New Quarter’s Credit Card Cash Back

chocolate cake

A bit sad my Fidelity credit card’s 3-month promotional 4.5% cash back (on anything) came to an end yesterday, but this new quarter’s extra cash back bonuses don’t look too shabby.


  • Restaurants: 5%
  • Department Stores: 5%
  • Clothing Stores: 5%

Chase Freedom:

  • Department Stores: 5%
  • Grocery: 5%
  • Movies: 5%


  • Electroncis 3%

PenFed has 5% cash back on gas all year round. And of course I always have my fall-back cards which give me 2% on everything else.

Higher Property Tax?!?

giant mouse wheelSo awhile back I got the little card that told me what my new property tax was for the year 2010. I was surprised it went up, but I figured there must’ve been some re-assessment and my property value went up or something. I didn’t think too much of it initially. Now that I’m looking into refinancing again, I was asked what my property tax was. Looking up the information on the King County’s website, I noticed my 2010 property value assessment actually went down, but my 2010 property tax went up.

The assessment of my property value actually dropped ~2.5%, but my property tax increased by 17%. What gives? Did King County or Bellevue just suddenly decide to levy a whole bunch of new taxes I wasn’t aware of? There was that school strike earlier. Hmmmm.

After asking a couple friends and searching online, I found this article: Why property taxes go up – and sometimes down. The following passage explains my situation:

Depending upon where you live, about half of your property tax is determined by voter approved levies for services such as schools, parks, water districts, EMS and fire/rescue. If these levies stay the same or increase from the year before, your property taxes may increase. Similarly, if other valuations decrease more than yours, your taxes may also increase.

It’s a bit like an old fashioned scale – if values go down, levy rates go up. If values go up, rates drop.

So because my property value didn’t drop as much as the average property value in Bellevue or King County, that means I have to pay a higher property tax this year so that the city or county will be able to get the same amount of money they’ve already levied.

HELOC to Finance New Car?

Interesting… so while contemplating on how I should finance my new car, I started to do research on the best method. Originally my 2 options were:

  • Sell stock and buy the car outright
  • Make a small down payment and finance the car at $400-600/mo for 60 months (at ~6.6% interest rate)

However, I’ve been looking at HELOC (home equity line of credit) and it’s looking more and more like the correct action to take. One thing that does have me a bit worried is that HELOCs are variable rate, but according to MarketWatch, the current HELOC interest rate is around 3.25% (is it me or is that exceptionally low?). I’ll need to discuss this further with my dad and Derek as they know a lot more about HELOCs than I do.

Even if the interest goes up to 7%, there’s a huge benefit in using HELOC to finance my car and that’s because the interest is tax deductible. According to

When you refinance acquisition debt or take out additional debt such as a HELOC, you can deduct the interest on such debt if you use it to improve your residence and on up to an additional $100,000 that you can use for any purpose, except for the purchase of tax-exempt securities such as municipal bonds. If you use the $100,000 to buy a second home, then it gets thrown back into the $1 million pot.

Maybe when I bring this up with my dad and Derek, they’ll knock me on my head and call me stupid for thinking up such a stupid scheme. But so far, it feels like a sound plan. I wonder if I have enough money in my house yet to cover the whole purchase.

Credit Lines Shrinkage

It looks like credit card companies are cracking down hard on unused credit. As I had blogged about previously, Citi had began charging an annual fee for inactivity. I actually called in this past weekend and inquired about switching to a different account with no fees. Unfortunately the customer service rep told me that it didn’t really matter which account I switched to, I’d be getting a similar letter soon afterwards telling me about the inactivity fee. I ended up closing that account. I believe I had about $6,000 in credit limit on that card.

Today I received a letter from American Express stating:

We’re writing today because we noticed that you’ve only been using a small portion of your available credit limit. To more closely match your spending history, we have adjusted the credit limit on your account to $6,500.00 The cash advance limit is $1,3000.00. If this new credit limit is not sufficient for your business, please call us at 1-800-660-2454 between the hours of 8:00am and midnight Eastern Time, Monday to Friday.

