MONEY hedge funds

Mind-Blowing Tool Used by Hedge Funds Costs Just $10

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Colin Anderson—Getty Images/Blend Images

It's a total game-changer

If you’re a hedge fund looking to crunch massive quantities of data, it’s generally cheaper to pay for space a la carte on Amazon’s cloud than invest in million-dollar hardware.

That’s the premise behind a spate of new finance-focused data shops turning out software that runs on the cloud. Ufora, a company profiled in Bloomberg Business, designs software that can process a trillion data points in minutes for the cost of a sandwich.

The technology is complex and involves a type of machine learning, or artificial intelligence, but computing power has become cheap enough that Ufora founder Braxton McKee can analyze a big market data model using only $10 worth of capacity on Amazon Web Services.

Ufora’s hedge fund clients—like all hedge funds today—have good cause to want to keep costs low.

These privately-offered investments, which typically court only those who can invest at least $1 million, are having a tough time holding investors’ interest these days.

That’s partly because their high fees have become harder to justify given that recent returns have actually trailed those of cheap index fund-based portfolios, and performance is increasingly in step with that of benchmarks, meaning that mangers aren’t adding as much value or diversification.

Read more: Why Should I Invest?
Investment Advice From a Nobel Prize-Winning Economist

MONEY fees

These Are the Most Hated Fees in America

150520_EM_HatedFees
Ryan J. Lane—iStock

They've managed to narrow the list down to "only" 31 fees.

The website GoBankingRates.com has compiled a rogue’s gallery of the “most expensive, egregious, unexpected and just downright unreasonable charges” confronting American consumers today.

No fewer than 11 of the worst fees named on the list are related to banking. That’s not surprising considering each year we drop $7 billion on basic bank charges for things like failing to meet minimum balance requirements and monthly account maintenance. That figure is tiny compared to the roughly $32 billion consumers pay annually for overdrafts—which, of course, is another hated fee featured on the list.

Behind banking, travel is the category with the second-most hated fees—a total of 10 in all. Common fees for things like changing airline tickets, checking or carrying baggage on flights, renting a car, and flying with your pet are named on the list. Arguably worse are the fees travelers incur through no choice of their own, without any extra service provided, such as the vague “resort fees” added to bills at some hotels and resorts, and the mandatory gratuities charged by many resorts and cruise lines.

On the other hand, some of the fees in the roundup seem easier to accept because there’s clearly some service and value provided. What’s more, while the price of these fees may not be entirely reasonable, it’s easy enough for people to be well aware of them before signing on board. We’re talking about things like homeowner’s association fees and charges for belonging to sororities and fraternities in college.

What fee is the worst of the worst? GoBankingRates doesn’t rank them. Besides, it’s a matter of personal opinion. Obviously, the fees you hate the most are the ones you pay, without much in the way of choice, while getting little to nothing in return.

For what it’s worth, the checked baggage fee was named by our readers as the Most Hated Fee in a vote-off conducted a few years back.

MONEY 401(k)

How the Supreme Court Just Improved Your Retirement

The Supreme Court just ruled on an obscure aspect of ERISA. It could be great news for your retirement nest egg.

The Supreme Court just handed millions of retirement savers a helping hand.

You many not know much about ERISA, the body of rules that governs retirement accounts. But chances are you have a 401(k). That means Monday’s Supreme Court decision could indirectly lower investment fees you’re paying. And that’s great news.

On Monday the Supreme Court made it easier for 401(k) investors to sue employers over needlessly costly 401(k) investments. The actual point of contention in the case, known as Tibble vs. Edison, was pretty obscure. It involved how the statute of limitations should be applied to a breach of fiduciary duty.

But because ERISA law is so complicated, companies almost always choose to fight such suits on technical grounds. This time around, the typically business friendly U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of investors, unanimously overruling the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. As a result, employers will be forced to think a little harder about whether similar arguments are likely to prevail in the future.

