MONEY Financial Planning

Here’s What Millennial Savers Still Haven’t Figured Out

Bank vault door
Lester Lefkowitz—Getty Images

Gen Y is taking saving seriously, a new survey shows. But they still don't know who to trust for financial advice.

The oldest millennials were toddlers in 1984, when a hit movie had even adults asking en masse “Who you gonna call?” Now this younger generation is asking the same question, though over a more real-world dilemma: where to get financial advice.

Millennials mistrust of financial institutions runs deep. One survey found they would rather go to the dentist than talk to a banker. They often turn to peers rather than a professional. One in four don’t trust anyone for sound money counseling, according to new research from Fidelity Investments.

Millennials’ most trusted source, Fidelity found, is their parents. A third look for financial advice at home, where at least they are confident that their own interests will be put first. Yet perhaps sensing that even Mom and Dad, to say nothing of peers, may have limited financial acumen, 39% of millennials say they worry about their financial future at least once a week.

Millennials aren’t necessarily looking for love in all the wrong places. Parents who have struggled with debt and budgets may have a lot of practical advice to offer. The school of hard knocks can be a valuable learning institution. And going it alone has gotten easier with things like auto enrollment and auto escalation of contributions, and defaulting to target-date funds in 401(k) plans.

Still, financial institutions increasingly understand that millennials are the next big wave of consumers and have their own views and needs as it relates to money. Bank branches are being re-envisioned as education centers. Mobile technology has surged front and center. There is a push to create the innovative investments millennials want to help change the world.

Eventually, millennials will build wealth and have to trust someone with their financial plan. They might start with the generally simple but competent information available at work through their 401(k) plan.

Clearly, today’s twentysomethings are taking this savings business seriously. Nearly half have begun saving, Fidelity found. Some 43% participate in a 401(k) plan and 23% have an IRA. Other surveys have found the generation to be even more committed to its financial future.

Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies found that 71% of millennials eligible for a 401(k) plan participate and that 70% of millennials began saving at an average age of 22. By way of comparison, Boomers started saving at an average age of 35. And more than half of millennials in the Fidelity survey said additional saving is a top priority. A lot of Boomers didn’t feel that way until they turned 50. They were too busy calling Ghostbusters.

MONEY Customer Service

3 Industries That Desperately Need Customer Service Makeovers

Chimpanzee on a telephone
Brad Wilson—Getty Images

Comcast is hardly the only company that should be doing some soul searching and commit—not only with words but actions—to making customer service genuinely better.

Because the state of customer service has been bad for so long, and because we’ve heard many times over that some or another big initiative would improve customer service dramatically only to have little or no impact, we’re skeptical about the effectiveness of any broad campaign supposedly crafted to address age-old customer grievances. Nonetheless, it was good to see Comcast’s recent announcement that a long-serving executive named Charlie Herrin had been named as the company’s new senior vice president of customer experience. “Charlie will listen to feedback from customers as well as our employees to make sure we are putting our customers at the center of every decision we make,” a message from Comcast president and CEO Neil Smit explained on Friday.

Read between the lines and it sure looks like Comcast is acknowledging that in the past, customers haven’t exactly been top of mind when it comes to company decisions. That’s no revelation to consumers, of course, who have routinely dinged Comcast for terrible customer service. In 2014, Comcast “won” the annual Worst Company in America competition as voted by Consumerist readers, the second time in recent years it has nabbed that dubious honor.

While it’s unclear what Herrin and Comcast will do to improve customer service, the first step in solving a problem is acknowledging that you have one, which Smit did more squarely when he said, “It may take a few years before we can honestly say that a great customer experience is something we’re known for. But that is our goal and our number one priority … and that’s what we are going to do.” To which the consensus reaction among consumers is … it’s about damn time. Followed by, we’ll believe it when we actually see real,meaningful change.

To be fair, it’s not just Comcast that’s sorely in need of a customer service makeover. Here are three entire business categories that are regularly bashed for not putting customers’ needs first on the agenda.

Pay TV & Internet Providers
Current Comcast competitor and likely merger partner Time Warner Cable is also a regular contender for the worst service title, as are other pay TV-Internet providers including DirecTV and Verizon.

