Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Great Value Bacon Breakfast Bowl (Walmart)

It gets kind of old after a while, but it's good while it lasts.

This story starts the way virtually all my stories do: Was in a store—this time, namely Walmart—needed something to take to work but didn’t want something boring like sandwiches. So I went to the frozen section, which has sadly become my go-to place lately. I had nothing specific in mind when my eyes caught this breakfast bowl from Great Value. I’d never had the name brand before, but I did have similar offerings from Aldi, so I had a good idea of what I was getting into.

This looks pretty much exactly like I was expecting it to, having had Aldi’s version of the same bowl, even down to the overly large plastic container, which makes the contents inside seem meager by comparison. Cooking it up in the microwave is quick and simple, requiring just three-and-a-half minutes, with the ensuing meal coming out piping hot within that time.

The taste, at least initially, matches what you would expect from looking in the bowl, which is to say that everything tastes like it’s been coated in a large layer of grease. Seriously, you can feel your arteries clog in real-time after finishing the bowl, with a thin layer of the stuff sinking down to the bottom, where it creates a slick-looking glossy surface that’s almost enough to make you slip and fall just from looking at it. In other words, if you've ever eaten at Waffle House, this is the frozen food equivalent of that experience. (But at least you get a whopping 31g of protein, which is great for people who like to load up on that.)

Once the grease layer dissipates on the tongue, the dish tastes like it’s a mix of scrambled eggs, potatoes, cheese, and bacon, because that’s what it is, and all of those tastes are pretty straightforward. I would have liked the cheese to be spread out a little better (it clumped together in one corner of the bowl, with many bites missing out on the stuff) but that just meant I had a huge glob of it left at the end, which was worth the wait.

Unfortunately, with no accompanying gravies or additional “sauces”, this bowl does suffer from the standard issues of similar frozen breakfasts: It’s pretty dry, thanks to the potatoes and bacon, and as hard as the grease seems to try to prevent that, it can’t quite overcome it. As a result, it gets pretty boring to eat after a little while; it would greatly benefit from something that could give it a little shot of flavor, or other unexpected kick. 

That’s not to say this is a bad product—quite the contrary, I do like it and would get it again—but it’s one that could be easily improved upon with just a couple minor tweaks, that could take it from the good bowl that it is now, into truly great territory. (Something like the sausage and gravy bowl, where the gravy prevents the potatoes from drying everything out, while also adding a much-needed difference in texture.) 

Overall: 6/10. Thanks to the inclusion of potatoes and bacon, things can get a little dry and “boring” after a little while. There's also a rather concerning layer of grease that sits at the bottom, a constant reminder that you will probably die soon after finishing it. Despite these issues, though, it's essentially a breakfast sandwich in bowl form, with a proven combination of flavors that work well together, when they're not drying out your mouth. And the shit-ton of protein (a whopping 31g!) doesn't hurt. It's not the best breakfast bowl out there, but it's quick, inexpensive, and tasty, and one that I would get again in the future.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Great Value Sausage and Gravy Breakfast Bowl (Walmart)

A delicious breakfast bowl at a delicious price. (Img source: Walmart.com)

My Lord am I getting senile in my old age: At a quick glance during a frustratingly long (and overly expensive) trip to Walmart, I half-blindly grabbed a couple of these breakfast bowls as an option for lunch at work. In my exhaustion, I thought I was grabbing one bacon and one sausage, but as it turns out, the second kind was actually a sausage and gravy breakfast bowl! I don’t know why I’m telling you this long-winded story, because the only moral of the story is that I’m even more excited to try it now.

Prepwork consists of popping it in the microwave for 4 minutes (thirty seconds more than the bacon version), letting it sit, then enjoying. Pretty straightforward and simple; perfect for a quick breakfast on the go—and smart to eat as a breakfast food because it gives you all day to work off the excess calories.

Oh yeah, this one hits the spot. The gravy is a delicious country gravy that doesn’t really taste like “standard” sausage gravy even when mixed with the sausage crumbles, but it does add quite a bit to the flavor that the regular bacon bowl is missing. And speaking of sausage, there is a ton in this bowl; there’s enough that you can get some in every bite all the way up until the end, which is a somewhat welcome surprise, considering some of them tend to be skimpy. Also, even though each bowl is technically 7 ounces of food, I still feel like sausage is a much heartier, more substantial and filling breakfast meat than the little scraps of bacon served up in their other variety, so I walked away feeling much fuller. And fatter.

It’s also apparently “healthier”, with “only” 340 calories, 25g of fat, and 215mg of cholesterol per bowl. High numbers, to be sure, but somehow still smaller numbers than those found in the bacon bowl. The excessive grease of the bacon bowl also didn’t seem to be much of an issue here, although it’s possible that maybe I just didn’t notice it thanks to the coating of gravy. Either way, it didn’t feel as “heavy” as the bacon did, giving me just enough food to fill up for breakfast.

The more I eat of it, the better it gets: I’d go out on a limb and say that this is better than most fast food breakfasts, and certainly better than almost all fast food sausage gravy’s…the texture is perfect, and although it looks like it might be a little “snotty” and off-putting when first looking at it, actually comes off as much more smooth once it's all mixed together and the bites start ending up in your mouth.

