Friday, August 3, 2012

Review: USAA Bank and why you should fight, beg, and plead your way to membership

About three years ago, I was helping a woman who had been in a car crash. She lived in Virginia Beach (about 5 hours from where we were) and didn't have a penny to her name. She was driving an older model clunker in pretty bad condition. The car was undriveable. The Officer working the accident had called a state wrecker because the woman said that her USAA insurance free towing had quoted an hour before a wrecker could arrive. The woman's car was blocking the roadway. The woman was very distressed that she would have no way to get home to Virginia Beach. I stayed with her while she tearfully called USAA and explained that she would have to get towed by the state wrecker due to the traffic back up she was causing. She explained to USAA why she was crying. USAA asked to speak to the Officer. They promised to get their free wrecker here within 30 minutes, and the free wrecker would take both her and her vehicle to Virginia Beach where it would drop her off at her house and her vehicle at the closest repair shop. I was shocked. I've worked with insurance companies before as part of my job, and this is not typical of what I've seen. I asked her if she was related to someone in the company or something. She said, "No, They're just like that".

That was my first of so many positive experiences with USAA that I could start a whole other blog about them. At the time, I wasn't a member. I thought you had to be in the military. Fast forward a few years, when Jon and I got married and I started paying more and more attention to finances, I noticed that USAA had his vehicle insurance and his mortgage. Every time I called them, I spoke with a real person that spoke my language, they were always incredibly efficient and accommodating. At one point, I was inquiring about one of their services and as I explained our situation, the call taker told me that the particular service I was looking into was great, but that for our unusual situation, we may be able to get a better deal with a particular company. Honesty- I love it!

I started slow. I switched my car insurance over to them and saved $35.00 a month for better coverage. I then inquired about refinancing my vehicle through them. I saved $120.00 per month and almost 3% in the interest rate. When the mortgage interest rate hit an all time low, we looked into refinancing our mortgage. We did most of it over the phone in less than 20 minutes (for a VA Loan). Our monthly payments went down by $250.00 per month, and we saved over $30,000 for the life of the loan (hopefully more if we can pay it off early).

At the time, we had Bank of America. I was incredibly tempted to switch to USAA banking, but couldn't really see how that would work since its an online bank and there's no actual branches. How would I cash checks or deposit cash? We lucked out when Bank of America put a hold on our debit card for the SECOND time in a year. The first time, we were on vacation and according to the fraud department, we had concerned the bank because our card was being used in multiple states. Well, duh. We were driving through several states. I thought it was weird, but I was understanding. The second time though, I was using the debit card at a grocery store not a mile from my house, and my card got declined with a huge line behind me. I kept insisting that there was a mistake and that the account had plenty of money. Unfortunately, I had chosen that day to go to the grocery store in sweats and I'm sure I looked like a crazed homeless person. They brought me over to customer service and I called the bank furious. They told me that there was a fraud hold on the account until they could make sure it was me using the card. They couldn't tell me for certain why there was a hold but they suggested that it may be because the card was infrequently used (we worked mostly with cash at the time while we were honing our budgeting skills). Bank of America may be a wonderful company that I just had a bad experience with, but I found my motivation to switch to USAA.

I have been so happy with the switch to USAA Banking that I regret not doing it immediately. For starters, I've never had a fraud hold on my debit card.  They have a well developed iPhone app that lets you deposit your checks by phone. You take a photo of the front of the check, turn it over, write your account information and "for deposit only" onto the back and snap another picture. Hit the deposit button and you're done! You then write void on the check and file or destroy. Even personal checks are available for immediate withdrawal. I've done $1,000 worth of deposits in a sitting and all of it was available immediately. They refund the ATM fee of any ATM, which makes getting cash a breeze. While we hope we'll never need it, their overdraft fee is five dollars. Bank of America's overdraft fee is $35.00, and an additional $35.00 if your account isn't fixed within 5 days. The best part for me though is the online banking feature "Track my Money".  I go through our checking account about three times a week and categorize each purchase into set categories. Things like "Groceries", "Stock Room", "Rowy's Wants", "Jon's Wants". It takes about 5 minutes each time I do this. Every month I run a report. It tells me how much we spent in each category then I can compare it to last month and identify where we need to work more and where we can celebrate our accomplishments.

They have all of the normal bells and whistles like free online bill pay. They also have free financial assessments, financial goal setting and tracking. and low cost financial planners. USAA, ZocDoc, and Wegmans are the only three companies that I trust fully.

We just started with their investment options. We opened a Roth IRA for long term retirement savings that can double as our emergency savings (You can withdrawal your contributions to a Roth IRA without penalty at any time, but you can't withdrawal interest).

The bad news is that either you or your spouse must have served in the military to become a member of USAA. You can also join if one of your parents served and has a USAA Membership. My Mom and Dad are both veterans (Mom was one of the first woman M.P.'s since WWII... She even wore a skirt as her uniform). After a long time of blabbering on about how amazing USAA is, I finally got my father, my mother, and my sister to switch over to them. Each of them have similar savings stories to ours.

In conclusion, USAA is pretty awesome. If you aren't eligible for membership, you should seek creative ways to become eligible. Perhaps your friendly next door veteran could use a 30 year old legally adopted daughter? Or, if you aren't yet married, maybe you can give the blokes with prior military service an extra hard look. I'm kidding, Born Free doesn't recommend choosing an adopted father or husband based on USAA eligibility. But it certainly doesn't hurt:)

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