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Is it too much to ask to have a bank that doesn’t steal your money or exploit your trust for its own profit? Aspiration burst on the scene in 2018 to make it clear that no, it is not. And it’s only natural to be suspicious at first.
After a lifetime of unhealthy relationships with our banks, along comes Aspiration saying they are different, and we should trust them? We’ve heard this story before. But, we have to admit, they’ve won us over.
Aspiration is redefining how we should think about our banks and what standards of environmental and social responsibility we should (and can) hold for them.
What Makes Us Fans of Aspiration
Aspiration’s Underlying Purpose
Departure from the (predatory) norms
It is a deeply troubling fact that when you hear about a financial institution that is supportive, helpful, and rooting for you to succeed, it is literally unbelievable. But, that reaction makes complete sense. Traditional banking institutions profit when their customers are struggling or make a mistake: maybe that takes the form of high-interest rates, overdraft fees, fees for late payments, or exorbitant transaction fees.
Worse? Traditional banks then use their customers’ money to invest in some of the most destructive industries on the planet like fossil fuels and gun manufacturing. What does that mean for us?
Well, think about when you get to the front of the check out line with your reusable grocery tote to buy your eco-friendly, nontoxic cleaning products, and you then pay with your Wells Fargo or Chase card. Yes, you made it out without single-use plastic and your family will be free of harmful chemicals in the home, but you’ve also just thrown some support toward the industries that make our planet and communities devastatingly dangerous every day by contributing to your less environmentally or socially-concerned bank.
Consumer impact, and therefore the importance of conscious consumerism, does not stop at what we are buying. What we are using to pay for it—which bank we use—has massive implications as well.
So, is Aspiration a legit bank?
Okay, now let’s turn this frown train around. The answer to the question is YES with a small caveat! Aspiration IS legit. But it isn’t a bank. It’s a neo-bank, an online financial institution.
Aspiration recognizes and openly discusses all of the maladies of the traditional banking industry. Why/how can they be so open about that? Because that’s exactly why they got started.
Aspiration set out to be the type of financial partner they believe banks should be (a bank as a “financial partner”…who ever heard of such a thing?). Their understanding of financial institutions is painfully obvious, yet shamefully uncommon. At their core is the wild idea that if Aspiration customers are trusting them with the money that keeps their families fed, housed, and cared for, then they should have to earn customers’ trust and protect it. Basically: high-quality financial solutions for banking and investing should be available to everyone, not just the uber-rich.
Once you learn a little bit more about the people involved, the services Aspiration offers, and the impact they have, you’ll see that Aspiration is walking the walk.
The People Involved
Who is Aspiration owned by?
Aspiration is owned by Andrei Cherney and Joe Sanberg. Here’s a brief profiling of two of our best friends…I mean, not in the traditional sense but…we feel like they really care about us, we want to support their mission for economic justice as much as we can, and we put them in our Myspace Top 8, so things are pretty serious.
ANDREI CHERNEY IS/HAS BEEN:
- The son of Czechoslovak Jewish immigrants
- The youngest White House speech writer ever at age 21
- A speech writer and policy advisor for many high-level elected officials
- An advisor to some of the world’s largest companies
- A lawyer
- An Assistant Attorney General in Arizona
- Co-founder of Democracy— a think tank and journal
- Ground-level advocate for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
- CEO of Aspiration
From the brief introduction, I’m sure you can see why they are our imaginary best friends. When you have a second, take a look at all the links to see how Aspiration is just one manifestation of these guys’ mission to make the world better for everyone.
Our Aspiration Review: Accounts & Services
No matter what Aspiration account you choose, there are a few constants: you’ll have the same financial protection of deposit insurance (the same or better FDIC insurance as you had with other banks up to $2.46 million per depositor for you big spenders); your money will never be used to invest in toxic fossil fuel exploration or production; you will be able to easily track your sustainability through your spending; and you have the option to set up additional opportunities for impact.
This is the reality that brought me to Aspiration, and it’s why I choose to keep them as my financial partner of choice. But, I suppose a few details on the account options are in order.
The fact that “hidden” fees are a thing we are familiar with really is crazy when you think about it. How can you be financially responsible when you can’t predict how much your bank will be taking from you every month?
With Aspiration, there are no hidden fees, no account maintenance fees (I’ve always wondered what other banks are maintaining anyway…), zero overdraft fees (life changing), and other services that cost money are charge at cost, meaning Aspiration isn’t making money off of your wire transfer.