I believe my previous credit limit on this card was either $10k or $11k, so basically reducing it in half. Technically, I only put about $100/mo on this card, and mostly for gasoline purchases since it gives me 3% back instantly.

Banks must be hurting.

Citi Credit Card Now Has Annual Fee

Ooooh! 3rd post in 3 days. Fortunately it’s a different topic today. I’ve calmed down a lot since last night’s spew, but my heart still skips a beat every time I think of it.

Anyway, I got a letter to day from Citi:

We’re writing to let you know about an important change we’re making to your account. Effective April 1, 2010, an annual fee of $60 is being added.

The reason we are making this change is to maintain the quality of our service amid the rising cost of doing business. However, because we value you as a customer, we wanted to give you an opportunity to have the annual fee credited back to your account.

Here’s how it works. Each year we’ll credit the $60 fee back to your account once you have made $2,400 in purchases during that year. That comes to an average of 200 in spending a month, an amount you can reach by using your card for purchases you already make, like gas, groceries, cell phone plans or your cable bill.

As always, you have the right to opt out of this change and close your account. Please read the Notice of Change in Terms and Right to Opt Out beginning on the back of this letter so you are fully aware of all your account changes. If you have questions, call 1-866-915-9425.

Wow… credit card companies must be pushed back a lot to now include annual fees. Unfortunately, I know longer use this card on a daily basis as the rewards structure is no longer beneficial to me. I keep it around as an emergency card since my credit limit on it exceeds $10k.

I was hoping I would be able to consolidate this card onto a different account, one hopefully without annual fees, but it looks like this is the only remaining Citi account I have. I’m going to give them a call later this month and see if I can switch my account to a non-annual fees (even reward-less account).

I would like to avoid closing this account, since it’ll hurt my credit score, especially if this account has been opened for a long time.

There was a Consumerist article on this just a few days ago: Avoid Credit Card Annual Fees: Just Charge $2,400 Per Year

Interesting… JerusalemCherry says:

I just called Citi at 800-950-5114 They advised “ALL” CitiCards will now have annual fees due to the congress changing laws etc. She advised even, non rewards cards do too. They also said the Citi-website will be updated with info soon. The customer service rep at Citi also told me its not fair to the Citi customers since tax payers bailed Citibank out etc.

I guess even non-rewards Citi cards will have an annual fee. Bummers.

Advanta Shutting Down Credit Card

For those who have an Advanta credit card, you might want to switch to a new card after June 10th, 2009 May 30th, 2009. Apparently they’re shutting their credit card business. According to their press release:

Since the securitizations will not be permitted to fund new receivables after June 10, the Company will shut down all credit card accounts to future use at that time. Neither Advanta Bank Corp. nor any other Advanta-related entity will fund activity on its balance sheet from the accounts. Therefore, the Company will not take any off-balance sheet receivables onto its balance sheet. Shutting down the accounts will not accelerate payments required from cardholders on existing balances.

Here’s a few other articles/threads that may interest you:

To my understanding, you won’t be able to make any new charges after 6/10 5/30, but you do NOT have to pay off your existing balance. Whatever terms/rates still apply for those who do carry a balance on the card.

If you’re looking for a replacement card for your business, I suggest the American Express SimplyCash Card (which I’ve blogged about here). Unfortunately, the cash back have since decreased a bit.

If you’re looking for a Visa/MasterCard, you may want to check out the Chase Freedom For Business. You get 3% back on the top 5 categories you purchase in and you even get a $50 sign up bonus. However, I believe there’s an annual cap on how many points you can accrue. Hope this helps!

