Aspiration Review 2020: Smart Cash Management Account
In all of my reviews in the financial world, I can honestly say this is the first financial firm that is dedicated to doing the right thing. From offsetting the climate impact of the gas you buy to planting trees, and to sustainability initiatives to offering cash back for doing business with socially conscious companies (in what it calls a Conscience Coalition), Aspiration lets you know that if you trust your money with it, you’re joining a company with a conscience.
And that extends to its main account service, which it calls Aspiration Spend & Save. You pick the monthly maintenance fee you want to pay (or not pay) and can set it at $0 or any amount you think is fair. Let your conscience be your guide.
It’s like having Jiminy Cricket or an angel on your shoulder.
Good — and cheap — checking and savings accounts are easy to find. Aspiration does what many of them do, offering free ATMs and zero monthly fees. But what Aspiration does that they don't is it goes beyond, as we’ll show in this Aspiration review.
- What is Aspiration?
- How does Aspiration work?
- The bottom line
What is Aspiration?
Founded in 2013 and opened for business in 2015, Aspiration, Inc., is an online company headquartered in Marina del Rey, California.
Aspiration isn’t a chartered bank but is a nonbank financial service provider. As a financial firm it combines checking and savings accounts in a cash management account.
That doesn't mean it isn't FDIC-insured like traditional banks. It holds deposit insurance for up to $250,000.
One of its main consumer products is an interest-bearing deposit account called Spend & Save. It has a “Pay What is Fair” promise where Aspiration customers choose the monthly account maintenance fee they want to pay, including setting it at $0.
The account also offers 3-5% cash back on purchases at socially conscious companies it does business with, among other social goals it works toward.
Aspiration also offers an account with more services, called Aspiration Plus, which charges $7 per month. It pays up to an interest rate of 1.00% APY on savings and pays 10% cash back on purchases at a group of select companies that put “doing the right thing” at the heart of their business.
How does Aspiration work?
Like any traditional or online bank, Aspiration gives you a secure way to use your money. It has unlimited, fee-free ATM withdrawals at Allpoint ATMs. It offers a debit card through Mastercard. It features a high-yield savings account. All the things the big banks do. But it's not a bank.
Opening an account is easy. You start by giving the company your email address and then set up your account by making a deposit. A digital card is given to you instantly so you can start using your account right away and a physical debit card is mailed to you in 7 to 10 business days.
Before opening an Aspiration account, you must decide if you want its basic service, or want to upgrade to a higher service with more benefits that is what is called Aspiration Plus. The basic plan cost is set by the customer, including as low as $0, while Aspiration Plus costs $7 per month and customers can’t decide to lower that price.
How much does Aspiration cost?
Aspiration has two kinds of accounts, one with no monthly fee and one with a set fee.
When opening an account with the fee, the first question you face is if you want to pay it monthly or annually:
- Monthly: $7
- Yearly: $69 ($5.75 per month) for an 18% savings.
That decision may be easier in part because it doesn’t require going through the testing of your conscience of deciding what fee, if any, you should pay for a bank’s services.
That moral conundrum can be yours with the basic Spend & Save account, which can be free if you want it to be.
Aspiration Spend & Save basic plan
Aspiration does what no other bank that we’ve been able to find does: It lets the customer decide how much to pay it each month for its basic service.
The company touts its “Pay What is Fair” account as a way to trust that customers will do the right thing and pay a fair monthly fee.
Next to a photo of a man giving a woman a hand to climb up the edge of a cliff is the quote: “If you want to gain trust, you need to give trust.” Trusting Aspiration with your money is important, but so is the company’s trust in you to pay what you think is fair.
There’s no catch.
You can set the fee to zero, and change it whenever and however you want.
Most banks charge an average of $329 per year in account fees, according to Aspiration. You probably don’t want to pay that much to Aspiration, but something still higher than $0, might be fair. It’s up to you.
Extra services such as wire transfers are provided at-cost, meaning it will only charge you what it costs Aspiration to provide the extra service. For its investment products, some fees and expenses that go through third parties are unavoidable, but Aspiration says it will try to negotiate them down and will subsidize some of them.
As a small incentive to get customers to pay something for its services, Aspiration donates 10 cents of every $1 paid in fees to charities that it says help “spread economic opportunity to Americans working hard for a better life.”
Aspiration Plus plan
If you don’t want to go through the moral somersault of choosing a fee, you can pay $7 per month for the Aspiration Plus account. It has more features than the basic account, which we’ll detail next, and the cost can be dropped by paying $69 in advance for a year of service. That drops the monthly fee to $5.75.
Before we go into the specific features that Aspiration Plus has that the basic Spend & Save plan doesn’t have, here are the features and perks they have in common:
- 55,000 free ATMs in the Allpoint network
- Deposits are fossil fuel-free, meaning money won’t fund fossil fuel exploration or production
- Option to plant a tree with every roundup
Here’s a breakdown of how they differ.
|Account||Monthly fee||Conscience Coalition Cash Back||ATM reimbursement|
|Spend & Save||$0||3-5%||$0|
|Aspiration Plus||$7||10%||1 per month|
55,000 surcharge-free ATMs
Finding an ATM to withdraw your money is an important feature of any bank account. If your bank doesn’t have its own ATMs, it will often use a network of ATMs that also serve other banks.