But the fact is, employers have grown increasingly proactive about regulating plan fees. The reason: Tibble vs. Edison is just a high-profile example of a series of lawsuits launched in the past decade over employers’ failure to police exorbitant retirement plan fees. And many large employers have already reacted to the threat by urging investment firms to lower fees for their employees. As a result, 401(k) plan fees have come down, and investors have had greater access to low-cost options like index funds.

With the Supreme Court weighing in on investors’ side, you can expect that trend to continue.

 

MONEY financial advisers

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do…With Your Financial Adviser

broken $ candy heart
Sarina Finkelstein (photo illustration)—Ashley Jouhar/Getty Images

Firing a financial adviser can be uncomfortable, but certain circumstances make it necessary.

Ending a relationship is never easy. You nurture it, get comfortable with it, and you learn what to expect. Sometimes you think about walking away because you’re just not sure it’s what you want. You wonder if breaking up is worth the hassle — and you decide to stick it out, telling yourself that next year will be better. But will it? Maybe not.

Should I stay or should I go? It’s a question people regularly ask, not just about their significant other but also about their hair stylist, their personal trainer, and, yes, their financial adviser.

The idea of leaving your financial adviser — and having to find a replacement — can be daunting. It involves a lot of research, paperwork, meetings, and time. Lots of time. All that and still no guarantee that this new adviser will be any better than the old one.

But things are changing. Consumers with money to save and invest now have more affordable, higher-quality investment options to choose from. As a result, more and more people are rethinking their long-term relationships with their financial advisers.

Four percent to six percent of U.S. investors change financial advisers in a given year, according to a 2014 survey by Spectrem Group, a firm that researches investors. The reasons for these break-ups vary, but ranking high on the list are a lack of communication, frustration with complex or hidden fees, and major life events such as death, divorce, or inheritance.

It was the death of a parent that started the ball rolling for one of my clients. A smart, savvy, and accomplished woman in her mid-30s, she juggles a demanding career, marriage and motherhood. When her father, a successful real estate developer, passed away unexpectedly, she and her sisters inherited money and securities. They also inherited his long-time financial adviser.

For years, her father had trusted this adviser to work in the family’s best financial interests, and she had no plans to end the relationship. The emotional loyalty factor made it hard to jump ship. Besides, she was only paying the typical 1% fee for decent portfolio growth.

Then she did a little digging and some comparison-shopping, just for her own education, and discovered she was wrong. In fact, her adviser had invested her in an actively managed fund with significant fees. He also had recommended a new fund for her — one with a front-end load that took 5% off the top. When all was said and done, she was paying 2.3% in annual fees, not the typical 1%.

Not only was she surprised, she was furious. She felt like a trust had been broken, which is understandable. As she told me, if the financial adviser had disclosed all of the funds and fees up front, she might have reacted differently. But he didn’t, and that made it much easier for her to leave and take her retirement account with her.

So if you’re re-evaluating your adviser’s performance, consider what’s important to you and your financial goals. Do you want better communication, a lower risk factor, lower fees? Or is it just time to shake off the inertia? Whatever your reasons, if the relationship isn’t working for you, don’t be afraid to kiss it goodbye.

———-

Sally Brandon is vice president of client services for Rebalance IRA, a retirement-focused investment advisory firm with almost $250 million of assets under management. In this role, she manages a wide range of retirement investing needs for over 350 clients. Sally earned her BA from UCLA and an MBA from USC.

MONEY Banks

Bank Charged $50M in Illegal Overdraft Fees Says CFPB

Regions bank
Rosa Betancourt—Alamy

Consumers paid millions in illegal penalties to a bank that operates in 16 states, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Consumers were charged nearly $50 million in illegal overdraft fees by Alabama-based Regions bank, federal regulators said Tuesday. The bank, which operates in 16 states, failed to get consumers to opt-in to overdraft coverage, failed to stop charging illegal fees for nearly a year after it discovered the activity and also charged illegal fees in connection with its payday-loan-like “deposit advance” product, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Regions Bank operates approximately 1,700 retail branches and 2,000 ATMs, with a footprint that spans across the South and Midwest, from Florida to Texas to Illinois. It is one of the country’s biggest banks with more than $119 billion in assets.

