Archives for December 2016

Spare5 App Review: Earn Less Than Minimum Wage In Your Spare Time

sp5app0Find yourself bored on this holiday break? Spare5 is a new entrant in the world of “earn money in your spare time”. You sign up and do short tasks on either their smartphone app or desktop web browser. They pay cash via PayPal weekly or donate to a charity of your choice.

What kind of tasks? The problem they are solving is that certain things are very hard for machines to do, but are easy for humans to do. Examples are assessing the tone of a conversation or separating elements of a photos. You’re basically creating an “answer sheet” to help compare against and train machine learning algorithms. (Help train the robots that will take over the world!) Some tasks were mildly amusing, while others were quite tedious.

How much money do they pay per task? As far as I can tell, very little. The tasks that I was offered ranged from zero to $0.10 per task. Most were around a penny each. It took me roughly an hour to reach the minimum payout of $1. I know that they want you to prove yourself before offering higher-value tasks, but from my experience it will take a while to even reach $5 an hour on average.

sp5app3   sp5app2

Is Spare5 legit and do they actually pay out? Yes, they paid me via PayPal. Here’s a screenshot:


Bottom line. Like most “earn money in your spare time” options like paid surveys or mystery shopping, the per-hour wage is low. I doubt the average user makes even close to minimum wage. Honestly, if you are a motivated person I would invest your time into improving your skill set so you can eventually make $25, $50, or $100 a hour.

That said, I think this app is going to be successful. Machine learning is growing, and they’ll need to test it against real human intelligence. While I won’t be a regular user, there will be more than enough people who are willing to do the work. Of course, I also fail to see why people spend hours playing games on their phones. If you just want something to cure boredom, I suppose getting paid $1 an hour is better than paying someone else $1 for a virtual axe or something.

This is far from a glowing recommendation, but if you do sign up there is a referral bonus that offers new users a 10% bonus on up to $100 in earnings in your first 180 days with a my referral link. That’s an extra $1 for every $10 in earnings. Thanks if you use my link, I will get $2 for every $10 you earn with Spare5 (up to $20).

ETF Tax-Loss Harvesting: 70% Overlap Rule of Thumb for Substantially Identical

calc_10keyTax-loss harvesting (TLH) is a common practice used to improve after-tax returns by realizing losses to either offset realized capital gains or to defer capital gains into the future. Many robo-advisors including Betterment and Wealthfront offer automated tax-loss harvesting as a feature. As nearly all of them hold ETFs, they accomplish this by selling the primary ETF for each asset class and replacing it temporarily with an alternative, secondary ETF. DIY investors can perform a similar maneuver as well.

The IRS wash sale rule states that you can’t deduct a loss by selling a security and immediately replacing it with something “substantially identical”. Instead, harvesters buy an ETF that is slightly different. It’s a grey area, as there is no solid definition of what “substantially identical” means. However, this recent Barron’s article (paywall, use Google News) offered up a rough rule of thumb that I hadn’t seen before (bolding mine):

Although the wash-sale rule remains ambiguous, there may be an alternative standard that investors can use for guidance. In the 1980s, the IRS created the “straddle rules” to address a loophole in hedged long-short portfolios. For tax-loss purposes, the portfolios on the long side couldn’t be “substantially similar” to those on the short, which the IRS defined as having over 70% overlap. “Some people use the straddle-rules definition as a surrogate to apply to the wash-sale rule,” says Eric Fox, a principal at Deloitte Tax. “If two ETFs don’t have more than 70% overlap and they’re not substantially similar, how could they ever be considered substantially identical?” That should give loss harvesters some confidence.

I was surprised by the conservativeness of this rule of thumb. Most of the TLH articles I have read by both human and software-based advisors implement more aggressive strategies than the 70% maximum overlap suggested above. A traditional advisor quoted in the Barron’s article admitted swapping between the Vanguard Total International Stock ETF (VXUS) and the Vanguard FTSE All-World ex-US ETF (VEU). VXUS and VEU have a 76% overlap by weight, according to this Overlap Tool:


Perhaps more importantly, these two ETFs have a near 100% performance correlation. Here’s a chart of the two ETFs over the last 12 months, per Morningstar (click to enlarge):


Meanwhile, this Wealthfront whitepaper shows their ETF tax-loss pairings and their correlations. Out of the 7 pairs, 4 have correlations of 97%+ and all of them are over 70%.


