Regardless of who you bank with, financial institutions in the US have been paying super-low interest rates for some time now. In fact, if you’re able to get more than 1% on your checking account balances, you’re doing better than the vast majority of us.
The alternative is to instead store your money into other areas, such as the stock markets, or even peer-to-peer lending. However, while earning opportunities are of course much higher – as are the risks.
In order to satisfy the needs of savers by offering higher interest rates, while at the same time operating in a risk-free environment, the likes of Empower are looking to fill the gap.
The US-based mobile app not only offers higher-than-average, FDIC-backed interest rates, but the platform also provides assistance with personal finance.
If you’ve heard the buzz surrounding Empower and you’d like to find out more, be sure to read our comprehensive guide. We’ve covered everything from how the app works, who it is suitable for, whether or not you have to pay any fees, and of course, and how the interest structure works.
Let’s start by quickly looking at what Empower actually is.
What is Empower?
Empower is a financial app that acts as both a checking account and a financial assistant.
Regarding the former, the platform allows you to send and receive money at the click of a button via your mobile app. Moreover, you’ll also have access to an Empower debit card, subsequently allowing you to buy goods and services online, as well as withdraw cash from ATMs.
Regarding the app’s financial assistance offering, Empower provides a number of features that allow you to manage your money in one convenient place. For example, you can link-up your current bank accounts (both checking and savings), as well as any debt (such as credit cards) or investment (such as online brokers) accounts.
You can also easily track and manage outstanding bills, and view subscriptions such as those tied to Netflix or Spotify.
Ultimately, the idea is that you can facilitate all of your everyday banking needs through the Empower mobile app.
One of the overarching selling points to Empower is that the platform is backed by the FDIC scheme. As a result, your savings are protected by up to $250,000, in the event that Empower ceased to exist.
On top of offering US customers a frictionless and secure mobile banking experience, the platform also claims to offer some of the highest interest rates in the checking account arena. While the likes of Citibank, Chase and Wells Fargo offer annual APY rates of just 0.01%, Empower offers a somewhat juicy 2.15%.
In terms of the fundamentals, Empower was only launched in 2017, making it one of the newest entrants to the ever-growing challenger banking space. As is now common in the mobile app spectrum, the Empower app is only available on Android and iOS devices. As such, if you’re in possession of a Blackberry or Windows smartphone, then once again you’re out of luck.
So now that you know what Empower actually is, in the next section of our review we are going to explore its checking account in more detail.
Empower Checking Account: Is it any Good?
The checking account offered by Empower allows you to perform the vast majority of your everyday banking needs. For example, you can easily deposit funds into your account via a traditional bank wire, and equally, you can transfer cash to other US bank accounts. However, Empower does not support international transfers at the time of writing, which is a bit disappointing.
Nevertheless, on top of bank-to-bank deposits and transfers, the Empower app also comes with a fully-fledged debit card. Backed by Visa, the card can be used both in-store and online. You can also use your Visa card to withdraw money from ATMs, both in the US and overseas.
The Empower Visa debit card also comes with zero liability protection, which covers you in the event that your card is fraudulently used.
Although the Empower app doesn’t offer other traditional banking services such as loans, credit cards or mortgages, the platform does allow you to apply for an overdraft.
It remains to be seen what overdraft limits you will be able to get, as Empower do not make this information publicly available. However, the amount is likely to be based on your financial profile, such as your FICO credit score, and your current debt-to-income ratio.
Empower Checking Account: Fees and Limits
As soon as you head over to the Empower homepage, you’ll instantly be presented with the “No Fees or Account Minimum” slogan. But how accurate are these claims?
Well, first and foremost, you will not be charged to open an account with Empower, nor will you need to pay anything to download the app to your mobile device.
You also won’t be charged a monthly fee to keep the account open, even if you have a $0 balance. Moreover, Empower does not charge any fees if a transaction is declined due to insufficient funds, or if you go into overdraft zone.
