Aspiration Bank Review: Get 2% on Your Checking (And Make a Difference)

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There are so many online banking options out there that it’s not always easy to find one that is truly distinct from any other.

Aspiration is one financial institution that could stand out, especially for those looking to save and invest in a way that might support their political or moral values.

The company is a registered brokerage firm (not technically a bank) that offers a savings and spending account and investment products that allow customers to support charitable causes and avoid contributions to fossil fuel companies.

Aspiration offers a savings account and a cash management account with a 2% annual percentage yield in interest and the ability to get cash back on debit card purchases. It also offers two managed fund investment products and individual retirement accounts.

The company has a “Pay What is Fair” policy; this means customers can decide how much they will pay in fees on banking and investment products.

In this review, we’ll do our best to outline Aspiration’s socially conscious philosophy, while also examining its financial products from a pure competitive standpoint.

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Summary

Aspiration is a solid option for anyone looking to get a competitive interest rate on their savings. It also offers cash back on debit purchases and refunds on all ATM fees. But perhaps more importantly, Aspiration is a good option for those who are conscious about supporting certain causes, and who wish to see the impact of their spending.

Who is Aspiration For?

Aspiration appears to be marketed to people who want competitive rates and low fees, but who want to bank in a socially conscious way. If you are concerned about the environment and the influence of fossil fuel companies, you may be drawn to Aspiration. You may also see Aspiration as an easy way to donate to causes you support.

Political and social leanings aside, Aspiration may also be a good fit for anyone who wants a basic savings account with a competitive interest rate and clean online banking experience, who is seeking cash back on purchases, or is looking to avoid ATM fees.

Banking Products

Aspiration offers a separate saving and spending account (or a single account with separate balances, depending on how you look at it.)

The company offers interest on your savings, as well as a debit card for purchases and ATM transactions. All deposits are FDIC-insured up to $250,000.

The company markets it banking offering as a “Spend and Save” account with a 2.00% APY. But the fine print reveals that the “Save” portion of the account is interest-bearing, while the “Spend” account serves as the equivalent of a non-interest checking account. They both have the same routing number, but different account numbers.

I personally found this to be slightly confusing, but the upshot for customers is that in order to spend money or make withdrawals using your Aspiration debit card, you must take from funds in the “Spend” balance. Money can be easily transferred from the “Save” to the “Spend” balance online or via the Aspiration smartphone app.

To accrue interest each month from your “Save” balance, you must have at least $10,000 saved, or make at least one deposit of $1 or more.

Note: Until February of 2019, Aspiration offered an interest-bearing Summit Account. The Aspiration Spend account replaced the Summit account. If you wish to continue getting interest, you must transfer funds to your Save account. The closure of the Summit account, which had been offered through Radius Bank, has apparently been a source of many customer complaints.

About Cash Back

Aspiration offers cash back on all debit purchases. You get 0.50% cash back on anything you buy, and 1% cash back on purchases from vendors that Aspiration deems to have a positive social impact. More on this below.

Cash back is deposited at the end of each month, and there are no limits to the amount of cash back you can receive.

What About ATM Fees?

Aspiration does not operate a network of ATMs to allow you to access cash. However, Aspiration will reimburse any fees you incur from any ATM worldwide. The reimbursement rate for foreign ATMs is set at $4, but if you end up with a higher fee than that, you can contact Aspiration and receive the full amount.

Interest Rates

The 2.00% APY offered by Aspiration is one of the higher rates in the country, but still falls short of some online banks. Aspiration’s rate far outpaces that offered by brick-and-mortar banks, which have rates well below 1.00%. But, competing online banks including PurePoint Financial, Investors eAccess, and Vio bank all offer rates approaching 2.50%.

Additionally, Aspiration does not offer certificates of deposit, which usually offer a higher rate. Some banks offer high-balance CDs with APY as high as 2.80%.

Investment and Retirement Products

Aspiration offers two investmentproducts: the Redwood Fund and the Flagship Fund. Both are open to new investors and you can get started investing with just $10. Both can be placed in taxable accounts or individual retirement accounts.