Commentary. There are few firm answers here. If robo-advisors marketing aggressive ETF tax-loss harvesting gather a lot of assets, I suspect the IRS will eventually provide additional guidance. I imagine the worst-case scenario as the IRS classifying past trades as violating the wash sale rule, nullifying your tax losses and possibly imposing additional penalties. I guess current practitioners don’t see a big risk of that happening. They essentially see a nearly free lunch by substituting these similar ETFs. Still, when you market something publicly as 99% correlated, aren’t you basically admitting that they are “substantially identical”?

Happy Holidays from

Earlier this month, we welcomed a third wonderful child into our family. (Yes, I know, the picture on the sidebar is really old…) We are truly blessed. I am also grateful for many other things, including your continued readership. While my posting may be lighter over the next oh… 18 years or so, I am still having a good time and hope that this year brings you a little closer to financial freedom and living a life true to yourself, not necessarily the life others expect from you. Have a joyful holiday season!


(Having photographers available in the maternity ward was a brilliant business idea.)

Amazon Audible: Free $25 Amazon Credit + Two Free Audiobooks with Prime

azaudible0If you are an Amazon Prime member, you can stack two current offers to get free $25 Amazon credit and a free 2-month trial to Audible (1 free audiobook per month). If you don’t have Amazon Prime, you could start a 30-day free trial and/or consider this a $25 off discount on your membership. Offer expires December 31st, 2016.

  • Make sure you are logged into your Amazon Prime account.
  • Visit the Audible Gold membership page and look for the offer that says “Get a $25 Amazon credit to use in the next 90 days when you join Audible. Offer ends 12/31”. This means that your account is eligible.
  • Go to and search for “audible” and claim a code for a free 60-day membership at It’ll be unique and look like “UM82ZRGX2SGQ7”. In the same web browser, visit and enter the that code.
  • You’ve now technically signed up as a member for Audible (for free) and thus triggered the free $25 in Amazon credit.
  • Remember to cancel your Audible free trial within the two months, or you will automatically be charged $14.95 per month after the trial ends. However, redeem the $25 credit first. Either set a calendar reminder or cancel after you redeem the $25 Amazon credit and chosen your first or second Audible book (1 free per month). Your Audible audiobooks will remain in your account even if you cancel membership.

The terms and conditions state that you’ll get an e-mail confirmation with 10 days regarding your free $25 credit, but I saw my credit (without any e-mail notification) in about 24 hours by trying to check out with something in my Amazon cart. Promotional credit only applies to products sold by or digital content sold by Amazon Digital Services LLC (other than certain digital content). It worked on $50 in Chili’s gift cards, see screenshot:


Below are screenshots of the two stacking offers (1) $25 to join Audible and (2) free 2-month Audible trials.




Use your Amazon credit in combination these other recent Amazon promotions.

Year-End Portfolio Rebalancing: Impact on Returns vs. Risk

scaleAs we close in on the end of the year, it is a good time to take stock of your investment portfolio. If you haven’t already, you should consider rebalancing your portfolio back towards your target asset allocation. Overall, this means selling your recent winners and buying more of your recent losers.

Now, you may think that rebalancing will improve your returns because you are “selling high” and “buying low”. However, the full picture is a bit more nuanced than that. If you think about it, the asset classes with the highest returns should eventually take over the portfolio if you never rebalance. If you started in 1965 with 50% stocks and 50% bonds and did nothing to 50 years, your portfolio in 2015 would have been overwhelmingly stocks. If you kept selling stocks and buying bonds, you would have probably lowered your returns in the long run. So why rebalance?


In his post How Portfolio Rebalancing Usually Reduces Long-Term Returns (But Is Good Risk Management Anyway), Michael Kitces provide a handy visual to summarize the effect of rebalancing into two scenarios:

  1. When rebalancing between asset classes with similar returns, the likely effect is to help increase your overall returns while not affecting your risk. An example is rebalancing between US and International stocks.
  2. When rebalancing between asset classes with different returns, the likely effect is to help lower your overall risk (improving your risk management in the chart) while decreasing your overall return. An example is rebalancing between stocks and bonds.