As someone with borderline high cholesterol, these don’t fit into my diet very often at all (though judging from my other reviews, it certainly doesn't seem like I pay much attention to it, haha), and it’s going to stay that way. But as a once-in-a-while convenient breakfast, or for those in a much better health situation than I am, these are a delicious concoction that are way tastier than I would have expected, and for a pretty solid value.

Overall: 8/10. These are surprisingly good, and coming in at just $2.00 per 7 oz. bowl, offer up a decent value that at least rivals fast food breakfasts in terms of taste and “quality” (term used loosely). The gravy is the difference-maker here, adding in some additional texture that prevents the potatoes from being too dry, while also contributing an extra flavor missing from the bacon bowl. I won’t get these all the time, because they’re pretty horrendous for you, and I should probably at least start taking my health into consideration, but as an occasional treat, I would definitely grab these again if I find myself at a Walmart store. God forbid.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Marketside Refrigerated Double Sausage Egg and Cheese Muffin (Walmart)

It's like a cheese crime scene in there...
My wife and I were out at Walmart shopping for groceries, something we never do, when I realized I needed stuff for my work lunches. Rather than doing the smart thing, and grabbing some bread and sandwich fixin’s, I decided to search around for some frozen things to take with me. And that’s how I stumbled on an entire array of “Marketside” foods, which are designed to look like they were made fresh in store (they are refrigerated instead of frozen), but are actually mass-produced, like everything else inside a Walmart store.

Prepping it for human consumption is very easy: pop it out onto a paper towel, stick it in the microwave, and cook for a minute on each side, flipping it after 30 seconds. Well, that’s what the actual directions stated, anyway; as usual, I took an even lazier way out, keeping the sandwich in the plastic (but opening one end), and just cooking the whole thing for a minute, with no flipping. Sure enough, the sandwich came out piping hot and ready to eat, without any cold spots or otherwise noticeable issues.

The first thing that caught my attention was that this thing is absolutely loaded with cheese: if it were the real stuff, it would be stringing out all over the place. But since it’s the pasteurized junk (which, honestly, you have to accept at this price point), it instead just falls all over the place and sticks to the packaging, making an absolute mess of things. Either way, I have to say that it made my mouth water, and was an enticing way to start the festivities.

Wow, this has a pretty interesting flavor. I thought maybe they’d be trying to emulate a fast-food breakfast kind of taste, but this has a taste all its own...for better and for worse. It definitely doesn’t taste the way a “fresh” one would, which is to be expected from a supermarket sandwich, but the overloaded cheese certainly steps it up and presents a delicious artificial flavor that I have to admit to loving. Curiously, although the sausage should be front and center (this does, after all, feature two patties), the sausage taste is surprisingly “muted”, at least in comparison to what I was expecting. In fact, just trying a piece of sausage on its own revealed just how uninspiring they are without the other ingredients there to pick it up. It's lacking the typical “bite” of most sausage patties...a flavor that's pretty much a required component of sausage, and that drags things down a little bit.

Rather surprisingly, the english muffin works well here. In fact, now that I think about it, english muffins are the perfect kind of bread for frozen sandwiches, because they're already kind of chewy and tough on their own. And since that's how frozen bread will almost always come out of the microwave, it translates very well, without the softness or even occasional sliminess of biscuit-based breakfast sandwiches.

How’s the price, you may be wondering? Unfortunately, I have failed you by forgetting exactly what I paid, but I’m pretty sure it was in the ballpark of $2.25. While that might sound like a lot, this is a pretty big 6.1 oz. sandwich; by the end of it, I was pretty full (not to mention sick of the flavor), so there’s plenty here that it should be enough to satisfy most hungers, and for a price that's cheaper than a lot of similar fast food sandwiches. If only that sausage tasted better...

Overall: 5.5/10. In a world that’s always trying to go more expensive and gourmet, sometimes it’s refreshing to step into a Walmart, until you are instantly reminded of why you never set foot in a Walmart…it’s like a hellish alternate universe where you exchange a little piece of your soul for cheap corporate goods. Enter this breakfast sandwich, which doubles the sausage yet somehow doesn’t even single the sausage flavor, leaving some non-descript patties of near-nothingness that lack the signature bite of the normal breakfast meat. The pasteurized cheese is here to steal the show, though, so whether or not you’ll like this depends on your affection for fake cheese products, with large amounts of the stuff falling all over and sticking to everything. The microwaved english muffin comes out semi-tough and chewy, which is pretty much an accurate texture to regular english muffins. It’s honestly a pretty decent combination, though nothing at all like a fast-food breakfast sandwich—which can be a good or bad thing, depending on your stance. I’m not sure I would get this again, and I was pretty sick of it by the final bite, but it represents decent value and a whole lot of convenience.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Season's Choice Shoestring French Fries (Aldi)

A no-frills fry at a no-frills price.
I’ve had quite a few of Aldi’s private label fry offerings (and there are quite a few), but I’ve never really sat down to review any. Why? Because the very thought of doing it makes me feel like I’m up against a wall. What can you really say about fries, especially ones as boring and straightforward as shoestrings? Nevertheless, I feel it is my duty to help you make informed decisions on what to buy and what to avoid, and so I’m going to do my best, though this will probably be shorter than most.