Update: Looks like they bumped up the close date to 5/30. Here’s the copy of the email I just received:

Dear Customer,

Your Advanta Business Card account is funded by an independent trust which owns the balances you owe on your account and provides funding for new transactions. We expect the trust to stop funding activity on our accounts. The trust also restricts our flexibility to fund activity on your account. Unfortunately, as a result, effective May 30th all Advanta Business Credit Card accounts, including your account, will be closed.

This means that you will not be able to use your card or account for new transactions, including purchases, checks and balance transfers beginning on May 30th. We understand that you may have written checks on your account before May 30th and we will make every effort to honor those checks that are presented to us for payment by June 3rd. If you use your Advanta card to make automatic recurring bill payments, you will need to make alternative arrangements for those payments promptly.

It is important to understand that you are not required to pay your entire balance at this time. You may continue to pay down your account balance over time, as allowed under your Advanta Business Card Agreement.

You will not lose the rewards that you have earned. If you participate in a Cash Back program, you will receive a check for the amount of any accrued rewards more than $1.00 as long as you make the required minimum payments and your account remains in good standing. If you participate in a Business Rewards program, you will have at least 60 days to redeem your points as long as you make the required minimum payments and your account remains in good standing.

We deeply regret the impact this action will have on your business and very much wish it was not necessary.

We are committed to assist you through this process. Additional information will be available at If you have any other questions or concerns, or if we can assist you in any other way, please feel free to contact our Customer Service Center. You can email us your questions 24 hours a day at or call us toll free at (800) 705-7255, Monday – Friday 8:00 am to 8:00 pm and Saturday 8:00 am to 5:00 pm Eastern Time.

John F. Moore
President, Advanta Bank Corp.

New Credit Card Activation – Easy Phishing?

I’ve always found credit card activation through the phone system very insecure. I’m always afraid I might dial the wrong number by accident, so I always triple check the number I punch into my phone before I start entering any information. I mean consider the information they ask you during activation:

  • Full 16 digit credit card number
  • Last four digits of your social security number
  • 3 or 4 digit credit card code

If you reach a customer service, they might even ask for more information, like name and birthday. I mean if I misdial the number even by 1 digit, think of the potential identity fraud I could land myself in.

Several credit cards have implemented an online system to activate new cards, such as American Express, which I prefer to use instead of the phone.

Something I think that should be implemented is a 2-way verification. Meaning, they prove to me who they are, before I provide any of my real information. Something like a system where they include two x-digit numbers in the letter that accompanies your card or even on the sticker of new credit cards. You punch in the 1st number and the telephone system tells you the 2nd number. That way you can confirm the other side is really the bank that issued your credit card.

Of course, this doesn’t prevent random companies from sending you fake credit cards and stealing your information. However, you should never activate random credit cards, especially ones you don’t remember applying for.

If the IRS were smart…

I saw this article on Digg earlier: Swiss bank to ID U.S. tax evaders

Banking giant UBS AG, Switzerland’s largest bank, agreed to pay $780 million to settle accusations that it helped U.S. customers hide money from the IRS. And in what the Justice Department described as an “unprecedented move,” UBS agreed to provide the names of up to 20,000 Americans who sought to avoid paying income taxes by keeping secret accounts.

This got me thinking… If the IRS were smart, they should make the following announcement:

Attention Tax Evaders:

Before UBS gives us the report, we would like to give all of you a chance to come clean. If you come clean now and admit to tax evasion, we’ll forgo any charges, fines, fees, interest, and penalties associated with the tax evasion. You’ll still have to pay off the taxes you owe us, but we’re going to give you a clean state afterwards. We’re also willing to work with you and/or your accountants to come up with a repayment plan if you’re unable to pay off all the back taxes immediately.

After we receive our report from UBS, the offer above will no longer be valid. We’ll be filing criminal charges for tax evasion on all remaining individuals who have not come forward. We’ll pursue every case to the fullest extent and request for maximum penalty and fines. Not only will you owe us the back tax, you’ll also owe us the accumulated interest, penalty fees and fines, legal fees, and anything else our lawyers can come up with to tack onto the list.