“We take the issue of overdraft fees very seriously and will be vigilant about making sure that consumers receive the protections they deserve,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray.

The CFPB on Tuesday ordered Regions to refund consumers and pay a $7.5 million fine, the first such fine levied under new overdraft rules set for banks in the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill.

“After discovering that a small subset of customers had been charged fees in error, we reported it to the CFPB and began refunding the fees. We believe the vast majority of the refunds have been completed and we have made changes to our internal systems to resolve these matters,” said Evelyn Mitchell, Regions spokeswoman.

Overdraft fees average about $35, and can be charged when consumers write checks or make electronic payments, purchases or withdrawals that exceed the available balance in their checking accounts. Prior to Dodd-Frank, consumers complained that they were often automatically enrolled in pricey overdraft coverage, which could cause them to incur $35 fees on small debit card purchases that sent their bank balances only a few dollars into the red. Dodd-Frank requires banks to simply reject such transactions unless account holders have affirmatively opted-in to the coverage.

But Regions kept on charging a subset of consumers overdraft fees without their express consent after Dodd-Frank took effect in 2010, the CFPB said. Regions customers who had previously linked their checking accounts to savings accounts or lines of credit were not asked to opt in for overdraft coverage, and kept on incurring fees as high as $36 per transaction.

Thirteen months after the mandatory compliance date, the bank discovered its error in an internal review, but kept charging the illegal fees for an additional year, the CFPB said. Finally, in June 2012, the bank’s computers were re-programmed to stop charging the fees.

It’s been a challenge for the bank to identify all impacted consumers. In December 2012, the bank voluntarily refunded $35 million to consumers who wrongly paid fees. In 2013, the CFPB alerted the bank to more victims, and it refunded an additional $12.8 million. This January, the bank found even more victims. The consent order issued by the CFPB today requires the bank to hire an independent consultant to identify any remaining consumers who are entitled to a refund.

The bank is also accused of making nearly $2 million by charging overdraft fees in connection with its deposit advance product after promising it wouldn’t charge such fees. Consumers who agree to a deposit advance loan receive money in their checking account in anticipation of a future deposit, often a direct deposit. When Regions collected from consumers’ accounts, and the payment was higher than the available balance, the bank sometimes changed overdraft fees, despite saying it would not do so. Between November 2011 and August 2013, the bank charged non-sufficient funds fees and overdraft charges of about $1.9 million to more than 36,000 customers, the CFPB said.

The bank was ordered to identify and fix any errors on consumers’ credit reports related to the illegal overdraft fees, and to pay a $7.5 million fine. The CFPB warned that the fine could have been higher. (Consumers can check for errors by getting their free annual credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com, and can watch for issues by getting their free credit report summary, updated every month on Credit.com.)

“Regions’ violations and its delay in escalating them to senior executives and correcting the errors could have justified a larger penalty, but the Bureau credited Regions for making reimbursements to consumers and promptly self-reporting these issues to the Bureau once they were brought to the attention of senior management,” the CFPB said in a statement.

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

MONEY financial advice

What I Learned in India About Financial Advice

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Stephen Wilkes—Gallery Stock Mumbai

One thing that crosses international boundaries is how people misunderstand the cost of financial advice.

In the airport shuttle taking us to our hotel in Mumbai, I looked out the window and thought, “We’re not in South Dakota anymore.” At midnight, the streets of India’s largest city seemed as full of people, vendors, and traffic as Times Square at noon.

I had no real comparison, though, for the garbage strewn about, the beggars going from car to car when traffic stopped, the people sleeping on the sidewalks, the ramshackle condition of most buildings, and the roaming packs of stray dogs. The third poorest county in the US — just 60 miles from my home — is no match whatsoever for the real ghettos of Mumbai, where 55% of the city’s 16 million people live.

Given these great dissimilarities in economic status as well as political, religious, and cultural views, I expected to find striking differences between the Indian and U.S. financial adviser communities and their clients. Here I was surprised.