For starters, the size of the bag is pretty impressive, considering it retails (if memory serves me correctly) for $1.79. It’s true that you can also get bags of shoestring fries from Dollar Tree, for a dollar, but the bag is much smaller. I don’t have the exact weight or dimensions of the DT brand fries (which taste fine, by the way) but it’s noticeably smaller. With just about any bag of frozen sides (be it French fries, or onion rings), I generally toss in about a third of the bag, and that’s just the right amount for me. With these, I put in probably about a fifth and it was still way too many, so you really do get a lot for the money.

Now how do they taste? Well, like fried potatoes. Shoestring fries are never really that good or interesting by themselves, and these are no exception (if you don’t believe me, get the plain fries from Steak n’ Shake, and if you think they’re delicious, try it again when you’re sober). But they do provide a nice foundation for whatever toppings/condiments you enjoy. For me, I sprinkle them with a barbecue seasoning (that was actually intended for grilling), and then dip them in ketchup. That livens them up a little bit, and gives them a little added punch that would otherwise be missing.

So, if your fry budget is small but you have a lot of mouths to feed, this is a great way to go. The only downside: it's curiously only available as a special buy, so be sure to stock up if they happen to have them!

Overall: 7/10. If you want a lot of fries for not a lot of money, these are a good option. Now, keep in mind, these are shoestring fries, which are the French fry equivalent of math class: Completely, and utterly boring. They’re essentially thin-cut fries with some salt, and that’s it, so you’re not getting a lot of flavor right out of the bag, which is true of any shoestring fry I‘ve ever had. But you can always add condiments and seasonings to liven them up, which can help you stretch your grocery dollar farther, and isn’t that what this is all about? One fairly big negative: These are curiously only available as a special buy, so be sure to stock up on them when they are available!

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Eat! Southwestern Style Vegetable Burrito Bowl (Dollar Tree)

Not a bad way to go for $1.
As I have mentioned in a previous review, Eat! is a frozen meal company that, as far as I can tell, seems to exclusively supply Dollar Tree stores. The products are manufactured by Bellisio Foods, a factory located right here in Ohio; the combination makes sense, considering Bellisio also makes the name brand single serve frozen meals that Dollar Tree carries. Is Bellisio eventually going to pull the name brand products from DT stores and replace them with these private label products instead? It's a complete guess on my part, but one that makes potential sense; only time will tell.

Technically, this dish is doomed to me from the beginning, because I don’t much care for beans, nor rice, and those two items make up about 50% of this entrée. Obviously, however, I’m taking a look at it for what it is, rather than my own personal affection for it, if that makes sense. Which it doesn't. Either way, I was in the mood for something different, something I wouldn't normally get, and this fit the bill quite nicely.

I don’t think there’s a nice way to say this, but upon heating it up, this dish looks like someone ate beans and rice a little too soon after drinking a large quantity of alcohol, and then regurgitated their stomach contents into a small cardboard tray, where it was flash-frozen to preserve freshness and placed on store shelves. I mean, seriously—that weird white sauce on top (which I have just learned is, in fact, cheese, despite having the consistency of something that’s not cheese) certainly doesn’t help, especially when everything is mixed together. It’s quite an unappetizing appearance.

But you know what they say: never judge a book by its cover, and so I ignored my own stomach’s pleas for mercy, loaded up my fork with a bite, and crammed it into my mouth…

…and it’s really not that bad. It’s certainly boring to my palate, with a muted, monochrome flavor profile that’s expected of a bean and rice combination, but the weird cheese “sauce” (that’s much thicker than my definition of what constitutes a “sauce”) does give it an extra kick in the tastebuds that makes you wish there was more of it to go around. Meanwhile the “corn” is in there just to fulfill the absolute minimum requirement for something mass-produced to be considered “southwestern”…it really doesn’t add much to either the flavor, nor the texture, and is a pointless inclusion overall. In fact, I didn't even notice them at all as I was eating the dish, only realizing they existed after taking a closer look at the packaging.

If you are a fan of beans and rice, you're a boring person. But you might also quite like this. Ditto for fans of the “southwestern” flavor profile, which is in noticeable abundance here. It’s another example of America taking ingredients that are naturally healthy, and overcheesing and salting it to ridiculous extremes, but it does have an interesting combination of flavors that's outside my norm, and that managed to hit the spot. And for only $1, the price isn’t too shabby, either.

There's “only” 7.5 oz. of food in here, which is on the lower end of the Dollar Tree frozen food spectrum for similar meals (which are usually in the 8-9 oz. range), but it's not enough of a drop-off to really affect the value proposition all that much, and there's enough here that those with smaller stomachs should feel full afterwards; for everyone else, it should suffice as a satisfying snack.