Essentially Aspiration had enough with the banking practices that hurt customers’ financial wellness and decided to provide us with an alternative. And, on top of providing the service we’ve all been asking for, Aspiration also commits to donating 10% of every dollar customers choose to pay them to charity.
But, I suppose a few details on the account options are in order to get you on board.
If you are a U.S. citizen who is at least 18 years old, you’re a lucky winner: you are eligible to open up an account with Aspiration. They only offer personal cash management accounts. We’d love to see business options and credit cards as well, but Aspiration doesn’t offer those services as of now.
Aspiration Spend & Save Account
Pay What is Fair: With this checking account, you choose how much your monthly account fees will be, and yes, you can choose $0.
Aspiration Impact Measurement: We know that every dollar we spend has an impact on people and the planet. The “AIM” score is a Planet & People impact score, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. Aspiration gives you a sustainability score based on the businesses you buy from.
This makes tracking the impact of your own spending readily available to you through the mobile app, and it makes improving that impact easy as well. Aspiration also scores businesses, so when you are deciding where to spend your money, you know the sustainability of the companies you are choosing from.
“People scores reflect company metrics like employee pay, access to healthcare, workforce diversity, and more. Planet scores are based on metrics such as greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficiency, and renewable energy use.”
Conscience Coalition purchases: Aspiration teamed up with socially conscious businesses that align with their better-for-the-world outlook to form their “Conscience Coalition.” Shopping with companies that are part of this growing coalition will be a nice boost for your own AIM score.
And, when you use your Aspiration debit card to purchase from members of their coalition, you get up to 5% cash-back rewards on your purchase.
Plant Your Change: You also have the option of planting a tree each time you swipe your Aspiration debit card. Here’s how it works: you opt in to the Plant your Change program, and Aspiration will round up every purchase (buy coffee for $3.17, and your Aspiration account rounds it up to $4.00). That covers the cost of a tree through a pre-selected tree-planting partner and the costs of running the reforestation project.
It is a pretty great feeling when you see the notification on your phone that says by getting curbside or buying a bottle of wine, you also planted a tree. I feel equally excited every time.
On top of that, you get monetary rewards based on the number of trees you plant—for example, 30 trees, aka “a Thicket” = $5; 500 trees, aka “a Clump” = $25; 2,500 trees, aka “Woods” = $100.
Just as a testament to the mission, I should add: If rounding up will put your account into overdraft status, Aspiration won’t round up- an appreciated safety net for those close calls.
ATM Fees: Aspiration has over 55,000 in-network ATMs. You get free ATM withdrawals at all of those. The website and the mobile App direct you to in-network ATMs wherever you are.
Savings Account: The Aspiration savings account is what puts the “save” in “spend and save.” Crazy. An improvement on the traditional (forced) savings account, with Aspiration, you can instantly transfer funds from your Spend account to your Save account as many times as you want without penalty. If you’re transferring to or from an external account on the other hand, you are limited to one per day.
In case you come across info on the Aspiration Summit Checking Account, that was their initial account offering they made through a partner bank, Radius Bank. The Summit account has now been discontinued and molded into the Spend & Save Account we are discussing here.
To start with the Aspiration save account, this was a game changer for me. Knowing that moving money into savings accounts would make it relatively inaccessible prevented me from committing in the past, and that meant not saving diligently.
Even though you can move your money back and forth as many times as you want, I find that I don’t. But, I feel more willing to push money into the savings because I know, if I need it, it’s available. Which is great…because it’s mine.
Overall, I think the Aspiration Spend & Save account is a low-risk way to build your trust of Aspiration because of its “Pay What’s Fair” model.
In multiple interviews, Andrei Cherny explains that if someone believes Aspiration Bank deserves $0, that leads Aspiration to wonder why—not in terms of what’s wrong with that person, but what services and support can/should Aspiration provide to make that
“partner” feel like they are deserving of the fee.
How can this possibly be sustainable? Well, it seems like others’ experiences are a lot like mine with this account. I started paying $0. (I think this was hangover spite for banks in general.)
Small experiences with Aspiration made a big impact on my day-to-day spending. For example, getting a notification that I just planted a tree after using my card and tracking my sustainability score made me feel more connected each purchase, and it removed a lot of the mindless consumption that would typically create heavy buyers’ remorse that I hate.
So, after some time with Aspiration, paying $0 started to feel less like I was getting what I deserved, and more like I was exploiting something I really supported. That led me to the Aspiration Plus card.