Among the complaints are that there is a lack of true competition in the category, because roughly three-quarters of Americans have exactly one local choice for a high-speed Internet provider. A survey published this summer indicated that more than half of Americans would leave their cable company if they could, and nearly three-quarters said that pay TV providers are predatory and take advantage of the lack of competition. Among the most hated pay TV practices that consumers would love to see changed are promotional rates that are replaced by skyrocketing monthly charges, frustrating and time-consuming run-ins with customer service reps, and bundled packages overloaded with channels and options the customer doesn’t want (let’s add smaller packages and a la carte channel selection, please).

Wireless Providers
The good news for cell phone users is that customer satisfaction is on the rise, increasing 2.6% according to the 2014 American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). The bad news, however, is that while we’re happier with the actual gadgets (from Samsung in particular), satisfaction with the companies providing our cell phone service—including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint—remains stagnant and below average.

Plenty of other studies also show just how frustrated and dissatisfied consumers are with wireless providers nowadays. A vote-off at Ranker.com, for example, placed AT&T at the top of the list of “Companies with the Worst Customer Service.” Among the many problems consumers have with wireless providers is that choosing a handset and data-minutes-texting package is absurdly complicated, with countless permutations, obfuscations, and mysterious add-on charges. This past weekend, a New York Times columnist presented a painstaking step-by-step analysis of why the $199 price advertised for the new iPhone 6 is a joke—because by the time fees and monthly upcharges are tacked on, upgrading to the new phone will easily run more than $600.

“Wireless service has always been one of the most complex purchases a human can possibly make,” Eddie Hold, a wireless industry analyst with market research firm NPD Group, summed up in a Consumer Reports story last year. “It’s always been horrific.”

Banks
Number 3 on the Ranker list of companies with the worst customer service, just below AT&T and Time Warner Cable, is Bank of America. Another study, from 24/7 Wall Street, used customer service surveys to put Bank of America in the #1 spot for its Customer Service Hall of Shame, and two other banking institutions, Citigroup and Wells Fargo, are in the top (bottom?) 10. (The study factored in ratings for these institutions’ banking and credit card services.)

What may come as a surprise—a sad and ironic one, at that—is that customer satisfaction with banks is apparently at a record high. The 2014 J.D. Power study on U.S. Retail Banking Satisfaction indicates that big banks and regional banks have made some strides in terms of making customers happier (or less disgusted) with their service, and that overall bank scores are higher than they’ve ever been since the study has been conducted. Yet the J.D. Power study shows there’s a long way to go: The most common reason given for switching banks is poor customer service, and millennials, minorities, and affluent consumers stand out as being particularly dissatisfied with today’s banks.

“Even with record high satisfaction, there are some banks that fall far short in meeting customer needs,” J.D. Power’s Jim Miller said via statement. “It is easy for banks to become complacent. To stay at the top of their game, banks should focus on those customers who are not satisfied. And consumers should keep in mind they have the opportunity to shop banks to find the right combination of services, products and fees to meet their needs.”

What’s your pick for the company with the worst customer service? Tweet us at @MONEY with the hashtag #unhappycustomer. Here’s what readers have already said. Add your nomination, and we may publish your feedback in a future post.

Related:
5 Packages That Could Replace Pay TV As We Know It
How to Pick a Bank

TIME Money

PayPal Co-Founder Takes Aim at Credit Card Industry With New Startup

Yelp Chairman Max Levchin Creates New Mobile Payments Startup Affirm
Max Levchin speaks during a Bloomberg West television interview in San Francisco on Thursday, March 28, 2013. David Paul Morris—Bloomberg / Getty Images

“You have to have a credit card. You have to use it. You are going to get screwed and you know it."

The most miserable year of Max Levchin’s life began in 2002, shortly after he sold off his ownership stake in PayPal to eBay for an estimated $34 million. “At the time, I had a fascination with the color yellow,” Levchin told TIME. He would arrive to work in a yellow car, wearing a yellow jumpsuit and hole up in his executive suite, blending in with the all-yellow office paraphernalia. His former direct reports, who numbered in the hundreds, shuffled past the door, “staring at me every morning,” he recalls, “as I would sort of mope around going, ‘My baby’s now been sold to a giant company’ while wearing a yellow clown suit.”

He was 27 years old, flush with cash and adrift in an ocean of downtime. If that sounds like your idea of heaven, then you’re no Levchin. “I literally — I think I started hearing voices,” he says. His girlfriend left him. He wrote 10,000 lines of code, a “minuscule amount,” he insists. His friend persuaded him to take a scenic drive along the Oregon coast. “We saw a lot of very beautiful places,” he says, “and I don’t remember any of it other than the fact that Oregon is a really messed up state, economically.”