You thought you could fool us. Is it worth the risk to continue trying? Your call.

If only the IRS were smart…

Bank of America Notary Service

So this ordeal all started Friday evening at 5pm, when I received a call from the escrow agent. He said he needed me to sign and notarize some documents by today (Saturday) and mail it back to him. I’ll talk more about the whole refinance ordeal at a later time. Anyway, I was given 2 options:

  • I could pay about $100-150 and he’ll send a notary agent to my house and get the documents signed, notarized, and delivered back to the escrow company.
  • He could overnight me the documents, I could get them signed and notarized, and mail them back on Saturday.

Neither of those 2 options sounded great. I asked if it was possible for him to email me the documentation, I’ll get them signed and notarized myself, and then mail them back. He said that would be great, but he warned me there was going to be about 100 pages. I said that should be fine.

I get the documentations awhile later, so I start looking for places to get it notarize. I thought I might even be able to mail it out tonight.

Turns out I was so wrong. Apparently places that provide notary services have a very fixed working schedule, Monday to Friday till 4 or 5pm. I found out that Microsoft has some people who does notary for us, but all of them were off work by then. One replied saying if I still needed the documents notarized, to contact her on Monday. I tried calling a few places (i.e. Kinkos and The UPS Store). Both are open on Saturday, but both their notary services are only available Monday to Friday. I thought, “I’m screwed…”

The last suggested place were banks, and I had a gut feeling that I was going to get shot down like the others. I mean… they’re BANKS. When they have the worst possible hours for someone like me, how can I expect them to be better than all the others I’ve tried. Plus the fact by the time I decided to start looking at banks, it was past 6pm already (their “closing” time).

Anyway, I decided to give calling them a shot. I called the Bank of America in Issaquah, since the FedEx Service Center was just 5 minutes away and I was given an FedEx account to ship with. After a few rings, someone actually picked up. I asked if they provided notary services, and they said they did, but were now closed. I said I understood and was wondering if they provided notary services on Saturday, and she said they indeed did. I’m like, JACKPOT!

So given that banks close at 1pm on Saturday, which is before the usual time I even get up, I set my alarm clock for 10am to give myself some buffer time just in case. Turns out I was pretty much awake by 9:30am without the alarm going off.

I drive over there and the receptionist greets me and I tell her I’m here to get some documents notarized and she smiles and asks if I was a Bank of America customer. I said I was and she directed me to sit and wait for a bit. Moments later, I was greeted by the notary agent and he asked if I was a Bank of America customer, and I repeated that I was. I asked if he wanted to see my Bank of America ATM card, and he said he just needed my drivers license.

We go over the documents that needed to be notarized and everything went pretty smoothly. I thanked him for his time and asked if there was any fees I had to pay, and he goes “nope, it’s a free service for Bank of America customers”. And to think that they didn’t even need to verify that I was one. That’s the type of trust I don’t expect to ever see in Los Angeles.

You hear bad customer stories about Bank of America all the time, but this was one of those times that Bank of America came through and made the experience that much better!

2008 Gasoline Statistics

So 2008 ended a week or so ago and I finally got around tallying up my last few gasoline receipts. Here’s my overall gasoline statistics for 2008 on my Honda Civic EX Coupe 2001:

Total Miles: 7456.6
Total Gallons: 264.245
Total Cost: $899.53

Average Cost Per Gallon: $3.40
Average MPG: 28.2
Average Miles Per Dollar: 8.3
Average Daily Cost: $2.46
Average Daily Mileage: 20.4

Here’s some nice pretty charts that charts the averages across the year:

2008 Gasoline Statistics

Nothing too surprising about the graphs. My MPG is pretty flat along the 28MPG line, while several charts were mostly affected by the cost of gasoline hitting over $4.00, then dropping back below $2.00.

Update: Noticed one of my graphs included stats from 2007. Fixed.