Aspiration Plus Account
Fees: $15/mo monthly fee, or $12.50/month if you pay annually (one payment of $150).
Same as Above: AIM score, over 55,000 in-network ATMs with no fee, Plant Your Change option
Conscience Coalition purchases: Everything mentioned for the previous account applies for the Aspiration Plus account as well. With this account, when you use your Aspiration debit card to purchase from members of their coalition, you get 10% cash-back rewards on your purchase.
Up to 1.00% APY on savings: To really get a hint at how much I’ve welcomed Aspiration’s financial education tools, I didn’t know APY stood for annual percentage yield until I got my Plus account and was reading through for all the details on my new banking bonuses.
The 1.00% APY applies on accounts up to $10,000 if you spend $1,000 monthly. If you do not spend the requisite amount, it’s only 0.25%. If your account has over $10,000, the APY is 0.10%.
Just a heads up: this could be subject to change.
ATM Fees: In addition to the plentiful in-network ATMs you’ll have access to, you also get ATM reimbursement for one out-of-network ATM withdrawal each month for those occasions when you’re in a pinch.
Planet Protection: With the Aspiration Plus account, Aspiration automatically provides carbon offsets for all the gas you purchase. We try to reduce our use of fossil fuel-based transportation as much as possible, but without a reliable public transit system in the sprawling city we live in, it can be difficult to completely eliminate cars from our lives.
But, where we can’t reduce, it’s nice to offset.
One thing that inched me toward the Plus account was when I took a look at the fees I’d been paying on my Chase and Wells Fargo accounts (YES – I had both..I also had an account at a credit union, okay?!…just let me sit and reflect on what I’ve done).
With the monthly account fees, maintenance fees (whatever those are), and the occasional overdraft fee, the annual feel with Aspiration was about the same or less than I’d been spending.
Plus, without the unexpected fees I’d become accustomed to, the predictability has allowed me to track my balance much more accurately.
The thing I love the most about the Plus account perks? Obviously the automatic carbon offsetting for the gas I buy. Again, better than offsetting is just avoiding gas altogether. The reality, however, is that for us, this isn’t always possible. Maybe others are more proactive than me, but no matter how many times I said I would do carbon offsetting on my own…I didn’t.
So a con to this? I always end up insisting that I pay for gas (for the sake of the planet!). Pro? I seem to have wiggled my way to being the #1 road trip invitee for all friends and family…
We are all about reducing the daily compromises we are forced to make on environmental protection. Carbon offsets are embraced by many companies, organizations, and individuals around the world. In fact, Climate Neutral certified companies rely on carbon offsets to account for those emissions that cannot be reduced away or eliminated. Offsetting is not as good as not using carbon-emitting vehicles at all, but Aspiration’s Planet Protection brings you into the anti-climate change effort.
Last but not least, the Plus card is made out of recycled ocean plastic. Yes, I plan to bring it up every single time I pull it out of my wallet. It’s a crowd-pleaser. The people love it. And since they offer 10% cash-back rewards for debit card purchases with companies they support and I love, that card is used every chance I get.
Like I’ve mentioned 986,875 times, and like we all already know, finance is traditionally a very exclusive industry. And that means knowledge of the area is likewise focused within a small group. Aspiration doesn’t only offer opportunities to get more involved in your personal finances, but they offer opportunities to understand with really accessible blog posts and helpful FAQs for every service provided.
The Experience of Switching to Aspiration
All of this sounds pretty rosey, but there’s usually one reality that slows or completely stops change…the change. Starting the process of taking any action for something different can be a real deal killer.
But don’t give up on me! It’s a cinch.
Aspiration Account Setup
Signing up: Painless. It took 5 minutes. I put in my email and some basic information, and I was set. But, signing up for financial services generally isn’t the part that takes time and effort. It’s getting started, switching over, and getting familiar with the new systems (and perks)
Activating your card: So, this was new for me, but when I signed up for an Aspiration account and downloaded the app, I had access to a digital card (try losing that). I thought/think that’s really cool and super convenient!
Once I received my actual card, I activated it in about 17 seconds completely through the app as well.
Switching account type: Again, switching from the Spend & Save to the Plus account was painless. I just looked myself in the mirror and said, “Annie, are you grateful for Aspiration or not!?…also, when was the last time you brushed your hair?” I opened the app, went to the Plus tab, and clicked “Upgrade.”
Then I winked and blew a kiss to my reflection, and my hairbrush boycott continued.