I traveled to Mumbai to meet with a group of Indian financial advisers. The country’s financial regulators are actively encouraging advisers to change from charging only commissions to charging fees. My role was to offer suggestions for making that transition.

After spending several days observing and listening to the struggles of the Indian advisers, I concluded that 95% of the obstacles they face in promulgating client-centered, fiduciary planning are the same as the ones planners face here in the US.

The most frequent complaint I heard was that consumers just won’t pay fees. They would rather pay a high commission they don’t see rather than a low fee they painfully do see. I find the same behavior in US consumers. It seems irrational, but it makes perfect sense when we understand the delusional money script of avoidance that says, “If I don’t see the fee, then I must not pay a fee.”

Just as in the US, Indian advisers struggle to help consumers understand the math behind hidden commissions and visible fees. While most advisers can quickly calculate the amounts, consumers still find it hard to accept the numbers. There is great resistance to writing a check, even when a planning fee is half as much as an unseen fee or commission. In my experience, most consumers have great difficulty emotionally understanding that writing a check for $10,000 for advisory fees on $1 million represents a $15,000 savings on a 2.5% wrap fee they don’t see and for which no check is written.

Another similarity is that those most willing to pay fees for service are the wealthier clients. At first blush one might surmise that of course the wealthy are more open to paying fees because they have more money. That isn’t the case. The fees paid are roughly proportionate. In fact, usually smaller accounts that go fee-only save proportionally more than do larger ones. The difference is that affluent or wealthy clients tend to be business owners or professionals who are familiar with employing fee-for-service consultants, like accountants and attorneys.

The transition to introducing fees is slow, requiring a lot of education on the part of advisers and willingness to listen on the part of consumers. Similar to where the US was in the 1980s, India has only a handful of pioneering fee-only planners. Most advisers wanting to switch from pushing financial products to doing comprehensive financial planning have rolled out a fee-based model first. They hope consumers will eventually embrace the advantages — lower costs and fewer conflicts of interest — inherent in a fee-only compensation model.

In my career, I have watched and participated in financial planning’s growth as a profession in the US. It’s a privilege to be able to see it develop in India as well.

———-

Rick Kahler, ChFC, is president of Kahler Financial Group, a fee-only financial planning firm. His work and research regarding the integration of financial planning and psychology has been featured or cited in scores of broadcast media, periodicals and books. He is a co-author of four books on financial planning and therapy. He is a faculty member at Golden Gate University and the former president of the Financial Therapy Association.

MONEY portfolio

5 Ways to Invest Smarter at Any Age

dollar bill lifting barbells
Comstock Images—Getty Images

The key is settling on the right stock/bond mix and sticking to your guns. Here's how.

Welcome to Day 4 of MONEY’s 10-day Financial Fitness program. So far, you’ve seen what shape you’re in, gotten yourself motivated, and checked your credit. Today, tackle your investment mix.

The key to lifetime fitness is a powerful core—strong and flexible abdominal and back muscles that help with everything else you do and protect against aches and injuries as you age. In your financial life, your core is your long-term savings, and strengthening it is simple: Settle on the right stock/bond mix, favor index funds to keep costs low, fine-tune your approach periodically, and steer clear of gimmicks such as “nontransparent ETFs” or “hedge funds for small investors”—Wall Street’s equivalent of workout fads like muscle-toning shoes.

Here’s the simple program:

1. Know Your Target

If you don’t already have a target allocation for your age and risk tolerance, steal one from the pie charts at T. Rowe Price’s Asset Allocation Planner. Or take one minute to fill out Vanguard’s mutual fund recommendation tool. You’ll get a list of Vanguard index funds, but you can use the categories to shop anywhere.

2. Push Yourself When You’re Young

Investors 35 and under seem to be so concerned about a market meltdown that they have almost half their portfolios in cash, a 2014 UBS report found. Being too conservative early on—putting 50% in stocks vs. 80%—reduces the likely value of your portfolio at age 65 by 30%, according to Vanguard research. For starting savers, 90% is a commonly recommended stock stake.