Nothing could lift his spirits, short of launching another company, which he did in 2004. It was called Slide, and it was a fun ride down the chute toward another sale in 2010 to Google for $182 million, Levchin says.

Today, he knows better than to slip back into the interminable boredom of easy living. He’s in the thick of a third venture, Affirm, and to sop up the last waning moments of his spare time, he also oversees an investment fund called HVF, short for “Hard, Valuable and Fun.” “Fun” has a very peculiar definition in this case — referring to any massive, globe-spanning problem that Levchin might get to noodle over in his scrappy new office in downtown San Francisco.

Affirm’s 32 employees have set up shop on a quiet street lined by venerable brick buildings, some of which withstood the great fire and earthquake of 1906 and have the commemorative plaques to prove it. Here, Levchin is thriving in his element. His girlfriend came back. They got married and had two kids. He still favors the style of clothing that might diplomatically be called “start-up chic,” a puffy sleeveless winter vest, unzipped and revealing a weathered t-shirt that practically whispers, “I’ve got bigger things to worry about than shopping.”

In fact, though, he does worry about shopping. Obsessively. Levchin has been visiting retailers across the country, asking about the state of consumer lending. He sums it up grimly: “You have to have a credit card. You have to use it. You are going to get screwed and you know it.”

Millennials are ditching the plastic in droves. More than 6 in 10 of them say they have never signed up for a credit card, a group that has doubled in size since the financial collapse of 2007. Evidently they’d rather scrimp on their purchases than get snagged on finely printed fees or mired in debt. “Which is wrong,” Levchin says. “If you are living hand to mouth every month you’re not going to improve your standard of living and you’re not going to scale up.”

Enter Affirm, a startup that that offers consumers the option to split payments over time, which a growing number of online retailers have added to their checkout pages. Users can get instantly approved for a loan by tapping their personal phone numbers into Affirm’s welcome page. From that phone number Affirm launches into the murky world of online data. “It anchors you to a whole host of information that is entirely public, or pretty close to public,” says Levchin. It can scan for social information across social media or dip into proprietary marketing databases or combine that with credit histories. In total, the Affirm team has identified more than 70,000 personal qualities that it thinks could predict a user’s likelihood of paying back a loan. If old fashioned credit scores provide a fixed, black and white portrait of the borrower, Affirm claims to capture that borrower in full, moving technicolor.

The company is so confident in its claims that it puts its own money on the line, extending loans to people who are normally considered a risky gamble. Active duty soldiers, for instance, return home with scant credit histories. A raft of regulations require lenders to extend credit to the soldiers, even if the decision goes against their better judgement. As a result, lenders have historically eyed returning soldiers with suspicion.

“I couldn’t care less about the narrative of why that might be true,” Levchin says, “except that I know it’s actually not. From all the loans that we’ve issued I think we’ve had literally 100% repayment rate from active duty servicemen.” Of course, military service is just one of at least 70,000 variables that can tip Affirm in the user’s favor. The formula is complex by design, so that no user can game the system by, say, posting “brain surgeon” as a new job on LinkedIn and then requesting a fat line of credit.

Whether Affirm will truly upend the rules of lending or foolishly rushed in where lenders fear to tread will depend on its ability to collect interest on loans without resorting to hidden fees. After all, credit card companies do that for a reason: It’s lucrative. Affirm, on the other hand, actually alerts users to approaching payment deadlines and clearly states fee rates before they arrive.

In short, Affirm has to lend at the right rates to the right people. Fortunately for the company, it has $45 million of venture capital to test run its unified theory of lending. It also has no shortage of potential competitors circling in on the hotly contested field of smartphone payments, from Apple Pay, to Google, to Levchin’s old “baby,” PayPal, all competing for the same “under-serviced” customers, as he put it.

But perhaps Affirm’s greatest asset is Levchin himself, who was practically bred for this kind of work. His mother was a radiologist at a Soviet-era research institute, where she was tasked with extracting reliable measurements from Geiger counters. The old Soviet era instruments spewed out a tremendous amount of error data. Her manager dropped a computer on her desk and asked her to program her way to a more reliable reading. Stumped, she turned to her 11-year-old son and asked, ”Do you know anything about this stuff?” The question kicked off Levchin’s life-long love affair with programming, and it made him acutely aware of what data a machine can capture, and what essential points might elude its sensors. He points out that a heartbeat counter may measure 64 beats per minute, but it almost certainly misses a number of half-beats along the way. Affirm, in a sense, listens for those missed beats.