The platform claims that the industry average for fees related to insufficient funds and overdrafts are $12-$35 and $12, respectively, so this offers excellent value.
In terms of using your card abroad, Empower offers an industry-leading 0% markup on the mid-market rate. Once again, in comparison to the industry average of 3%, this offers good value.
In terms of using your debit card domestically, Empower account holders get access to just over 25,000 fee-free ATMs throughout the US. The platform is able to offer this as per its partnership with US ATM provider MoneyPass.
You can find your nearest MoneyPass ATM here.
If you decide to withdraw money outside of a MoneyPass-backed ATM, then you will of course need to pay the standard fee charged by the respective terminal. However, Empower will reimburse you for one non-MoneyPass ATM fee per month.
While it is true that all of the above account features are included with your Empower account, the platform does actually offer a premium upgrade for those that require a little bit more. For a highly reasonable $4 per month, you’ll gain access to a 24/7 live chat facility that will connect you with a human financial advisor, as well as enhanced budgeting and analysis tools.
Empower: Earning Interest on Your Money
If you’re looking for an everyday checking account that will allow you to earn interest on your money, then you’ll likely want to stay away from traditional financial institutions. At the time of writing, you’ll be lucky to earn anywhere close to 1% on your money with the status quo. On the contrary, Empower offers a decent 2.15% APY on the money you keep in your account.
While you can still find the odd savings or CD (Certificate of Deposit) account that pays more than the 2.15% APY that Empower is offering, you need to remember that you’re actually getting a checking account.
Both savings and CD accounts typically place restrictions on what you can do with your money. You’ll likely be penalized for accessing your cash before a particular time frame, and you can be all-but certain that you won’t have access to a debit card. This means that in the grand scheme of things, 2.15% APY on an everyday checking account is good value.
It is also worth noting that when you first make a deposit into your Empower account, the bank will double the 2.15% APY rate for the first 30 days.
Empower Debit Card Cashback and Referral Program
On top of the 2.15% APY that you will earn on your account balances, Empower also has a debit card cashback program in place. In a nutshell, all Empower uses will get 1% cashback each and every month on certain purchases, up to the first $1,000 spent. This results in a maximum monthly cashback of $10.
Empower will also reward you when you refer new users to their platform. Everytime you get a new user onboard, your checking account interest rate will double for 30 days. This means that in theory, you could double your annual APY rate to 4.30%, if you were able to get a new user on board every month.
So now that we’ve covered the ins and outs of the Empower checking account, in the next section of our review we are going to unravel the platform’s other hallmark offering – financial assistance.
Empower App: Your AI-Powered Assistant
The Empower application utilizes the ever-growing potentialities of artificial intelligence, with the view of helping you track and manage your money. In order to provide you with a clear overview of what’s on offer, we’ve broken down the main features below.
Connect External Accounts
Holding accounts with multiple providers can be a logistical nightmare. If you’re in a position where you hold several bank accounts, investment accounts for your stocks, shares, and other financial interests, and debts with multiple lenders, then you’ll know first-hand the difficulties that this can present.
Recognizing this common struggle, the Empower app allows you to seamlessly linkup your external accounts. Upon assessing the link-up feature further, we were pleasantly surprised to see that Empower supports over 10,000 US institutions.
This includes banks, credit card providers, lenders, brokers, and even 401(k) accounts. You can do all of this via the app, by following a simple set of on-screen instructions.
Once you’ve made the necessary connections, you can then view your imported accounts via your Empower app. As such, you no longer need to log in to each account individually to track your finances.
High-Level Budgeting Tools
The Empower app also allows you to set real-time budgets with ease. Whether you’re looking to save for a rainy day, or keep checks on where your money is going, you can do all of this at the click of a button.