Redwood Fund

This fund is comprised of stocks in companies that are approved by Aspiration based on its evaluation of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors. The fund aims to avoid companies that support the fossil fuel industry, and invests in companies that have a commitment to diversity and are contributing to the fight against climate change.

About 20% of the fund is invested in the information technology sector, with about 18% invested in financials, 18% in the consumer discretionary sector, and 15% in health care. Aspiration offers the Redwood Fund through UBS Asset Management.

The Redwood Fund has reported an 18.4% average annual return over a three year period, outpacing the S&P 500 during that same period.

Flagship Fund

This fund offers access to a mix of stocks and bonds, and is designed to provide long-term growth with relatively low volatility. It is comprised of other mutual funds. About 28% is tied to global macro funds, including some offering exposure to alternative investments and hedge funds. Aspiration offers the Flagship Fund through Emerald Separate Account Management.

The Flagship Fund may not generate the same level of return as the Redwood Fund, as it seems dedicated to offering returns that don’t correlate with the overall stock market. Thus, it has reported average annual returns of 2.88% over a 3-year period.

About Share Classes

One key thing to note about these funds is that Aspiration has a state goal of helping investors gain access to unique investments usually set aside for people of high net worth. The company deliberately tries to gain investors access to institutional share classes, which are usually set aside for large institutions with deep pockets.

These share classes usually have reduced expenses, thus resulting in higher total return for the investor.

Opening an Account

Getting started with Aspiration is straightforward. You begin by providing your email address and a password. Then you’ll be given the option to open one of the investment accounts, a Spend and Save account or just a Save account. Spend and Save is presented as the “recommended” option.

Then you’ll be asked to provide some basic identifying information, including employment details and your level of investing experience.

To fund an account, you’ll be asked to link it to an existing bank account to allow for an electronic funds transfer. The entire process should take about five minutes.

Approval to open an account is not guaranteed. If your application is denied, Aspiration is under no obligation to provide a reason, but the outcome may have been the result of something that appeared in your credit report. If you are denied, Aspiration recommends requesting a free copy of your credit report from Equifax.

Smartphone App

It’s possible to bank with Aspiration entirely from your smartphone. The Aspiration free app is available from the Google Play and Apple App Store. With the app, you can view balances and transfer funds between accounts, pay bills, buy or sell from investment accounts and deposit mobile checks. The app offers the option of two-factor authentication for enhanced security.

Aspiration Impact Measurement

As part of Aspiration’s socially conscious mission, the company encourages customers to support businesses that have similar philosophies. This means that you will get detail on how your spending impacts people and the planet through something called the Aspiration Impact Measurement (AIM).

Aspiration provides an AIM “People and Planet” score for every business you spend money on. The businesses are evaluated based on 75,000 different data points relating to how they treat employees, their communities, and the environment.

This AIM score plays a role in how much money you get back on debit card purchases If you buy something from businesses with a high AIM score, you receive 1% cash back. All other purchases generate 0.5% cash back.

You can view the AIM People and Planet score for businesses when you view your list of transactions on the Aspiration mobile app. Not all businesses have an AIM score. If you come across a business with no score, you are encouraged to ask the business to submit their information to Aspiration.

Based on your purchases and the AIM scores of the businesses you frequent, you will receive a personal AIM score.

“Pay What You Think is Fair”

As you probably know, the total return you can earn on savings accounts and investments can be reduced anytime there are fees or other costs. Aspiration offers you the ability to pay whatever you feel is appropriate. “It’s up to us to demonstrate to you that we deserve to get paid for our work,” Aspiration says. “If you don’t think we do, you shouldn’t pay us.”

This means there are no required annual fees on bank accounts, and no loads, transaction fees, or redemption fees on investments. If you wish to pay a fee if you believe the company deserves one, you can set that fee online and change it at anytime.

It’s worth noting that despite this approach to fees, you may pay for certain services so that the company can cover its costs.

For example, a domestic wire transfer costs 82 cents, an outgoing international wire transfer costs $15, and an incoming international wire transfer costs $2.50. A returned check will cost you $1.15 to $5.33, depending on the amount on the check. You may also pay $35 if you want the delivery of your debit card to be expedited.