“The fact that we can look at data, pull it, and underwrite a loan for you in real-time is very valuable, because we can literally decide, ‘Hey, in the last 48 hours you got a new job, that changes things a little bit. Now you’re able to afford more,’” Levchin says.

Maybe that’s a hasty gamble, or maybe it’s sound financing. In either case, it’s Levchin’s idea of fun.

MONEY Banking

Here’s One Thing You Probably Shouldn’t Get at Walmart

Cracked piggy bank with Walmart logo
MONEY (photo illustration)—Getty Images (photo)

Walmart's new partnership with GoBank may be a decent option for those unable to get a checking account from a traditional bank, but most consumers (even low-income ones) can find a better deal.

When Walmart announced Tuesday that it would soon be offering checking accounts for the masses—so its customers could, ostensibly, conveniently deposit their checks where they purchase all their household goods—we saw an opportunity to compare the new banking option to its competitors.

Thanks to research compiled for MONEY’s annual Best Banks in America story, the latest version of which will be out on newsstands on November 28, we were able to measure up the new account against more than 200 other checking accounts.

But before we jump into our analysis, it’s important to understand what exactly Walmart is doing. First of all, the retailer is not technically its own bank (since its efforts to become an official deposit institution were basically foiled by the banking industry in 2007). The Walmart will simply offer a GoBank account through its partner Green Dot, an FDIC-insured banking platform that currently issues Walmart’s prepaid card.

The GoBank checking account—no savings as of yet—comes with a relatively low $8.95 monthly “membership fee” (essentially a maintenance fee) that can be waived with a $500 monthly direct deposit. But perhaps more interesting is the fact that it has no overdraft fees whatsoever, and virtually anyone—even those with terrible credit or a history of bouncing checks—will be approved for an account.

Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com, says GoBank’s low eligibility requirements are unique in the industry and could be helpful to people who have frequent trouble with overdrafts. But McBride cautions that the people described make up a small subset of most consumers. Just one in seven bank customers have had more than one overdraft in the last year, meaning an even smaller subset of that group would be in dire need of GoBank’s leniency.

As it stands, the vast majority of people—even those with low incomes or mediocre credit scores—are able to qualify for checking accounts with similar or better terms than what GoBank offers, says McBride. Many competitors offer perks GoBank does not, such as interest payments or free use of out-of-network ATMs.

Below, we’ve set the account against some of the better options for standalone checking:

Account Maintenance Fee Minimum Interest Out-of-network ATM fees Overdraft fees? Credit score check to open?
Walmart’s GoBank Checking Account $8.95 (waived with a $500 monthly direct deposit) 0% $2.50 No No
E*Trade’s Max-Rate Checking Account $15 (waived with a $200 monthly direct deposit) 0.01% $0 (and all third-party ATM fees are reimbursed) Yes No, but they do check on past overdraft history.
Capital One’s 360 Checking Account $0 0.20% $0 Yes, but only $0.03 a day for every $100 of overdraft balance Yes
Ally Bank Interest Checking Account $0 0.10% $0 (and all third-party ATM fees are reimbursed) Yes Yes

For our Best Banks feature, MONEY also looked at mobile apps, and from what’s been announced so far, GoBank’s app does sound state of the art. A built-in budgeting program called Fortune Teller asks users to input their various bills and expenses, along with their salary and pay day. And once all the information is entered, users can ask Fortune Teller’s opinion before they buy something by entering in the price.

In theory, this sounds great—most people could use a virtual slap on the hand when they’re about to overspend. But the devil is in the details. It’s unknown how much of a financial buffer Fortune Teller’s algorithm leaves when it tells a person he or she can afford a purchase. And when the advice is coming, however indirectly, from a store that has plenty of things to sell to you, you’d be smart to be skeptical.

In other words, just because you can afford that $1,000 Gollum Halloween party prop doesn’t mean you should buy it. And just because you can get easily approved for this bank account doesn’t mean you should apply.

Related:

MONEY 101: How do I pick a bank?

MONEY Banking

Walmart Wants to Be Your Bank

The big-box retailer is launching checking accounts with no overdraft fees and with no monthly fees if you meet a direct-deposit minimum.

