credit & debt

2009 Best List: Credit & Banking

Protect your money with some of these tips.

BEST CREDIT CARDS IF YOU. . .

Want a Cash Rebate?
The card for you is: AMERICAN EXPRESS BLUE CASH
Why we like it: Get 1% cash back on everyday purchases, which include groceries, gas and drugstore items, and earn 0.5% on everything else. Once your annual spending passes $6,500, you get 5% cash back on everyday items and 1.25% on the rest of your purchases.

Want Automatic Savings?
The card for you is: DISCOVER MOTIVA
Why we like it: Motiva offers an incentive to cardholders who carry a balance: Pay on time for six months in a row and receive a credit of one month’s interest, collectible twice a year. This no-fee card also offers a 1% cash-back bonus on purchases over $3,000.

Want Travel Perks?
The card for you is: U.S. BANK FLEX PERKS TRAVEL REWARDS VISA SIGNATURE
Why we like it: Earn one point for each dollar charged and double points on gas, grocery or airline-ticket purchases, whichever you charge most in a given month. If you charge $18,000 in a year, including $5,200 in groceries, you earn enough points for a ticket.

Want a Break on Gas?
The card for you is: BP VISA
Why we like it: Get 10% off BP gas purchases, 4% off travel and dining, and 2% off everything else for the first 60 days that you use the no-fee card. After that, the rebates are half as much. Take your rebates in cash or as a BP gift card, or donate them to the Conservation Fund.

BEST SAFE TO PROTECT YOUR STASH

To guard your jewelry, important papers and cash, you don’t have to spend a small fortune. The PROTEX HD-34 fire-resistant safe has all the features safety expert Bob Thurman recommends, including an electronic keypad that allows you to change the combination easily. It costs less than $300, weighs 53 pounds and comes with a bolt-down kit.

BEST BANK ACCOUNTS

They combine higher yields and convenience. A high-yield savings account at ALLY BANK, formerly GMAC Financial Serv­ices, yields 1.80%—far more than you’d get at most brick-and-mortar banks. And Ally Bank has no minimum to open an account, no monthly fees and no minimum balance. Plus, this FDIC-insured institution is one of the only online banks to offer penalty-free CDs, which give you the freedom to withdraw your money early without paying a fee.

For the second year in a row, our top pick for best checking account is CHARLES SCHWAB Bank’s high-yield investor checking account. With no minimum balance and no ATM fees, the FDIC-insured account comes with a debit card, free online bill payment and an attractive yield of 0.75%. There is one catch: You can get it only as a linked account to a Schwab One brokerage account, but there’s no minimum investment requirement for that, either.

BEST MONEY-MARKET FUND STAND-INS

With the average money-market fund yielding a paltry 0.1%, tuck your cash into a municipal-bond fund. For a tax-free option, try VANGUARD LIMITED TERM TAX EXEMPT (Symbol VMLTX). The fund, which yields 1.5% (2.1% for those in the 28% federal tax bracket), has a low expense ratio of 0.20%. It has led its category 15 of the past 19 years and has a 20-year annualized return of 4.7%.

Another good option is FIDELITY FLOATING HIGH INCOME (FFRHX), a bank-loan fund with a current yield of 4.4%. The fund lost 16.5% last year, but it has come back and is up 25% through October 8. Over the past five years, it has beaten its category by nearly three points, and it should perform well when the Federal Reserve starts raising rates again.

BEST ROUTE TO A GREAT RATE

Here are 4 steps to land a low-cost mortgage:

Prepare. To get the most accurate estimate of the rate for which you’ll qualify, first request your FICO score ($8 with your Equifax report from www.annualcreditreport.com) and get an estimate of your home’s market value (call a real estate agent or use Zillow.com and Trulia.com).

Call several lenders. With that information in hand, shop lenders. Start after 11 a.m. eastern time, when lenders typically issue their daily rate sheets.

Know your costs. Ask lenders for their best rate and a verbal estimate of their fees. Apply to get a written, good-faith estimate from the best lender. Or get two estimates and play lenders against each other.

Lock it in. To avoid a rate hike before closing the loan, you’ll generally have to pay an additional quarter of a percentage point on your interest rate for every 30 days you lock in. Float it down. To capture a drop in rates, your lender will usually charge a nonrefundable fee of $200.

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