Overall: 6/10. For the third time (at least), I’m not a big fan of beans and rice, but wanted to give this a chance because I was in the mood for something different. And I'm certainly not upset that I did: It’s expectedly boring in flavor to me, save for the cheese sauce, which adds a much needed kick in the tastebuds, but the overall combination of flavors and spices was a welcome change of pace. The rest is about as you would expect, and while the $1 price point isn’t really all that noteworthy (most frozen meals at major supermarkets can be had for the same price), it certainly isn’t bad. For a quick meal on the go, you could certainly do worse, especially inside the Tree.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

RE-REVIEW: Fast Bites Breaded Chicken Sandwich (Dollar Tree)

NOTE: This is a re-review of a product that I unfairly criticized, rather harshly, for being unhealthy. The original review can be found here.

What a difference 4 years can make: from delicious, to dog food.
In my original review, I noted that the flavor of this sandwich was good, but was offset by the negative nutritional value. While it’s true that the vitamin content is rather lacking (and the sodium, fat, etc. departments are bountiful), this isn’t a health blog, and I would venture to guess everyone purchasing a frozen chicken sandwich is already aware of the potential health ramifications—it was a completely illogical review, especially considering that I actually liked the taste. So with that in mind, I have sat down to re-review this item from the ground up, hoping to right my previous wrong.

And now, it would appear, that I am right, although it would also appear to be as a result of a recipe change: just looking at the old packaging—which shows a deliciously lopsided, enticingly crunchy patty encased between two pieces of bread—compared to the new one--which depicts a perfectly circular patty completely devoid of all character--tells you all that you need to know. This is a rather flavorless, overly salty patty that is nowhere near the same level it reached all those years ago. In fact, back then I would have compared it to a fast food chicken sandwich, courtesy of an addictive flavor, ridiculously low price point, and easy 60-second prep that made it a solid choice for a quick meal on the go.

That is not the case any longer, as this hunk of “chicken” needs some serious dressing up to even be remotely palatable. The original version I hold in my mind cooked up almost crispy, with a delicious blend of spices within the patty that gave it a solid taste on its own, with minimal dressing up needed. This time, I tried throwing some mayonnaise on it one day (I’m trying to keep things simple so as not to ruin the original flavor), and then discovered a packet of Arby’s Horsey sauce at work on another day; neither condiment did much to make the sandwich any more appetizing.

This is just a slab of a tasteless thing that appears to be chicken in appearance only, but has very little resemblance to the actual animal in taste. It's almost like eating a vegetarian version of the meat, only it's the real thing, so you're left wondering where all the flavor went. As alluded to earlier, I got one of these, was so underwhelmed and disappointed with it that I thought it might have been a prep error on my part, or a batch error on the manufacturer, so I grabbed a second one, only to be let down in a very similar way. I might have been wrong in the past, but in attempting to correct that, the only thing I found is that I seem to be pretty adept at predicting the future.

Overall: 1.5/10. It's not as bad as my original review made it seem—it's far, far worse. The deliciously-spiced patty from yesteryear, where adding condiments and vegetables was simply a way to take the flavor from “good” to “delicious”, has been replaced with a listless slab of would-be chicken that now requires you to smother it in as many different things as possible in order to get any enjoyment out of forcing it down your throat. It's a shame, but my attempt to wrong a previous review has completely backfired, because I wouldn't even feed this to my dog. The only genuine pluses are you'll only waste a dollar and a minute of your time if you ignore my advice.

Monday, October 7, 2019

From Summit, To Spend and Save, To Worthless: Why You Shouldn't Waste Your Time With Aspiration

They don't do much of either those things any more.
I always hate it when I've spent a long time drafting a review, only to have the service (or app, or product, etc.) in question do a complete 180. For months, I (and apparently a lot of other people) have been inundated with ads for Aspiration's Spend and Save (formerly “Summit”) account on Facebook, which harped on all the great benefits of the non-checking “checking” account (in quotations because, since Aspiration is not a bank, they cannot legally offer a “checking” account, though it functions a lot like one). And every time, the comments section would fill up with people scoffing at the idea, calling it “too good to be true”, or other things along those lines, without apparently having done any research.

I always resisted the urge to respond to comments—mainly because I do not have a Facebook account and only use my wife's, so I would have to respond under hers—and instead set out to review it as a way to set the record straight. While it might not technically be a budget-saving product or service, Aspiration's touted 2% APY was potentially be a great way to earn some “free” money. Sure, 2% might not be much at all (translating to just $50 per year on a $2,500 balance), but that's probably around the average amount most people can expect to earn from using receipt-scanning apps, or survey sites—only here, the money is just given to you without having to do anything to earn it.

In the interest of full disclosure, they didn't screw me out of money, or lock me out of my account, or personally affect my money in any way; this isn't going to be that kind of rant (although there are no shortage of those kinds of stories online if you're really interested in reading some). Nor do I even think they're necessarily a greedy or evil company; they just seem to be very shittily run, and terribly disorganized, the two qualities most people don't want anywhere near my money.

Instead, my main motivation is meant as a counterpoint to all the inexplicably positive reviews floating around out there from affiliated sites who clearly have never actually banked with them, and who must get cash from influencing sign-ups. As such, this won't be a typical review so much as a warning for anyone interested in signing up, as well as a throwback to the brief period of time I used them when they were actually exciting and didn't completely suck asshole.