In the end, Kitces reminds us while your overall returns probably won’t be enhanced, the net effect of rebalancing is better risk management. I think of it similarly as preventing my portfolio from getting “out of control”. This is why people create “rebalancing bands” that let their portfolios wander a bit but not too much. For example, a 20% target allocation can vary from 15% to 25% before being rebalanced back towards the target number.

Free Gillette Razor With Picture Upload

gillette5Here’s a throwback to when free razor samples were everywhere – Gillette is running a Welcome Back promotion where if you share your story about how you tried Harry’s, Dollar Share Club, or another razor brand and want to come back to Gillette, they’ll send you a free razor. You just need to tell them a quick blurb of why you didn’t like their competitors and upload any photo of yourself. Took me under a minute. Valid while supplies last.

I actually did the Harry’s free trial and wasn’t overly-impressed, although they did offer “no hassle” experience. By the way, anyone can use these free razors, whether it is colored blue or pink. 🙂

Amazon App: Free $5 Credit + $5 off $10 Code for New Users

Here are two quick offers for those who haven’t used the Amazon smartphone/tablet app before – available on iOS and Android/Fire OS devices. There’s one for installing the app, and another for making your first purchase through the app. The first offer ends 12/17, so I’d jump on that one immediately.


Get free $5 Amazon gift card after you install and sign-in to the Amazon app for the first time.

1. Download the Amazon app on your smartphone
2. Next, just open the app and sign in with your existing Amazon account ID and password
3. That’s it! You should see an email with $5 gift card redemption code within 7 days

The offer link will tell you if their records show that you’ve already logged into the app before.

Get a coupon for $5 off your first $10+ Amazon app purchase if you visit this referral link on a mobile device and apply the embedded claim code. If the link doesn’t work, you can also manually enter the promotional code JONAT1665N directly into the app. Open the app, go to Menu > Your Account > Invite Friends > Have A Referral Code?, and enter the code. You must not have made a purchase on the app within the last 12 months. The referrer (me) will receive a $5 off $10 coupon as well. Thanks if you use it.


Andrews Federal Credit Union Application and Account Opening Review


I keep a portion of my cash reserves in certificates of deposit. As I had some Ally Bank CDs maturing this month, I decided to open a share certificate from Andrews Federal Credit Union during their 2016 Holiday Promotion. Please see my separate post on their 84-month 3% APY CD for details on the specific offer (there is still time!). The review information below should apply to anyone trying to open any deposit account at Andrews FCU.

Joining an eligible group for membership. Here is their page on membership eligibility:

Our field of membership includes Washington, DC, civilian and military personnel of Joint Base Andrews, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, and military installations in central Germany, Belgium, and The Netherlands; as well as over 200 employer groups throughout Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey. We also have nationwide membership eligibility through the American Consumer Council.

As I do not live the in DC area and do not qualify otherwise, I joined the American Consumer Council (ACC), a non-profit organization dedicated to consumer education, advocacy and financial literacy. Sounds like something worth supporting! You can join through the website. I believe the cost is a one-time $8, although there is a promo code “consumer” that has worked to get the membership fee waived. You can make additional donations as you wish. They will send you an e-mail shortly with your ACC membership number.

Application process. You can then proceed to the Andrews FCU website and start the application. You will need your ACC number to satisfy the eligibility question “I am a member of the American Consumer Council (ACC), and my ACC membership number is ___”.

Note: Applying for an account will result in a hard credit inquiry. At least for me, they checked my TransUnion credit report. If you have TrueIdentity and have your TransUnion report secured using their free lock feature, you will want to unlock it before submitting this application. (This delayed my application because they are pretty busy right now and did not notify me immediately.) You can lock it back up again after account approval.

You will need to provide the usual personal information – name, address, SSN, driver’s license, etc. You will also need to provide them with a bank account routing and account number to fund the initial share account. The minimum amount is $5. You will need to keep $5 in your Share account for as long as you are an Andrews FCU member. I just started with $5.

Account approval. Once your account is approved, you should get the following message:

Congratulations, your account with Andrews Federal Credit Union has been opened. Your member number is XXXXXXXX. The signature card has been sent to your email address via DocuSign for you to sign electronically.