3. Do a U-turn at Retirement

According to Wade Pfau of the American College and Michael Kitces of the Pinnacle Advisory Group, you have a better shot at a secure retirement if you hold lots of stocks when you’re young, lots of bonds at retirement, and then gradually shift back to stocks. Their studies found that starting retirement with 20% to 30% in stocks and raising that by two percentage points a year for 15 years helps your money last, especially if you run into a bear market early on.

4. Be Alert for Hidden Risks

Once you’ve been investing for several years and have multiple accounts, perfecting your investment mix gets trickier. Here’s a simple way to get the full picture of your portfolio.

Dig out statements for all your investment accounts—401(k), IRA, spouse’s 401(k), old 401(k), any brokerage accounts. At Morningstar.com, find “Instant X-Ray” under Portfolio Tools. Enter the ticker symbol of each fund you own, along with the dollar value. (Oops. Your 401(k) has separately managed funds that lack tickers? Use the index fund that’s most similar to your fund’s benchmark.)

Clicking “Show Instant X-Ray” will give you a full analysis, including a detailed stock/bond allocation, a geographic breakdown of your holdings, and your portfolio’s overall dividend yield and price/earnings ratio. Look deeper to see how concentrated you are in cyclical stocks, say, or tech companies—a sign you might not be as diversified as you think or taking risks you didn’t even know about.

5. Don’t Weigh Yourself Every Day

Closely monitoring your progress may help with an actual fitness plan. For financial fitness, it’s better to lay off looking at how you’re doing. A growing body of research finds that well-diversified investors who check their balances infrequently are more likely to end up with bigger portfolios, says Michaela Pagel, a finance professor at Columbia Business School. One reason: Pagel says savers who train themselves not to peek are more likely to invest in stocks. And research by Dalbar finds that investors’ tendency to panic sell in bear markets has cut their average annual returns to 5% over the past 20 years, while the S&P 500 earned 9.2%.

When you have the urge to sell, remind yourself that your time horizon is at least 20 years, says Eric Toya, a financial planner in Redondo Beach, Calif. “Outcome-oriented investors agonize over every up-and-down whim of the market and make poor timing decisions,” he says. “If your process is sound, you don’t need to panic.”

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MONEY retirement planning

How to Save More for Retirement Without Saving an Extra Cent

fingers holding penny
Roy Hsu—Getty Images

Think you can't set aside any more dough than you're already saving? Here's a simple way to grow your nest egg without putting a squeeze on your budget.

If I said you could significantly boost the size of your nest egg without setting aside even a single penny more than you already are and do so without taking on a scintilla of extra investing risk, you’d be skeptical, right? Well, you can. Here’s how.

It’s no secret that the best way to increase your chances of achieving a secure retirement is to boost the amount you save. Problem is, given all the other demands on your paycheck (mortgage, car payments, child expenses, the occasional night out, etc.) how do you find ways to free up more dough for saving?

Actually, there’s an easy way boost your retirement account balances without further squeezing your budget: Stash whatever money you do manage to save in the lowest-cost investments you can find. This simple tactic has the same effect as contributing more to your retirement accounts, making it the financial equivalent of upping your savings rate.

How big a jump in your effective savings rate are we talking about? That depends on how much you cut investment fees and how long you reap the benefits of those lower costs. But over time the increase in your effective savings rate can be quite meaningful, as this example shows.

Let’s say you’re 35, earn $50,000 a year, receive 2% annual raises, and contribute 10% of your salary to a 401(k) that earns a 7% a year before fees. If you shell out 1.5% annually in investment expenses, by the time you’re 65 your 401(k) balance will total just under $465,000.

Reduce your annual investment costs from 1.5% to just 1%—hardly a heroic effort—and you’re looking at a nest egg worth roughly $505,000. To end up with that amount while still paying 1.5% in annual fees, you would have to boost your annual 401(k) contribution to 10.8%. Which means that lowering expenses by a half percentage point in this case is essentially the same as saving nearly a full percentage point more each year, except you don’t have to reduce your spending to do it.

And what if you take an even sharper knife to investing costs?