FROM “SUMMIT” TO “SPEND AND SAVE” 
I first opened my Aspiration account back in 2017, as a place to store the money my wife and I had earned from a federal income tax refund. I could have just opened a savings account with my bank, but between the low interest earned on those accounts, as well as the fear that I would be much more tempted to use the money if it was easily and readily available, I decided that storing it elsewhere would be smarter.

Back then, it was known as the Aspiration Summit account, and its main selling points were unlimited free ATM withdrawals (if you were charged a fee, Aspiration would refund whatever amount you paid, an unlimited number of times per month), 2% APY on balances over $2,500 (with balances under that earning 1%), and no fees of any kind, short of services offered that incurred a fee for them (such as international wire transfers). These were some pretty good benefits, though it was the APY that really piqued my interest. After all, it was money that I would just be storing until we decided to do renovations or to have in case of an emergency, so I figured I might as well try to get a decent amount of interest out of it in the meantime.

Once you sign up, you are issued a debit card, which comes within the standard bank timeframe of 7-10 business days, or thereabouts. Again, I didn't really mind it because it was money we weren't planning on touching right away, but it would be worth factoring in if you needed immediate cash access to your account.

They do have some pretty snazzy debit cards, I'll give them that.
A couple of months after signing up, I received an email that there would be some changes to their program, but all would be for the better: the main one that really got me excited was that the minimum balance for the 2% qualification was waived, meaning whether you had $1 in your account, or $10,000, you would still get 2% APY. There were also some more additional perks added, but seeing as how I rarely used the account, none of them really pertained to me. Additionally, they were leaving their partner bank, Radius, and instead partnering with Coastal Community Bank, who issued their debit card; the money itself would be dispersed to a network of partner banks, who were each FDIC insured up to about $250,000. Honestly, things were looking pretty solid. But, of course, in the digital age, it's all too easy to polish a turd long enough to sucker people in before the rosegold wears off, leaving people with...well, a turd.

Fast forward to the beginning of 2019, where yet another big change was taking place: This time, it was no longer called the "Summit" account; instead, every account was split into two separate ones: a Spend and a Save account. This is just about the exact time when things started to get a little less rosy, and a lot more confusing. Basically, the two accounts worked in tandem, with only the money in the “Save” account eligible for accruing any type of interest (which was still up to 2% APY at the time); likewise, you couldn't spend any money until you moved it to the “Spend” account. Transfers from between the two Aspiration accounts were instantaneous, but money being transferred from other sources to either account could take a couple of days to post, per the norm for financial institutions. The most annoying trait was that at least $1 had to be transferred into your “Save” account every single month in order to qualify for the 2% interest, otherwise, your account would get a reduced rate of nothing. That's right, 0%, which is even worse than the national average of .01% that Aspiration always loves to compare themselves to. It was frustrating to have to remember to deposit money into that account every month—in fact, a couple of months I completely forgot—but the more I thought about it, the more I grew to like the idea. After all, it was encouraging me to add more money to an account I rarely looked at or touched, and so if I deposited even $50 a month, that would be an extra $600 per year—with an extra 2% APY tacked on to the entire total for good measure. That would at least encourage me to keep the account growing, instead of keeping it stagnant.

More changes in early, 2019, but no hints the rug was being pulled out from everyone very soon...
They were also adding unlimited cash back on all purchases made using the Aspiration debit card, as well as some other cool features, like cell phone insurance (up to $600) if you used your card to pay your monthly cell phone bill. While I rarely used my Aspiration card for anything, the thought of accruing cash back on all purchases—even if it was a paltry 0.5%--was again, a little bit more than I would have had otherwise (companies they deemed to be good for the environment would net an additional 0.5%, for a total of 1% back).

The number of hoops one had to jump through in order to get the promised high yield interest rates were becoming slightly more annoying, but I certainly wasn't expecting the death blow that was right around the corner. At least, I wasn't expecting it to come so quickly.

FROM “SPEND AND SAVE” TO WORTHLESS
Then, early in August, 2019, an email was sent to users claiming that, due to a cut in interest rates by the Feds, there would be yet another change to the APY: in order to qualify for the full 2% interest, users had to direct deposit at least $1,000 in each calendar month to their Aspiration account. If this could not be met, then you could qualify for a reduced 1.5% interest rate by maintaining a balance over $10,000. If neither of these requirements could be met, then the APY went down to 0%. That's right, ZERO. And these changes were effective immediately.

I'm mad I deleted the August email with the drastic, terrible changes that took effect that day, with no prior notice. Instead, here's one sent less than a month later that proved somehow their service could still get even shittier.
That wasn't all, though: the much-touted unlimited ATM reimbursements were being dropped down from “unlimited”...to just five per month. Although this personally didn't affect me at all, it was yet another red flag of the direction the company wanted to head in. Their reasoning? Because a "small number of people" were taking advantage of the offer, with one user receiving 113 reimbursements within a single month period. Okay, so then how about flagging and/or limiting the egregious offenders instead of making everyone else pay for a few people taking advantage of a company's generosity? There just wasn't a whole lot adding up; the only thing that made complete sense was getting the hell out of there as soon as possible.