Each and every transaction that goes through the Empower app – including that of externally linked accounts, is individually categorized. This makes it easy to find out exactly where your money is going every month. For example, if you find yourself spending hundreds of dollars on takeaway food every month, Empower will let you know!
Manage Your Debts
As we noted earlier, holding debts with multiple providers can be challenging, especially when it comes to making repayments on different days of the month. Failure to get things right can not only lead to additional charges, but it can have a direct impact on your FICO credit score.
By allowing the Empower app to assist, you can manage all of your outgoings through a single hub. In fact, you can even set-up automatic debt payments from within the app, which further alleviates the risks of missing a payment.
How do I get Started with an Empower account?
If you like the sound of what Empower offers, then you’ll be pleased to know that the account opening process is super easy. Here’s what you need to do.
Step 1: Download and Install the Empower App
First and foremost, you will need to download the Empower app to your phone. Don’t forget, the app is only compatible with Android and iOS devices.
To download the app, you can either head over to the main Empower website and enter your mobile number to be redirected to the app.
Step 2: Open an Account
Once you’ve downloaded and installed the Empower app to your device, you will then need to open an account. As a US-based bank, you will be required to provide the platform with a range of personal information, much in the same way that you would with any other bank. However, the process is significantly faster and less bureaucratic.
Expect to provide the following information:
- Full name
- Home address
- Date of birth
- Telephone number
- Email address
- Details pertaining to your place of work
- Social security number
Step 3: Fund your Empower account
Now that you’ve opened your Empower account, you will then be instructed to deposit some funds. You will be provided with your newly created Empower account details, subsequently allowing you to make an external bank transfer with ease.
As soon as your account is funded, you can then begin using your Empower account!
Is my Money Safe at Empower?
As with any bank that is new to enter the market, it is crucial that you understand how safe your money is in the event that the bank runs into financial difficulties. Fortunately, Empower is part of the FDIC scheme.
As noted earlier in our review, this ensures that your account deposits are protected by upto $250,000 in the event that the bank collapsed. Although this is unlikely to happen, you can’t put a price on the assurances that the FDIC scheme provides, not least because it is backed by the US government.
When it comes to the protection of your account, Empower offers a number of important safeguards. Firstly, if your Empower debit card is used without your knowledge, then the platform offers zero liability protection.
The team at Empower claim to offer “badass” security to defend unauthorized account access, too. This includes AES 256-bit encryption, multi-factor authentication, and Touch ID. When you factor in the current (we hope) screen lock controls that you have in place on your smartphone device, your Empower account comes with a number of key defences.
It is also worth mentioning that Empower claims to take data protection seriously, and thus, they do not sell your personal information to third parties.
All-in-all, and as is to be expected from a new entrant to the challenging banking space, Empower seem to have done a good job in keeping your money and data safe.
What is Customer Service Like at Empower?
One of the main selling points to making the transition from traditional financial institutions over to challenger banks like Empower is that top-notch customer support is often a minimum expectation. As per the reviews and feedback we found in the public domain, it appears to be so-far, so-good with Empower.
If you do need to contact the team, a couple of options are available.
The easiest way is to message a support agent directly from your Empower app. Waiting times will vary depending on the time of the day, and how busy the support team is at the time of your request. Alternatively, you can also contact Empower via email, which is email@example.com.
Unfortunately, Empower does not offer telephone support.
Empower Review: The Verdict?
In summary, Empower offers a number of unique selling points that traditional financial institutions cannot seem to match. Whether it’s a rather tempting risk-free 2.15% APY on your checking account balances, or fee-free access to everyday banking, Empower has you covered.
We also like the financial assistance side of the app, which allows you to budget, track and manage your money in one-single hub. You can also import your external bank, debt, and investment accounts into Empower, which is most definitely a plus-point.
Ultimately, while it is a shame that Empower doesn’t allow you to send international bank transfers, nor can you apply for traditional credit products like loans or mortgages, the app does allow you to perform most of your daily banking requirements at the click of a button.
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