2) ING Direct – ING is my second favorite to USAA, mainly because this is where I create all of my savings accounts. The main difference is that ING doesn’t have free ATMs on all ATMs like USAA does. ING makes it really simple to have multiple accounts for different savings goals. I find the ING interface easy to use, too. ING Direct almost always has promotions for free money, too, when you sign up for new accounts.

3) A local credit union. This is the best option if you need a brick-and-mortar location to do your banking. The credit unions I’m familiar with all have great options for free checking and savings accounts without fees. Since credit unions are often small shops, you might not have as many online banking options, but that’s the tradeoff.

I’ll gives Charles Schwab an honorable mention. I haven’t used them, but they’re Ramit’s favorite option.

Is it tough to switch?

Not really, but it can take a bit of effort depending on what accounts you have linked and if you have direct deposit.

I made the switch from BoA to USAA bank last year (after BoA hit me with a fee), and found it to be a pretty simple process. I just opened my new USAA account, switched everything over to that, and then close my BoA account.

Another reason to switch

Aside from the fees themselves, there are other reasons to “move your money.” Check out the Move Your Money Project to see some of the reasons, or watch the video below:

I think there’s definitely the potential for these big banks to get worse with fees. That’s how they’re making a lot of their money these days. Personally, I don’t want to hold an account at a bank that treats customers like this.

Do you have an account at one of the “big banks”? Have you switched or considered switching”

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photo by: Tumbleweed:-)