CUSTOMER SERVICE ISSUES
Let me preface this by making it perfectly clear: I've personally never had to deal with Aspiration's customer service. So I do not have a personal anecdote to relay to you about how much I hate their support, or how they screwed me over out of money by locking me out of my account. However, the internet is chock full of complaints that seem to be stemming from a company that is growing too quickly to keep up with customer demands: Accounts are completely shut down without warning, business reps are almost impossible to get a hold of, deposits taking longer than a day or two to clear, and accounts frozen with no way for the user to access them all seem to be within the realm of normalcy here.

There were also a good number of people who experienced issues accessing their account during the sudden switchover from Radius to Coastal Community, which resulted in an even higher workload for the apparently meager support staff to handle. The end result: even more customer service issues, and a greater number of people quickly growing disillusioned with the company.

I understand that the whole idea, per the email that was sent out informing clients of the changes, was to ensure that the people being rewarded with the highest percentages were people that were focused on making Aspiration a larger part of their lives. That meant people like me—who were just letting the money sit to accrue interest—weren't really welcome at the “new” Aspiration, and that's all fine and good. But by the same token, if there are widespread complaints of constant issues, what incentive do I have to make Aspiration a part of my daily life? The higher the number of transactions I would make, the higher the percentage chance I would encounter a problem would go up; and from the sounds of things, customer service wouldn't be too interested in helping me out.

No matter how you look at that, that just isn't good for building trust, which should be a foundation of any successful business, but especially a bank. And, obviously, I realize it's impossible for any large company—and again, especially a bank—to have a perfect customer service track record. In fact, banks probably have it worse than many other companies, because generally, when something goes wrong at a bank, you're directly messing with someone's money...and that's something people don't take too kindly to.

In the sake of fairness, it's an alarming trend across many online banks--actually, a lot of start-ups in the digital age, period, who see their ideas catch on way quicker than anticipated and become victims of their own success. Unfortunately, that doesn't make it any easier to take for people who simply have questions that need answered, and are unable to contact anyone able to provide that information.

DO WELL, DO GOOD
It's amazing just how quickly things can turn, because when I originally sat down to type up this review a couple short months ago, it was actually in defense of the company; then, literally within the span of just one email, everything changed.

In fact, if you can somehow believe it, things have even gotten worse since that August email: their maximum APY is now just 1%, while the above hoops (minimum of $1,000 deposited monthly, or minimum balance of $10,000) are still in place. The cash back rate has gone down to just 0.10% for “normal” businesses, with a boost to 0.5% for businesses that have the highest AIM ratings for sustainability (down from 1%). Granted, some big name companies are on there, such as eBay, Target, and Walmart (a couple of those which shock me quite a bit), but it's still a small list compared to the billions of other options out there.

They do an excellent job of presenting their philanthropy without making it sound like a PR stunt.
And that's very unfortunate, because Aspiration really does seem to be a company founded on doing more for the environment. For example, they donate 10% of every $1 they net through the “Pay What Is Fair” program to charitable organizations that work to make the lives' of struggling Americans better. Furthermore, they also encourage and allow customers to make their own donations across a variety of respectable charities targeting specific issues like poverty, human rights, education, and many more. This is the one field where Aspiration still has an advantage over competitors, though I'm wondering if all that comes at a cost: are they giving away too much that it's eating into their ability to offer more attractive yields?

Aspiration also offers higher cash back rewards for companies that they deem to be some of the best for the environment, such as Warby Parker, where you can earn 5% cash back, with others, like Blue Apron, netting you 3% in cash back rewards. Little touches like this really do help to make the whole company feel like a community, rather than a greedy bank trying to take advantage of their user base by screwing them over with excessive fees (which again, is the one area where they haven't compromised their original vision). As much as their actual “banking” aspect fails, I have to say that their marketing is pretty top notch, and no doubt intrigues a good number of the nay-sayers and skeptics enough to at least get them to check the service out.

It's just a shame that the success of their marketing team doesn't carry over to their finished product, or their web presence: The top, non-advertisement result for almost any Google search string involving Aspiration is a link to their old, outdated Summit account, which did update the APY to 1%, but claims all that's needed to receive that is a minimum balance of $2,500—with no mention of the direct deposit requirements (or actual minimum balance of $10,000 if the direct deposit rule can't be met). It also touts “Unlimited ATM fee reimbursements!” which is entirely untrue, as well as a minimum deposit of $10 to start (it has since gone up to $50, at least for a "Save" account, according to the fine print). Why hasn't this hugely misleading info either been deleted, or blocked from Google results? It's almost as if the original creator of the website was fired during the transition, and he was the only one with access to edit the site. And sure, you can read the fine print at the bottom (which, curiously, has been updated). Either way, it doesn't paint a solid picture of trustworthiness, when the things you're advertising in big bold letters are shamelessly contradicted in tiny letters just below.

A top search result for "Aspiration Bank" takes you to this page, with outdated and completely misleading info...including the wrong current name for the account.
In terms of their “Do Well, Do Good” motto, it's taken on a much more ironic tone in the past few months, with the bank itself needing to heed their own rallying words. In short, until they get their acts together, there is simply no reason to open an account with Aspiration: aside from their commitment to the environment, they offer nothing that other online banks can't match or better, and thanks to either disorganization, mismanagement, incompetence, or a healthy combination of all three, seem hellbent on destroying the endless potential they once seemed to have.