MONEY Banking

Walmart to Begin Offering Checking Accounts

Walmart wants to be your one-stop-shop for financial services as well.

UPDATED—2:37 P.M.

Walmart is no longer just your doctor, supermarket, or big box retailer. Now it also wants to be your bank.

On Tuesday, the retail giant announced it would be partnering with Green Dot Bank to begin offering Walmart customers checking accounts. The accounts will be provided through GoBank, Green Dot’s mobile checking service, and are scheduled to become available nationwide by the end of October.

To join, customers must buy a GoBank “starter kit,” which includes a starter MasterCard debit card, for $2.95. Users can deposit cash into their GoBank account at any Walmart, and each store will be outfitted with one of the bank’s 42,000 free ATMs. Green Dot claims virtually any customer who passes an ID check will be accepted, meaning even those with low credit should be able to open an account.

This is not Walmart’s first forway into the world of finance. The company previously tried to obtain its own bank charter in 2007, but was rebuffed by the banking industry. Subsequently, Walmart has provided numerous “fringe-banking” services, such as check cashing, payday loans, bill pay, money orders, and a suite of prepaid cards and checking alternatives. Many of the store’s locations feature a MoneyCenter for the company’s financial products and the Walmart website includes a section devoted to “Payday Solutions.”

In addition to foregoing a credit check, GoBank promises to offer a number of attractive features to low-income consumers. The service does not charge overdraft fees, and GoBank will waive its $8.95 monthly charge for all accounts with direct deposits of at least $500 per month. Walmart highlights one study that showed consumers pay between $218 and $314 a year for a basic checking account.

However, GoBank also does not include other common banking services. Money stored with the GoBank does not earn interest. And unlike most checking accounts, these do not offer users paper checks; instead, GoBank refers customers to its online bill-paying service.

Faye Landes, a retail analyst at Cowen investment management group, described to the New York Times Walmart’s entrance into banking as a savvy play to help the chain lure back customers who have jumped ship to even cheaper competitors. “Their core consumer, the lower-end consumer, is faring disproportionately poorly in the overall economy,” Landes told the paper. “Anything they can do to get them back from the dollar stores and back in their own stores makes total sense.”

In a press release, Daniel Eckert, senior vice president of sales for Walmart U.S., presented GoBank as an alternative for consumers who increasingly cannot afford traditional banking solutions. “This product is really designed toward Wal-Mart shoppers who find themselves dissatisfied or unhappy with the fees and costs associated with traditional banking,” Eckert told the L.A. Times, “as well as customers with a spotty record of managing their account.”

 

TIME Economy

Banking Is for the 1%

Can’t get credit? You aren’t the only one. Why banks want to do business mainly with the rich

The rich are different, as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, and so are their banking services. While most of us struggle to keep our balances high enough to avoid a slew of extra fees for everything from writing checks to making ATM withdrawals, wealthy individuals enjoy the special extras provided by banks, which increasingly seem more like high-end concierges than financial institutions. If you are rich, your bank will happily arrange everything from Broadway tickets to spa trips.

Oh, and you’ll have an easier time getting a loan too. A recent report by the Goldman Sachs Global Markets Institute, the public-policy unit of the finance giant, found that while the rich have ample access to credit and banking services six years on from the financial crisis, low- and medium-income consumers do not. Instead, they pay more for everything from mortgages to credit cards, and generally, the majority of consumers have worse access to credit than they did before the crisis. As the Goldman report puts it, “For a near-minimum-wage worker who has maintained some access to bank credit (and it is important to note that many have not in the wake of the financial crisis), the added annual interest expenses associated with a typical level of debt would be roughly equivalent to one week’s wages.” Small and midsize businesses, meanwhile, have seen interest rates on their loans go up 1.75% relative to those for larger companies. This is a major problem because it dampens economic growth and slows job creation.

It’s Ironic (and admirable) that the report comes from Goldman Sachs, which like several other big banks–Morgan Stanley, UBS–is putting its future bets on wealth-management services catering to rich individuals rather than the masses. Banks would say this is because the cost of doing business with regular people has grown too high in the wake of Dodd-Frank regulation. It’s true that in one sense, new regulations dictating how much risk banks can take and how much capital they have to maintain make it easier to provide services to the rich. That’s one reason why, for example, the rates on jumbo mortgages–the kind the wealthy take out to buy expensive homes–have fallen relative to those of 30-year loans, which typically cater to the middle class. It also explains why access to credit cards is constrained for lower-income people compared with those higher up the economic ladder.