Aspiration uses the Allpoint network. You won’t pay fees for using these freestanding, green-and-black machines to deposit cash or withdraw money from. Checks can’t be deposited at the ATMs.
Allpoint network ATMs are at many retailers across the country, such as Target, CVS, Walgreens, Kroger, Safeway, and Circle K. Allpoint also has machines around the world, though a 1% foreign transaction fee is charged.
If you use another type of ATM, you’ll likely be charged a fee. Aspiration won’t provide ATM fee reimbursement fees, although the Aspiration Plus account will pay one out-of-network ATM reimbursement each month, in the event you are in a bind.
Other than the $7 monthly fee for Aspiration Plus, Aspiration says it charges no other fees for basic services that other banks often charge for. These include zero fees at Aspiration for:
- Check deposits
- Debit card use
- Inactive accounts
- Dormant accounts
There aren’t any overdraft fees, for example, because Aspiration doesn’t allow debit purchases to proceed if the account doesn’t have enough money to cover the expense. That won’t be so good if you’re trying to buy lunch, but at least you won’t have to pay a non-sufficient funds fee for allowing a small charge to go through so you can have lunch.
Neither account uses deposits to fund fossil fuel exploration or production, but the Aspiration Plus account offers an extra service called Planet Protection. It adds up all of your gas purchases and automatically buys offsets to help counter the climate impact.
Both accounts give you the option to pay for a tree to be planted with every roundup on your debit card.
The company also features a first of its kind: Your own personalized sustainability score called Aspiration Impact Measurement (AIM). Watching where you spend, it can show you how your daily spending impacts people and the planet. AIM provides scores based on the social and environmental impact of the businesses at which you spend your money and you with AIM scores you can seek out those that are greener and better for the planet.
Cash back rewards
Both accounts pay cash back when using an Aspiration debit card as certain businesses, but the Aspiration Plus account pays twice as much as the basic account.
To earn cash back (3-5% in the basic account and 10% in Aspiration Plus), customers must shop within what it calls the Conscience Coalition. These are companies that Aspiration has teamed up with that “do the right thing.” They include Warby Parker, TOMS, and Blue Apron.
A Warby Parker purchase, for example, includes 5% cash back. For every pair of glasses sold, the eyewear brand company also provides a pair to someone in need.
Up to 1% APY
The Aspiration Plus plan pays up to 1% interest, or annual percentage yield, on your savings in what it calls the Save Account. This account is separate from the Aspiration Plus account and isn’t offered as part of the basic Spend & Save account.
To earn 1% APY on the first $10,000 in your Save Account in a particular month, you must be enrolled in Aspiration Plus and spend at least $1,000 with your Aspiration debit card that month.
Balances over $10,000 will earn 0.10% APY. If the spending requirement isn’t met in a particular month, the APY that month will be 0.25% instead of 1%, up to a balance of $10,000.
Aspiration also has separate investing and retirement accounts.
A mobile app
Both accounts work with the Aspiration app. It can be used to schedule bill payments, deposit checks by snapping a photo, and Apple Pay and Android Pay are built into the app.
Checks larger than $5,000 can be deposited through the mobile app. However, the larger checks must also be physically mailed to Aspiration’s partner bank for final processing. Instructions on where to mail it for processing will be emailed to customers who deposit a check for more than $5,000.
No checks, no matter what the amount, can be deposited at ATMs, though Aspiration says it’s working toward that goal.
If you pay a monthly bill with your debit card, Aspiration provides up to $600 in insurance against identity fraud.
Who is Aspiration best for?
With no ATM fees in its network, maintaining an account each month, or for not having enough money in your account to cover a debit card expense, Aspiration offers plenty of chances to avoid paying fees for its services.
They come with considerations, however.
The free ATMs must be within the Allpoint ATM network. Only the basic Aspiration Spend & Save account is free, though you can choose to pay a fee. Insufficient fund fees aren’t charged because Aspiration denies payments for debit card charges where not enough money is in an account to cover them.
Socially conscious customers
Aspiration is socially conscious in many ways, and it encourages its customers to be, too.
It plants trees if customers round up debit card purchases, doesn’t invest deposits in fossil fuels, and pays the carbon offsets (only in its Aspiration Plus account) of gas bought with its debit card.
And, as we mentioned earlier, it lets customers of its basic account choose the monthly fee for its services.
Who shouldn’t use Aspiration?
Customers needing a physical bank
Aspiration is not a bank and doesn’t have physical branches to visit. If you’re comfortable doing all of your banking online, then Aspiration can work well for you. If not, and you need to go into a physical bank to make deposits and do other forms of banking, Aspiration may not be right for you.
Customers who don’t do business with its partners
For the cash-back advantages that Aspiration offers, you’ll need to do business with the 17 companies that are part of its Conscience Coalition.