A different link I found from a basic Google search that still has outdated information.
OVERALL


PROS (+):
+Uh...great marketing?
+Uh...donates 10% of all earnings to charities that help struggling Americans?
+Uh...focuses on promoting companies that promote the welfare of the planet?
+No fees or overdraft charges...the only two things from their original banking plan that haven't changed (yet)
+Pay what you want in fees, including $0, across all services.

CONS (-)
-Constantly changing terms and partnerships that signal a company that has no idea what its ultimate goal even is.
-Currently offers a mere 1% APY (down from 2% just a few months before)...and even getting that meager return (compared to many other online banks) requires jumping through hoops.
-Reportedly terrible customer service (can't personally vouch for this).
-So many other online banks offering much higher APYs.
-Previously unlimited ATM refunds cut down to just five per month.
-$50 minimum balance required to open an account
-Still have outdated links in Google searches, with misleading information, about their old Summit account.
-Outside of people who value nature over their own money, I can think of literally no reason for anyone to even bother opening an account.

Aspiration was, admittedly, a great “bank” for about the first year and a half I used them, but have taken a sharp downhill turn in just a couple short months: so sharp, that I can't understand why all the major reviews for them online are still positive. (Unless the "review" companies are getting a kickback...? Nah, I couldn't see an American corporation doing that...) Quite simply put, there are dozens of online banks that offer just as lousy customer service, but at least almost all of the rest offer higher annual percentage yields. Unless you care so much about the environment that you'd marry a tree, and don't care about your money in the slightest, there are literally zero current reasons to open an Aspiration account. And given the company's constant backtracking and sweeping changes, I don't see that changing within the foreseeable future.

OVERALL: 1.5/10.




Friday, October 4, 2019

Assured NiteTime Liquid Cold & Flu Relief (Dollar Tree)

Would you believe me if I told you this worked just as well as the national brand?
Many of us have certain things that we refuse to get from dollar stores. For me, it's certain foodstuffs, like cereal, or even macaroni and cheese. Sure, some of the things in those aisles are decent quality, and can represent good deals, but I've been burned more often than not by their foods in the past, and unless it's a name brand, or something I trust, I generally won't go anywhere near it.

For many, I would assume medicine would be another area of hesitancy. After all, living in America we are trained to believe that healthcare has to cost a fortune in order to “work”; offering multi-packs of pills for just a dollar certainly goes against that method of thinking. And if they can't even get decent-tasting cereal for a dollar, how can they make functioning medicines?

I still can't answer that question, but what I can say is that Dollar Tree medicines are, generally speaking, every bit as good as the brands you would pay up to 20x more for. But even despite knowing this helpful tidbit of information, we nevertheless always find ourselves without medicine when we need it, and of course the only time we think about it is when it's too late and a sickness is already running through the family. In this case, it was a weird conglomeration of everything but the flu (thank goodness for those flu shots!) with sniffles, fevers, coughing, tears, and phlegm being shared by everyone.

Vowing not to let this happen again, I went to DT and stocked up on all the essentials we already should have had: by the end of the trip, I had no fewer than five cold, flu, and allergy medicines in my basket, and one of those was Assured Nitetime Cold & Flu relief, a liquid take on the famous name brand liquid cold medicine that handles a bevy of symptoms “so you can get your rest.” That medicine always knocked me on my ass when I took it as a younger adult, and so Assured's version had some pretty large shoes to fill. How did it stack up?

First of all, even though no one reading this will care, the reason I chose the liquid over the others that I bought, is because I have an irrational anxiety of taking pills. And I don't mean because I think the government's chipping them to track me, or there are weird unnatural ingredients that cause more harm than good (though, if proven true, I wouldn't be shocked at either of those): I just have a weird fear of choking. I don't know where it came from, because I know of no one else in my family that has this issue, but I pretty much refuse to take “large” pills (and what constitutes “large” for me, others would probably scoff at), and so I generally just prefer to take liquids, where applicable.

The only problem with that is, I hate the taste of liquid medicine, too. This one is no different, and is pretty much exactly how I remembered the flavor as a kid: a bitter combination of licorice and metals that immediately made me pucker and want to gag. But then there was a final component that I don't remember: a weird, soothing feeling of mint. Oh, you don't get the benefit of actually tasting it: it just slowly flows over your tongue, as if offering itself as an apology to the atrocity you just tasted. It's completely weird, but does no harm, so whatever.

I didn't even take the medicine until after midnight, and made the conscientious decision only to take around half of the recommended 30mL dose (it was closer to 20), knowing that our baby would probably be up early in the morning, and that my wife—who was worse off than I was—was in even less condition to watch him. About fifteen minutes after taking the medicine, I settled into bed.

All I remember is waking up, semi-groggily, around 4 a.m. just to use the restroom, after which point I fell back asleep almost immediately—and didn't fully wake up until 8 a.m, just in time to hear baby rustling around in his bed. A solid 8 hours of rest, from around half of the recommended dose. But the amazing thing was, I didn't feel groggy...in fact, I honestly felt kind of refreshed! As to how the medicine itself worked (aside from putting me out for eight hours), I had a ridiculous cough that just would not stop prior to taking it, as well as some chest congestion, so it managed to suppress all those long enough to put me to sleep. In other words, it's every bit as good as the name brand!