In addition, Aspiration will pass on some investment-related fees from third parties. Aspiration does pass on fund operating expenses, but caps that total at 0.5% of your balance.

It’s worth noting that the amount you choose to pay in fees will indirectly impact the amount of money Aspiration gives to charity, as it donates 10% of its revenue to non-profit causes. (Read on for more detail about Aspiration’s approach to giving.)

Giving Through Aspiration

Aspiration donates 10% of its revenue to charity through its “Dime Worth a Difference” program. Specifically, the company supports microloans provided through Accion U.S. Network. These microloans offer capital to small business owners looking to get their businesses off the ground It emphasizes environmentally friendly businesses, and those operated by women, minorities, and disabled people.

In addition to donating a portion of its revenue, Aspiration also allows you to make direct contributions to special funds geared to support certain causes. These funds are built by Aspiration and relate to Education, Global Poverty, Water, Human Rights, Environment, and Health. There’s also an “Opportunity” fund offering microloans of $5,000 or less.

Other Perks

Aspiration offers two services that you might not find at other banks: identity theft expense reimbursement and cell phone protection coverage.

Here’s how this works:

Identity Theft Expense Reimbursement

If you are the victim of identity fraud, you may incur expenses trying to clear up the situation. Aspiration will reimburse you for up to $1,000 worth of these costs. This coverage is available only if you are not already insured or covered by another provider. Specific details and restrictions are available in your debit cardholder agreement.

Cell Phone Protection Coverage

If you pay for your wireless bill using your Aspiration debit card, you are eligible for up to $600 per claim and $1,000 per 12-month period if your cell phone is damaged or stolen. There are some restrictions to this (for example, you are not covered if you damaged your phone intentionally). Full details on the coverage are available in the debit cardholder agreement.

Customer Service

If you are in need of help with your accounts or have questions, Aspiration offers customer service with live human beings. You can call 800-683-8529 on Monday through Friday from 7am to 5pm PT, or Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT.

You can also contact the support team via an online form.

Pros

Reasons why you might want to consider Aspiration:

  • Pay what you want in fees, even if it’s nothing
  • Socially conscious mission. This may not matter to every potential customer, but for some, it may be just what they are looking for
  • Cash back on debit card purchases
  • Clean, simple online interface
  • Better interest rates than brick-and-mortar banks
  • Reimbursement of all ATM fees
  • Just $10 to begin investing
  • Cell phone protection coverage and identity theft expense reimbursement
  • Possible access to higher-level share classes on some investments

Cons

Downsides to choosing Aspiration Bank as the place for your money:

  • No physical branches
  • You may not necessarily support the charities they do
  • Only two investment products
  • Interest rate on savings account is competitive, but higher rates can be found elsewhere
  • You need a high balance or make a monthly deposit in order to collect interest
  • No certificates of deposit
  • No loan products
  • Not well known
  • Difficult to deposit cash

About Aspiration

Aspiration was founded in 2013 and opened in 2015. Its founders include Andrei Cherny, a former prosecutor and speechwriter for President Clinton, and Joseph Sandberg, an entrepreneur and investor who has worked to help low-income families in California. Both are Harvard graduates.

Headquartered in Marina Del Rey, California, the company has raised more than $100 million in funding and its investors include former NBA player and Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers, political consultant Matthew Dowd, and actor Orlando Bloom.

Aspiration Bank claims to offer “socially conscious” and “sustainable” banking and investment services so you can “make money while making the world a better place.”

Aspiration is registered as a brokerage firm with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). It provides banking services through Coastal Community Bank, which is based in Washington State. It had $952 million in assets under management at the of the end of 2018, according to depositaccounts.com.

Summary

You can think of Aspiration as banking with a soul. The company is unique in the marketplace and offers a way to save and invest while possibly supporting causes that are important to you.

Aspiration may not be for everyone; you may not personally support the same causes as the company, or you may prefer to be socially conscious in your own way.

As a financial institution, it’s products are competitive compared to most banks. You can potentially use Aspiration as your only bank, though some might find the offerings too limited.

Have you opened an account with Aspiration? What do you think of it’s socially conscious approach? Let us know in the comments.

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