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.




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