Now, this being a product from Dollar Tree, there are a couple things worth noting: The bottle is a mere 4 oz., which is 1/3 the size of the typical 12 oz. bottles found in most other retail stores. This equates to just four full-size servings. Still, all you have to do is buy 3 for $3 total, and you'll still be well under the cost of even most store brands for similar sizes elsewhere (just as a reference point: as of this writing, Walmart sells 12 oz. bottles of their Equate store brand for $5.97). This is a great product, and one you shouldn't be without when the cold (or flu) eventually storms its way through your household.

Two other things I feel are worth noting: it still contains the 10% alcohol found in the national brand, so if you're looking for an alcohol-free alternative, you'll have to grab the pills instead (which are also available at Dollar Tree); and the licorice-y “original” is the only flavor available, either in-store or online, so if you prefer cherry or whatever else they offer, you're out of luck. Other than that, it performs as it should, and for a truly outstanding price.

Overall: 10/10. An outstanding product at an outstanding price, that's easily on par with the national brand. It tastes every bit as awful as the original, with a weird, minty finish that completely caught me off guard. But once you get past that, you're most likely on a crash course with peaceful sleep and slumber, even with strong symptoms. I had a cough that kept both my wife, as well as myself, awake the previous night, and for eight hours (on a smaller than recommended dose), this took care of that like it was nothing, putting me to sleep for eight hours and without leaving me feeling groggy upon waking up. The bottles are small, but even buying three to equal a normal 12 oz. bottle only comes out to $3, far cheaper than even most store brands. Maybe the biggest drawback for some will be that the 10% alcohol content of the original is kept intact, so if you need an alcohol-free alternative, you'll have to grab the pills instead (which are also available at Dollar Tree). Outside of these small issues, this is a fantastic product that should be in everyone's medicine cabinet in preparation of cold and flu season.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Eat! Asian Style Beef with Broccoli Frozen Meal (Dollar Tree)

Don't even bother.
“Eat!” is the name of Dollar Tree’s new frozen food line, and from what I can tell from the very limited collection of information available online, it’s manufactured exclusively for them. Now “Why?” is another question that begs to be asked, given the fact Dollar Tree already has plenty of name brand frozen meals available—perhaps the plan is to eventually phase those out and stick to “their” brands...but this is nothing more than conjecture at this stage.

Anyway, your dollar gets you either 7.5 oz. or 8 oz. of food (depending on the entrée), which is either slightly below, or right at the “norm” for frozen supermarket fare (as a comparison, the national brand carried by DT has 8 oz. of food; Main Street Kitchen, manufactured by Kraft-Heinz and available here, as well as other national retailers, offer up 9).

Initial observations: The sauce looks pretty delicious and inviting, a dark brown “thickquid” (thick liquid) that strongly reminds me of the sauce in Aldi’s delicious noodle bowls; my mouth immediately began watering when my mind went to that, and I was hoping this would be able to deliver a similarly tasty experience. The noodles also heightened by expectations a bit, by being appropriately soft, but without the sliminess of some brands…in other words, this has a rather inviting texture given its frozen nature.

Ooh, look at those appealing chunks of meat-flavored sponge.
Digging in, I found that the sauce actually does have a nice little injection of “sweet” that seems like it’s trying to counterbalance the soy sauce-style saltiness that’s prevalent, but it ends up being overwhelmed by both the sodium, as well as the finishing blast of heat that slowly overtakes the tastebuds the longer the sauce-soaked noodles linger in the mouth. The heat isn’t strong enough that most people will be making a mad dash to the fridge for some milk, or blotting away the sweat from their face with tissues, but it’s stronger than some mainstream fare. Personally, I would have liked a little more sweetness in there, just to strike a better balance between the two opposing flavor spectrums, but despite falling short of my hope/expectation combo, it’s still a palatable sauce, and one that I would voluntarily eat again if it were a part of something else.

The beef, meanwhile, is where everything falls apart; it’s exactly the reason why no meat of any kind should ever be sold inside dollar stores. It looks almost identical to the meat found in wet dog food, and has a flavor to match, with a weird taste that comes off like a lifelong vegan’s attempt to replicate the taste and flavor of meat using Google as their only research tool. Even the texture feels off, with an almost sponge-like consistency that will leave even the most discerning eater questioning what it is they're actually eating.

Take that out, and you have a more palatable meal, although “Noodles with Sauce” just doesn't have much of an attention-grabbing ring to it. It's quick and convenient, but this is something that I will never eat again, short of an apocalyptic scenario where this is somehow the only thing available after survivalists have raided all the good food.

Overall: 4.5/10. Take out the beef—which looks and tastes like wet dog food, with an eerie sponge-like texture--and you’d have a more palatable meal here, although that would also only leave you with wet noodles and sauce. So really, it's just best to stay away from this one, which is probably the worst entry in Eat!'s very limited resume. Will these be replacing the name brand frozen meals available inside Dollar Tree stores? If this is a good indication of what we can expect, we can only hope not.