Well, cutting expenses from 1.5% to 0.5% a year would give our hypothetical 35-year-old a 401(k) balance of just under $550,000 at age 65, or the equivalent of saving 11.8% a year instead of 10%. And if you’re able to really cut investment fees to the bone—say, to 0.25%—that nest egg’s value would balloon to just over $573,000. To reach that size while paying 1.5% annually in investing costs, our 35-year-old would have to contribute 12.3% of pay.

By the way, lowering investment costs can also have a big payoff after you’ve stopped saving and have begun tapping your nest egg for retirement income. For example, a 65 year-old with a $1 million nest egg split equally between stocks and bonds who wants an 80% chance that his savings will sustain him for at least 30 years would have to limit himself to an initial draw (that would subsequently rise with inflation) of just under 3.5%, or a bit less than $35,000, assuming annual expenses of 1.5%.

Cut that levy from 1.5% to 0.5%, and he would be able to boost that inflation-adjusted withdrawal to almost 4%, or $40,000, while maintaining the same 80% probability of savings lasting 30 or more years.

Of course, the results you get may vary for any number of reasons. For example, if you’re doing most of your saving through a 401(k) and your plan lacks good low-cost investment options, your ability to turn lower expenses into a higher account balance will necessarily be limited. And even if you are able to home in on investments with rock-bottom costs, there’s no guarantee that every dollar of cost savings will translate to an extra dollar in your account.

That said, unless every cent of your savings is locked into an account that offers only high-expense investments, you should be able to get some money into cost-efficient options. At the very least you can steer savings in IRAs and taxable accounts into low-fee index funds and ETFs (some of which charge as little as 0.05%). And while cutting investing costs can’t guarantee a larger nest egg, Morningstar research shows that funds with the lowest expense ratios tend to outperform their higher-fee counterparts.

One final note. While targeting low-expense investment options is certainly an effective and painless way to boost the size of your nest egg, you shouldn’t let low costs do all the work. Indeed, if you focus on low-fee investments and increase your contributions to 401(k)s, IRAs and other retirement accounts, that’s when you’ll see your savings balances really take off.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

More From RealDealRetirement.com:

The 4 Biggest Retirement Blunders
Can You Afford To Retire Early?
Market Jitters? Do This 15-Minute Portfolio Check-up Now

Read next: If You Want to Retire in 10 Years, Do These 5 Things Now

MONEY Debit Card

What Happens If I Swipe My Debit Card as “Credit”?

person swiping credit card
David Woolley—Getty Images

The answer may surprise you.

It’s a question we’ve all heard when shopping: “Credit or debit?” It seems straightforward, just the cashier asking you what type of payment card you’re using, but there’s actually a lot more history to that question than you might think.

Debit and credit transactions are processed differently: Here’s how MasterCard explained it in an emailed statement to Credit.com: When you use a debit card and your PIN (personal identification number), the transaction is completed in real time, also known as an online transaction — you authorize the purchase with your PIN and the money is immediately transferred from your bank account to the merchant. With a credit card, or using a debit card as credit, it’s an offline transaction.

“The funds for offline transactions are deducted after the merchant settles the purchase with the credit card processor and typically take 2-3 days to be reflected in your account balance,” MasterCard says.

Issuers used to charge merchants different fees for accepting credit cards than for accepting debit card transactions with a PIN. Before the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was passed, Sen. Dick Durbin added a provision, now called the Durbin Amendment, that restricted interchange fees to 12¢ per transaction. By the time the bill was signed into law, the cap was set at 21¢, much lower than the previous average of 45¢ per transaction. (On Jan. 20, the Supreme Court declined to hear retailers’ challenge to that 21¢ cap.)

With the cap on interchange fees, banks saw their revenue source for things like debit card rewards and free banking dry up, which is why you’re unlikely to find those things these days.

“There’s several thousand community banks and credit unions, what the act refers to as unregulated, who can actually charge greater interchange on transactions,” said Nick Barnes senior vice president of retail banking at ACI Worldwide, a payments system company. The Durbin Amendment only impacted financial service providers with $10 billion or more in assets. “That’s why you go to these tiny banks you’ll still see free banking and debit rewards.”