Regulation isn’t entirely to blame. For starters, banks are increasingly looking to wealthy individuals to make up for the profits they aren’t making by trading. Even without Dodd-Frank, it would have been difficult for banks to maintain their precrisis trading revenue in a market with the lowest volatility levels in decades. (Huge market shifts mean huge profits for banks on the right side of a trade.) The market calm is largely due to the Federal Reserve Bank’s unprecedented $4 trillion money dump, which is itself an effort to prop up an anemic recovery.

All of this leads to a self-perpetuating vicious cycle: the lack of access to banking services, loans and capital fuels America’s growing wealth divide, which is particularly stark when it comes to race. A May study by the Center for Global Policy Solutions, a Washington-based consultancy, and Duke University found that the median amount of liquid wealth (assets that can easily be turned into cash) held by African-American households was $200. For Latino households it was $340. The median for white households was $23,000. One reason for the difference is that a disproportionate number of minorities (along with women and younger workers of all races) have no access to formal retirement-savings plans. No surprise that asset management, the fastest-growing area of finance, is yet another area in which big banks focus mainly on serving the rich.

In lieu of forcing banks to lend to lower-income groups, something that’s being tried with mixed results in the U.K., what to do? Smarter housing policy would be a good place to start. The majority of Americans still keep most of their wealth in their homes. But so far, investors and rich buyers who can largely pay in cash have led the housing recovery. That’s partly why home sales are up but mortgage applications are down. Policymakers and banks need to rethink who is a “good” borrower. One 10-year study by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, for example, found that poor buyers putting less than 5% down can be better-than-average credit risks if vetted by metrics aside from how much cash they have on hand. If banks won’t take the risk of lending to them, they may eventually find their own growth prospects in peril. After all, in a $17 trillion economy, catering to the 1% can take you only so far.

MONEY Banking

Why This Bank Bought Its Customers Pizza

Pizza
Jeffrey Coolidge—Getty Images

When Simple, an online bank, experienced an outage last week, the company made it up to customers by giving them dinner and $50 cash.

If you’re like most people, you probably haven’t heard of Simple, the banking startup (recently acquired by BBVA) that promises to bring banking to the mobile world. Simple works like a conventional bank, except the high-tech operation is only accessible through the web. That means if its online services stop working, Simple effectively ceases to exist.

That was a problem last Wednesday, when a transition to a new in-house payment processor went awry for about 10% of users, or roughly 12,000 of the company’s 120,000 customers. The outage lasted all day, and issues still persist for some, prompting a deluge of complaints. Anger at service disruptions is common, especially in banking, but Simple’s response might be unique: The company bought pizza dinner for a number of its users and appears to have given $50 to all those affected by the outage.

“I am deeply sorry,” wrote Simple CEO and co-founder Joshua Reich in a post on the company’s blog. “We let you down. We’re doing everything we can to help make things right.” While Reich doesn’t mention any details on exactly how the bank is making it up to customers, many Simple users took to Twitter, lauding Simple for its surprisingly generous efforts.

At least a few customers who could not access their funds received a free meal, courtesy of the bank. Another user posted an email from Simple on Twitter announcing his account had been credited with $50 as an apology for the downtime. Simple spokesperson Krista Berlincourt said she could not speak to any specific compensation offered to customers, but did stipulate that customer support agents “are empowered to do whatever it means for them to do right by the customer.”

Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 1.03.01 PM

Berlincourt also confirmed that a subset of customers “who were affected longer than they should have been” received monetary compensation, but declined to specify how many accounts were credited or how much money Simple distributed. The Oregonian, working off Simple’s statement that fewer than 90% of customers were affected, estimates the company gave away about $600,000—not including what it spent on pizza.

Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 1.04.50 PM

Simple could not immediately provide statistics on its general reliability, but Berlincourt said this is the first outage she knows of that wasn’t the fault of a third-party payment processor. Ironically, Simple says Wednesday’s issues derived from its attempt to switch to its own payment processor, a move intended to improve the service’s reliability and performance.

Now that this transition is completed, the CEO’s statement noted, another outage of this caliber is highly unlikely. “This project isn’t one we ever repeat,” Berlincourt said. “When you build a foundation for your home, once it’s built, it’s there.” And if anything does go wrong again, customers can at least look forward to another free dinner.