The rewards are 3-5% on the basic account and up to 10% on the Aspiration Plus account. Those are decent cash-back amounts, but only if you buy from the businesses it partners with.
Aspiration pros and cons
Where you put your money is a personal decision. Here are some pros and cons of the basic Aspiration Spend & Save account, and when upgrading to the Aspiration Plus account, that could affect your decision.
With 55,000 ATMs in the Allpoint network, Aspiration gives customers a free way to withdraw cash from their accounts. That’s a lot of ATMs and most people should be able to find one near them since they’re at many stores.
Aspiration doesn’t charge a monthly maintenance fee for its basic account, though it does ask customers to pay a fee that they think is fair. You may sleep well at night knowing that you’re not paying such banking fees. Or you may not and pay Aspiration something for its services.
The Aspiration Plus charges $7 per month, which drops to $5.75 monthly if you pay annually. That isn’t zero, of course, but it may ease your conscience.
Green side benefits
Most of the green things Aspiration does for the environment won’t affect your bank account, so you won’t be paying for a service that most banks don’t provide anyway.
Aspiration won’t use your money to fund fossil fuel exploration or production. It does, however, give you the option of having a tree planted by rounding up your debit card purchases. Paying a quarter or so won’t bankrupt you, but it is your money and you can keep your own change if you like.
No out-of-network ATM reimbursements
If you can’t find an Allpoint ATM to use with your Aspiration account, then you may need to use an out-of-network cash machine. This can cost about $2.50 in fees, which Aspiration won’t reimburse you for.
The Aspiration Plus account reimburses customers for one out-of-network ATM use per month, which is better than nothing, but it won’t help you much if its in-network ATMs aren’t near you.
The 10% cash back on purchases with 17 businesses in the Aspiration Plus plan is worthwhile if you regularly buy their products.
But if you don’t, the basic Spend & Save plan that Aspiration offers pays 3-5% cash back on the same purchases, but without the monthly fee required to be an Aspiration Plus member.
Aspiration vs. competitors
Aspiration has lots of competition. Here are two. One is an online-only bank and the other is a major bank with physical branches. Note that the ATM cost is for in-network ATMs only; out-of-network ones will charge a fee.
|Bank||Monthly fee||ATM cost||Branches||ATMs|
|Aspiration Spend & Save||$0||$0||0||55,000|
|Bank of America||$12||$0||4,300||16,000|
A new player in the banking world much like Aspiration is Chime, which touts itself as an online bank. To access an ATM, Chime uses MoneyPass® and Visa® Plus Alliance ATMs. Deposits, including checks, are made through its app that you use on your smartphone.
One of the main features of Chime is that checking account customers can get their paychecks up to two days early through direct deposit. Most banks make funds available two days after an employer deposits money in a worker’s account.
It also has a program called SpotMe where Chime covers a negative balance and pays a debit card transaction, with the customer’s next deposit used to cover the payment.
Chime may be similar to Aspiration, but it doesn't have the socially conscious features of Aspiration.
Bank of America
One of the biggest banks in the U.S., Bank of America is the epitome of a traditional bank. Its accounts may require minimum balances but the bank offers 4,300 branch locations across the country for in-person customer service and can accept check deposit at any of its 16,000 ATMs.
Bank of America also makes it easy to transfer money between checking and savings accounts, specifically to provide overdraft protection if you are in a pinch. However, you will pay $12 for the transfers and $35 fees for straight-up overdrafts. It has additional fees that also make it more expensive than Aspiration. But Bank of America’s $12 monthly fee for its Advantage Plus checking account can be waived by simply having direct deposit of $250 or more per month.
Bank of America also offers investment accounts, credit cards, and other accounts for those who want to have all of their personal finance in one place.
Can I open a joint account?
As of mid-November 2020, Aspiration only allows joint accounts to be opened between an existing account and a new account. Two existing accounts can’t be turned into a joint account. It’s unclear if two people can open one joint account together.
Is a minimum deposit needed to open an account?
Yes, $10 is the minimum deposit.
Where can I deposit a check?
The Aspiration mobile app allows checks to be deposited by taking a photo of each check. Checks can’t be deposited at ATMs, though the company says it’s working on adding that feature sometime in the future.
Can I get physical checks?
Aspiration gives one free set of 25 checks per joint account, upon request.
How do I avoid overdraft?
Aspiration doesn’t charge fees for accidental overdrafts.
It helps customers avoid overdrafts by not allowing checks, ATM withdrawals, debit card purchases, and online transfers to be processed if there isn’t enough money in the customer’s account to cover them.
The bottom line
Aspiration’s checking and savings accounts are good places to put your money if you’re looking for free ATMs and no monthly maintenance fees.
Its upgraded account, called Aspiration Plus, charges $7 per month but with more benefits that get you the bang for your buck. The basic Spend & Save plan doesn’t have a monthly fee but customers are encouraged to “Do the right thing” and pay what they think is fair.
It's all part of a financial firm that hopes its customers are inspired and aspire to be socially conscious and improve our planet.
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