Referral Program: When you refer a friend and they sign up with a minimum of $10 to start and spend $250 in transactions within the first 2 months, Aspiration spreads the wealth. They give you $50 cash and plant 25 trees, and they give the new community member you referred $50 cash and plant 25 trees for them as well!
Not too shabby…
Even with the neo-bank digital experience we all expect, some online systems are not particularly user-friendly, have lots of maintenance days, and for one of my accounts come with “online maintenance fees.”
So, even though online access is a given, I still wanted to go through my user experience.
Withdrawing & transferring money: Your Aspiration debit card operates like your run of the mill mastercard. (See ATM fee info above). Wire transfers seem to have the same processing time as typical in my experience except for the first 30 days, which has a hold for purposes of protecting against things like identity fraud. As mentioned, the Aspiration spend account is connected to the save account, so it is extremely simple to transfer money between the two.
Depositing checks: Online deposit. Snap a picture front and back, and voila!
Finding your account info: So, you always have your “digital debit card” through the app, which is exactly what you think- it’s a digital debit card front and back.
In addition, you can always quickly access your routing number and account number through the app. All of the information you need to conduct any transaction is in the palm of your hand along with your phone.
The Cons Spending & Saving with Aspiration
As my Aspiration partnership develops, there have been a few instances where I have felt slightly more inconvenienced than with traditional banks. But, for me, these minute, fleeting, (and often preventable) inconveniences are tolerable compared to the long-lasting and far-reaching damage my investment in traditional banks had.
Having said that, here are some things you may encounter as well that a little foresight may help prepare you for.
No In-Person Branches: If you are a procrastinator or tech-resistant in any respect, you may find the lack of in-person options to be an obstacle at times. I, personally, fall a little into both of those categories.
In the past, when I needed cash in my account right now or had an unexpected need to write a check, only to find I didn’t have any checks left (classic), I would run to a local branch and get a temporary fix. Really, any time I have a banking issue, I prefer to go into the bank and talk with a human being to work through the problem.
Of course, in the case of an online institution, this isn’t possible. That means I have had to anticipate future financial needs like a responsible person.
While it would have been nice to run into the bank and get a temporary check to make that important transfer, ordering checks was pretty simple through Aspiration—I just emailed a request for checks, and the next day the order was placed for my first (free) order of 25 checks. I received my checks about 2 weeks later.
Depositing cash: On the rare occasion that I have cash handy, historically, I would run over to my bank and deposit it into my debit account. Well, that hasn’t been possible with Aspiration. Although I can withdraw cash from partner ATMs, I haven’t been able to deposit any.
This was a little jarring at first, and if Aspiration was the only account I had, this may be more of a nuisance. Fortunately, I have an account with a local bank that I can use in those cash-on-hand instances.
On the other hand, while I have cash, I find myself using that instead of my card (mostly as a reflection of my resistance to going to the bank). And when I’m paying for my purchases with cash, as opposed to thoughtlessly swiping my card, I’ve noticed I am a bit more conscientious with my spending. So, that is a silver lining for me.
No credit card options: JUST LET ME COMMIT 100%! Without an Aspiration credit card option, I’m left wanting a little more. I just want to go full Aspiration.
If Aspiration isn’t seeming like it’s for you, there are other ethical banking options you can choose. Check out some other examples of socially responsible banks to get started with your research.
Regardless of who you bank with, Aspiration wants to make doing good available to you. They recently launched their Plant your Change program for everyone. Yep. Even if you decide to stick with your traditional banking institution for now, you can sign up at PlantYourChange.com and get all the world-saving empowerment us Aspiration customers get by planting a tree with each swipe.
Aspiration: Finally a Better-for-the-World Financial Solution
It really is a shame that the banks we know to be untrustworthy are still the most commonly utilized. I mean, these are the “big banks” we refer to when talking about stolen funds, predatory loans, and fraudulent accounts…and also when we talk about the companies holding our paychecks, our mortgages, and our future security. How…
And until recently, this made some sense: there just weren’t competitive alternatives. But sad for the banks and great for the people, Aspiration emerged to be just that. Hopefully their better-for-the-people practices will set the standard for the finance industry, and in the meantime, we can all just switch over our accounts to wait it out with the good guys!
Co-Founder & Managing Editor, Grow Ensemble
I’m Annie Bright, co-founder of Grow Ensemble. I’m a researcher, writer, and editor with a focus on sustainability, social impact, and human rights.