MONEY Banking

2 Reasons to Chill Out About Huge Bank Profits—And 1 Reason to Get Angry

JP Morgan Chase, New York, NY
Mike Segar—Reuters

Little more than five years after the darkest point of the Great Recession, banks are again making record profits. Has the world no justice?

On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that banks earned more than $40.24 billion in the second quarter, the industry’s second highest quarterly profit in roughly a generation, just behind the $40.36 billion banks earned in early 2013. That may be infuriating to millions of Americans who lost their jobs and maybe even their homes in a recession due in no small part to Wall Street missteps, if not outright malfeasance.

But there are some reasons to take big bank profits in stride…even if they remain a long-term concern.

Other industries are also raking it in.

Record bank profits are making headlines. But that’s because Americans have developed such a disdain for bankers, not because bank profits are particularly extraordinary. In fact, corporate profits, which hit a record $1.7 trillion last year, are higher across the board.

Banks have certainly enjoyed their share of the pie. According to S&P Dow Jones Indices, financial services companies grabbed about 20.3% of all the profits posted by companies in the S&P 500 last quarter. At first blush a fifth of earnings may seem high. Indeed, financial services firms are the most profitable industry that S&P tracks, slightly ahead of technology, which contributes about 17.5% of S&P 500 profits. And unlike tech whizzes whose gadgets improve our lives, bankers don’t “make” anything.

But in the years leading up to the financial crisis, financial services accounted for a much bigger share of profits–at times more than 30%. In fact, today’s level is essentially in line with banks’ 20-year average of 20.2% of profits.

They’re making money on lending, not trading.

The other reason to feel relatively good about rising bank profits has to do with how banks are making that money. Monday’s Journal story emphasized that the jump in bank profits was tied to increased lending levels; commercial lending rose at an annualized 13% rate, while consumer lending climbed 6%.

That’s good news because lending is what we – even those among us who resent bankers – want banks to do. Lending helps businesses grow and helps consumers buy stuff, both of which ultimately help the overall economy. In fact the anti-banking crowd has been complaining that banks haven’t been doing enough lending. So they should take heart that that’s starting to change, even if it means banks are earning enviable profits in the process.

At the same time, the growth in lending contrasts with a still-tepid climate for another traditional profit line: trading. Placing bets–often with borrowed money–on different corners of the stock and bond markets was a huge profit engine for banks in the days before the financial crisis. But it made them riskier, and arguably had much less value for society than lending money directly to businesses. While the second quarter may have been good to banks overall, trading revenue at Wall Street’s biggest firms—Goldman Sachs Group Inc. THE GOLDMAN SACHS GROUP INC. GS -0.0843% , JPMorgan Chase & Co. JPMORGAN CHASE & CO. JPM 0.5489% , and Citigroup Inc. —fell 14%, according to Bloomberg, which called the result “the worst start to a year since the 2008 financial crisis.”

The trend has a lot to do with calm stock and bond markets. But don’t count out the effect of new regulations like the Volcker rule.

But lessons have not been learned.

Of course, even with some big caveats it can still seem pretty galling that an industry that received billions in government bailouts less than a decade ago is so wildly profitable, if not quite as wildly profitable as it once was. You may be even more irritated when you consider that banks achieved these profits despite paying more than $60 billion in settlements and penalties since the 2008, which suggests they ought to have been asked to pay even more for their contribution to the crisis. And that Wall Street pay has bounced back almost as quickly as profits.

Then there’s the disturbing fact that the “living wills” submitted by the country’s largest banks—blueprints for safely winding down their activities in the event of another financial crisis—were just last week deemed inadequate by the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. In other words, the banks are still “too big to fail,” so taxpayers could again be left holding the bag if the animal spirits get out of control again—and record profits have a tendency to make that happen.

Ultimately, the return to business as usual may, as Fortune recently suggested, give more ammunition to those in Washington who are still calling for stricter banking rules. But given the strength of the business lobby in Washington, don’t expect any miracles.

 

 

 

MONEY Banking

Get Paid Before Payday Without Any Fees, New App Promises

ActiveHours app screenshot

A payday loan alternative called Activehours promises employees that they can get paid immediately for the hours they've worked, without having to wait for a paycheck—and with no fees.