Your new account funding is being processed and will be posted to your new account once received by us from your other institution. If you requested an ATM or VISA Debit Card as part of your application, your card order has been placed. The routing number for Andrews Federal is 255074111.

You may now enroll for SmartConnect, our online banking system, by visiting our web site and selecting Online Banking Enrollment. If you require further assistance, please call us at 800.487.5500.

Thank you for choosing Andrews Federal Credit Union.

It’s nice that you can do the signature card via DocuSign. That meant my entire application process was completed online. I did try to call them a few times, but had some trouble navigating their phone tree without a member number. However, if I didn’t have my TransUnion report locked, I wouldn’t have had any reason to call them at all. Other than that delay, I would say the application took only one or two days to process.

Funding your checking, savings, or certificate account. I found the easiest way to open my share certificate was to move money into my share savings account, and then fund the certificate from the share savings. I use Ally Bank as my banking hub, so I added Andrews FCU as an external account in my Ally account using my share account number and routing number (255074111). For some reason, the direct login verification didn’t work for me, so I completed the verification using two small test deposits. It took 2 business days for the test deposits, and 2 business days for the transfer from Ally to Andrews FCU.

Opening the share certificate. Once the funds arrived, I opened the share certificate online by clicking on “Open an Additional Account”. Despite the promotion stating you had to call in, the special certificates were available online. Here’s a screenshot (click to enlarge):


You will need to chose your dividend reinvestment and maturity options. That’s it. The share certificate now shows up on my online banking page, right next to the share savings account. The process was pretty straightforward, just be sure to remove any credit locks or freezes on your TransUnion credit report. Remember that you’ll need to fund your special certificate by any stated deadline.

Netflix: Download Movies and Shows for Offline Viewing

netflix0I just saw that Netflix now allows an offline download option for many of their shows and videos (and not just Netflix-only shows). You will need iOS 8.0 or later, Android 4.4.2 or later, and the latest version of the Netflix iOS or Netflix Android app. This can save you money on cellular data and alleviates the pain of using slow WiFi. From the press release:

Many of your favorite streaming series and movies are already available for download, with more on the way, so there is plenty of content available for those times when you are offline. For example, Orange is The New Black, Narcos and The Crown are available for download today.

From The Verge:

… selection includes stuff made by Netflix (Stranger Things, The Crown, Narcos, Orange is the New Black, etc) but also a lot of other random choices. You’ve got Breaking Bad. You’ve got Mad Men. You’ve got… Paddington and Minions and Kung Fu Panda 3. This is going to be a huge deal for parents. Movies include Boyhood, Pulp Fiction, Nightcrawler, Good Will Hunting, Hot Fuzz, and more.

I agree, I’ve only started downloading tons of offline content after having kids. Here is a link to the Netflix Help Page on Downloading.

Not all titles are available for download. If you have a particular title in mind, you can search for that title and look for the download icon download.png. If you are interested in browsing downloadable titles, select Available for Download from the Netflix menu.


Amazon Prime Video also allows downloads for offline viewing.

Credit Karma Tax: Free Federal and State Tax Software, What’s The Catch?


Credit Karma is expanding beyond free credit scores and free credit monitoring. Beginning in January 2017, they will offer completely free Federal and State tax preparation software with free e-File and no income restrictions. You must first join and then you can reserve a spot for when it opens. The tagline is “$0 Federal, $0 State, $0 Always. Truly Free Tax Returns.” Here’s an overview of what is and isn’t included in this offer.


Is this legit? Yes. Credit Karma purchased AFJC Corporation, which was a private-label software provider and previously supplied the online tax software for Jackson Hewitt. They use your personal information to show you targeted ads. They used to do this with your credit report data, and now they want to do it with your tax return data.

What’s included.

  • Free Federal filing with free e-File for 90%+ of filers with no income restrictions.
  • Free State filing with free e-File for 90%+ of filers with no income restrictions.
  • No upsells, no upgrades, no “premium version”.
  • You can print and snail mail if you choose not to e-File.

Here are some popular forms included by Credit Karma Tax that the download edition of TurboTax Deluxe 2016 will require you to upgrade to Premier (~$20 extra) or Home & Business (~$30 extra).