Should You Choose Debit or Credit?

Credit cards and debit cards are very different products, each with their own advantages and drawbacks that should influence when and how you use them. As for hitting the “credit” button when you’re using a debit card: It doesn’t really matter.

Other than the changes banks may have made as a result changing interchange fees, choosing to use a debit card as credit doesn’t really impact you. You often have the choice to use your debit card with or without the PIN, and how you use it is a matter of personal preference. Running a debit card as an offline transaction still ends up doing the same thing — taking money from your checking account — and it doesn’t help you build credit, like using a credit card does.

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

Read next: Why You Need to Get a Credit Card

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MONEY Fundraising

Crowdfunding for a Good Cause Gets Cheaper

Ball picking up money
Getty Images Websites can help you turn small donations into a life-changing gift.

A growing number of sites will help you raise big money for a friend in need. But watch for high fees.

The week before Christmas, a fire gutted the Beverly, Massachusetts home shared by Kevin Wagner, his fiancée and their four young children. Most of their basic possessions were destroyed along with their Christmas presents.

While insurance will cover much of the rebuilding, friends stepped in right away with cash to fill the gap until the claim is settled. As is becoming more common these days, they started crowdfunding campaigns on popular sites—one on DreamFund.com, which holds money in an FDIC-insured savings account, and another on GoFundMe.com, which is linked to a personal bank account. Both sites collect a 5% fee from the donations and pass along a credit card processing fee of about 3%.

For the $25,000 Wagner’s friends raised on DreamFund, that amounts to $2,000, and another $800 went to GoFundMe and its credit card processors for the $10,000 raised on that platform.

A few people were put off after learning about the fees, Wagner says, and simply handed him checks, which added another $10,000 to the effort.

Nevertheless, raising money for personal causes through crowdfunding sites is a skyrocketing business—GoFundMe says such fundraising campaigns increased by 291% between 2013 and 2014, after rising by more than 500% the year before. But the fees make it clear the platforms themselves are, indeed, businesses rather than purely charitable efforts.

More than 2,000 crowdfunding sites have sprung up to try to catch the wave of this rapidly growing industry, says Howard Orloff, vice president of Zacks CF Research and founder of Crowdfunding-Website-Reviews.com. Of those, many are start-ups with little staying power and many are aimed at businesses seeking capital rather than personal causes. Some, like Kickstarter, one of the best known sites, don’t allow personal fundraising.

Regardless of type, the sites make money by taking a percentage of pledges, which results in either a donation being reduced when it reaches the recipient or a surcharge added to the donor so the recipient gets the net amount pledged.

But when it comes to raising money for charity, that may be changing.

On Dec. 15, popular crowdfunding site Indiegogo, which typically charges 4% to 9% (plus fees for PayPal or credit card processing), decided to drop the fee for personal fundraisers. Users of its new IndiegogoLife service only have to sacrifice the 3% taken by the credit card processors.

Indiegogo co-founder Danae Ringelmann says the company didn’t want those who were in need of charity to be subject to the same charges as those trying to launch a business.

“Every dollar counts—we’ve heard that again and again and again,” she says.

Dropping that platform fee is a “game-changer” in the world of crowdfunding, Orloff says. “Smaller sites [like YouCaring.com and Tilt.com] have offered no-fee crowdfunding for a while but none with website traffic, and public trust, anywhere near Indiegogo.”

By contrast, collecting the old-fashioned way—by accepting cash in person or checks to be deposited in a bank—usually involves no extra costs, although some banking fees may apply depending on the kind of account you choose.

But real-world collecting like that has limitations of reach, and not much possibility of the campaign going viral.

With crowdfunding, if the cause is popular enough to land on the home page of one of the more popular sites “it can go pretty wild,” Orloff says. “It can change somebody’s life.”

Indeed, the campaign to raise money for Wagner and his family went far beyond the $5,000 he imagined—the $50,000 raised so far may actually be more than they need.

“We didn’t expect this at all,” Wagner says. “If there is extra , we want to help others. We hope to pay it forward.”

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