Payday lenders are often compared to loansharking operations. Critics say such lenders prey on people so desperately in need of quick cash that they unwittingly sign up for loans that wind up costing them absurdly high interest rates. According to Pew Charitable Trusts research from 2012, the typical payday loan borrower takes out eight short-term loans annually, with an average loan amount of $375 each, and over the course of a year pays $520 in interest.

These short-term loans are marketed as a means to hold one over until payday, but what happens too often is that the borrower is unable to pay back the loan in full when a paycheck arrives. The borrower then rolls over the original payday loan into a new one, complete with new fees, and each subsequent loan is even more difficult to pay off.

You can see how quickly and easily the debt can snowball. And you can see why payday loans are demonized—and mocked, as John Oliver just did hilariously on “Last Week Tonight”:

You can also see why many people would be interested in an alternative that isn’t as much of a rip-off. Payday loan alternatives have popped up occasionally, with better terms than the typical check-cashing operation. Now, Activehours, a startup in Palo Alto that just received $4.1 million in seed funding, is taking quite a different approach: Instead of offering a short-term loan, the app allows hourly employees to get paid right away for the hours they’ve already worked, regardless of the usual paycheck cycle.

What’s more (and this is what really seems like the crazy part), Activehours charges no fees whatsoever. In lieu of fees, Activehours asks users to give a 100% voluntary tip of some sort as thanks for the service.

There may be more than one reason you’re now thinking, “Huh?” On its FAQ page, Activehours explains that the service is available to anyone who gets paid hourly via direct deposit at a bank and keeps track of hours with an online timesheet. Once you’re signed up, you can elect to get paid for some or all of the hours you’ve worked (minus taxes and deductions) as soon as you’ve worked them. In other words, if you want to get paid for the hours you worked on, say, Monday, there’s no need to wait for your paycheck on Friday. As soon as your Monday workday is over, you can log in to Activehours, request payment, and you’ll get paid electronically by the next morning. When official payday rolls around, Activehours withdraws the amount they’re fronted from the user’s account.

As for voluntary tips instead of service or loan fees, Activehours claims the policy is based on something of a philosophical stance: “We don’t think people should be forced to pay for services they don’t love, so we ask you to pay what you think is fair based on your personal experience.” Activehours swears that the no-fee model is no gimmick. “Some people look at the model and think we’re crazy,” Activehours founder Ram Palaniappan told Wired, “but we tested it and found the model is sufficient to building a sustainable business.”

“People aren’t used to the model, so they think it’s too good to be true,” Palaniappan also said. “They’re judging us with a standard that’s completely terrible. What we’re doing is not too good to be true. It’s what we’ve been living with that’s too bad to be allowed.”

Yet Activehours’ curiously warm and neighborly, no-fee business model is actually one of reasons consumer advocates caution against using the service. “At first glance, this looks like a low-cost alternative to other emergency fixes such as payday loans,” Gail Cunningham of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling said via email in response to our inquiry about Activehours. “However, a person who is so grateful, so relieved to have the $100 runs the risk of becoming a big tipper, not realizing that their way of saying thanks just cost them a very high APR on an annualized basis. A $10 tip on a $100 loan for two weeks is 260% APR – ouch!”

Consumer watchdog groups also don’t endorse Activehours because it’s a bad idea for anyone to grow accustomed to relying on such a service, rather than traditional savings—and an emergency stash of cash to boot. Access your money early with the service, and you’re apt to be out of money when bills come due, Tom Feltner, director of financial services for the Consumer Federation of America, warned. “If there isn’t enough paycheck at the end of the week this week, then that may be a sign of longer-term financial imbalance,” he explained.

“Everyone thinks they’ll use the service ‘just this once,’ yet it becomes such an easy fix that they end up addicted to the easy money,” said Cunningham. “A much better answer is to probe to find the underlying financial problem and put a permanent solution in place. I would say that if a person has had to use non-traditional service more than three times in a 12-month period, it’s time to stop kicking the can down the road and meet with a financial counselor to resolve the cash-flow issue.”

The other aspect of Activehours that could be a deal breaker for some is the requirement of a bank account and direct deposit: Many of the workers who are most likely to find payday loans appealing are those without bank accounts.

Still, for those who are eligible and find themselves in a jam, Activehours could be a more sensible move once in a blue moon, at least when compared to feeling forced to turn to a high-fee payday loan outfit over and over.

MORE: I am unable to pay my debts. What can I do?

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