  • Schedule C – Profit or Loss from Business (Sole Proprietorship)
  • Schedule D – Capital Gains and Losses (Stock Sales)
  • Schedule E – Supplemental Income and Loss (Rental property)
  • Schedule SE – Self-employment tax

What’s NOT included. Credit Karma will NOT support the following forms this year:

  • Filing multiple state or non-resident state returns
  • State filings without a federal return
  • Non-resident federal filing – 1040NR (non-resident tax return)
  • Foreign earned income credit
  • Non-dependent earned income credit
  • Married filing separately (MFS) in common law states
  • Estate and Trust income from K1 forms

No business tax returns. Credit Karma Tax supports Sole Proprietorships and income reportable on a Schedule C/E/SE, but does NOT yet support business tax returns for an S corporation, C corporation, partnership or multi-member LLC.

Credit Karma Tax does NOT support importing tax return information from other providers this year. There is no download version. There is no app version.

How does Credit Karma make money then? Quoted from their site:

When you visit Credit Karma, we show you offers and recommendations (like credit cards or loans) that could save you money. If you take one of these offers, the bank or lender usually pays us. We never charge you a dime. And we never sell your info to marketers.

My take? They should say they won’t sell your information to other marketers. They are the marketers, and now they’ll know more about your financial situation than anyone else besides you. On top of your credit report data, they’ll have income and expense data. For example, if they know you have a 4% rate mortgage, they could sell you a 3.5% refinance mortgage. If they know you are older and have a paid-off home (i.e. you pay property taxes but no claim no mortgage interest), they could sell you a reverse mortgage. If they know your income, they can estimate the amount of life insurance you need. You could actually like this customization, be creeped out completely, or simply plan to ignore the ads.

What could go wrong? The most common drawbacks mentioned are the idea that (1) “you are the product” and (2) what if they get hacked and you lose your personal information?

  1. Well, yes you are the product. Google and Facebook work the same way. You use their free service, they show you targeted ads and hope to extract money from you indirectly.
  2. If you really are worried about your personal information, you should buy tax prep software on physical CDs so that nothing is stored on anyone’s cloud servers. Don’t use any online tax prep software, including that of TurboTax/H&R Block/TaxACT.

I would say a less-mentioned drawback is lack of customer service or support. If there is a bug or tax question that I need help on and I have to spend an hour to fix it, then I’d rather have just paid upfront for better service. Other providers advertise human phone support and/or unlimited live chat.

Bottom line. It’s a pretty simple deal. Credit Karma will give you free Federal and State tax returns. You let them show you ads based on your financial data. Is this a good deal? For most people that have straightforward taxes and don’t usually need support, then quite possibly yes. If you do Federal + State + e-Files with TurboTax or H&R Block, the total cost can be $100+. If you have a complicated tax return or can get value from the conveniences offered by competitors (import last year’s data, unlimited phone support for weird situations, import of 1099-B tax lot data), then it may be worth paying extra elsewhere. I signed up on the waiting list and hope to compare the accuracy early next year.


Amazon Store Card Review: 5% Back on Amazon Purchases with Prime

amazonstoreA few readers have asked my opinions of the Amazon Store Card, a retail card issued by Synchrony Bank. You can only use it to buy things at – note the lack of a logo from Visa, Mastercard, Discover, or American Express. This is a separate product from the Rewards Visa Card (3% back at Amazon), which is a credit card issued by Chase that you can use anywhere that Visa is accepted. The key benefits of the Amazon Store Card are:

  • 5% Back for Amazon Prime members. Amazon Prime members are automatically upgraded to the Amazon Prime Store Card and can earn 5% back on all purchases.
  • No annual fee.

There are also financing offers, that come with the card, similar to retailer cards from Home Depot or Lowe’s.

  • No interest if paid in full within 6 months on any purchase totaling $149 or more. Interest will be charged to your account from the purchase date if the promotional balance is not paid in full within 6 months. Minimum monthly payments required.
  • No interest if paid in full within 12 months on any purchase totaling $599 or more. Interest will be charged to your account from the purchase date if the promotional balance is not paid in full within 12 months. Minimum monthly payments required.
  • No interest if paid in full within 24 months on select items sold by Items sold by third parties do not qualify. Interest will be charged to your account from the purchase date if the promotional balance is not paid in full within 24 months. Minimum monthly payments required and may pay off purchase before end of promo period.
  • 12 Month Equal Pay Offer: 0% APR until paid in full. 12 equal monthly payments required.

As with those home improvement offers, you have to watch out for the balloon interest payment at the end. If you don’t pay in full, you will get charged back-dated interest starting back from the purchase date and not the end of the promo period. This credit line charges a variable interest rate based on the Prime Rate. The current Variable purchase APR is 26.24%. Yikes.

Commentary. So why don’t I mention the Amazon Store Card all the time? My rule of thumb is that a “hard” credit check can reliably net me at least $500 in value, usually from “try me! try me!” credit card incentives. It is very rare that I shop at any specific retailer enough to get $500 in savings. For example, it would take $10,000 of Amazon purchases at 5% back to net me $500 in cash back.

At the same time, 5% rotating category credit cards often have Amazon or a place that sells Amazon gift cards as an eligible category. Other cards like the American Express Blue Cash Preferred offer 6% back at grocery stores (that sell Amazon gift cards) or Chase Ink Business cards offer 5% back at office supply stores (that sell Amazon gift cards). Basically, there are other ways that I can stock up on Amazon gift cards at 5% off without having this card.

If you are a loyal Prime member that spends a lot of money at Amazon and prefer simplicity, then this card can make sense. The 5% off is automatic with your bill, and you get to easily track how much your Amazon habit is costing you. You’ll also want to be the type that either pays your bills in full or is great at navigating the fine print on financing opportunities. 26% APR interest is scary.

ThanksAgain: 200 Bonus Points Promo Link, Keep Multiple Miles Accounts From Expiring

ta_app0Updated with another 100 point link. ThanksAgain is a smartphone app for frequent travelers that gives you points for buying things inside of airports. You link up your credit card number and then automatically earn miles at participating merchants when you shop at them. You don’t need to remember to show membership cards, etc.

Through this Hilton Honors-branded link, scroll down to the bottom and see that you can get 100 Hilton Honors points if you sign up before 12/31/16.

Sign up and earn 100 bonus points just for enrolling! (Enrollment bonus is valid through 12/31/16).

Added: Reader KP comments that after you sign up you should visit this link for a 1-question survey that will land you another 100 points. Easy-peasy.

To be more specific, you get 100 ThanksAgain points, which can be converted to a variety of frequent flier mile and/or hotel loyalty points programs. Here is the list along with conversion ratios. The neat feature is that you can convert as little as 10 points, meaning you can create “partner activity” on a variety of programs and potentially keep your points from otherwise expiring.

  • Aeromexico Club Premier® x 0.5 pts
  • Alaska Mileage Plan™ x 0.5 pts
  • American AAdvantage®x 0.5 pts
  • Fiesta Rewards® x 1.0 pts
  • Frontier EarlyReturns® x 0.5 pts
  • Hilton HHonors® x 1.0 pts
  • JetBlue TrueBlue® x 0.5 pts
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards® x 0.5 pts
  • United MileagePlus® x 0.5 pts

In other words, your 100 ThanksAgain points can be converted to 5 Alaska Mileage Plan miles, 5 American AAdvantage miles, 10 Hilton points, 5 JetBlue points, 5 Southwest RR points, 5 United miles, and so on. Alternatively, you could save your points for later and as long as this feature remains (it might not), keep doling them out over time to keep your accounts active.


There is a prompt for a promo code on the sign-up form, but a promo code is not required for these 100 points. I just signed up using the “Register” link on the top right corner of the page, and immediately after signing up and logging in for the first time, I saw my free 100 bonus points:


I then promptly linked up my (almost inactive) Alaska Airlines account and transferred over 10 points = 5 Alaska Air miles. According to the website, they should arrive in 7 days. Update: The 5 points arrived in 5 days. Easy.


Overall, signing up for ThanksAgain and linking up a credit card appears to be no-lose proposition. It’s free. You don’t need to change any of your spending habits. If you do end up buying an overpriced Burger King Whopper while catching a flight, you’ll automatically get a few points that can delay the expiration of your frequent flier miles. The hardest part for me will be that I keep using different credit cards all the time.