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Charged Up! podcast: Get the 411 on your 401(k)


The 401(k) is an important part of a secure retirement and understanding how much you pay in fees, how to get in the game if you’re self-employed and what to contribute can build great wealth for life’s later years

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Charged Up! with Jenny Hoff



The 401(k) is something 90 million Americans participate in and is vital to having a comfortable retirement. However, few participants know how much they’re paying in fees, what they should be contributing and how best to maximize this vital investment. For those not in a 401(k) plan, the average savings they’ll have at retirement age is $1,000. We speak with Tom Zgainer, CEO of America’s Best 401K, about what you should know about your plan, what to do if you don’t have one, options for the self-employed and what employers need to know about the plan they use for their business.

Get Charged Up! about finally understanding your 401(k)!

Transcript: [Duration 00:31:25]

Jenny Hoff: Tom, thanks so much for joining us today.

Tom Zgainer: My pleasure, Jenny, it’s so great to be here with you today.

Hoff: So let’s start with the basics of a 401(k) and 403(b) because I think a lot of people are confused about really how these work. What are these two types of retirement savings vehicles, and why do we need to utilizing them? Additionally, who would be utilizing each one?

Zgainer: Each are considered employer sponsored retirement plans. And here’s really where that get important right from the get-go. Statistics show that Americans that do not have access to a company sponsored retirement plan, have less than $1,000 saved for retirement. Think about it. You get to your active work life is completed, now you have to live off of the savings you’ve accumulated. And most Americans have less than 1,000 bucks. By comparison, those who are offered a plan from their employer and take advantage of them are going to be in a much better self-sustainment position. So when you think about the two plans, 403(b), most of those historically are in the educational market, universities, some schools, school districts, high schools, things of that nature. A lot of teachers have 403(b) plans. You also see them in hospitals, medical centers, and some government plans. Maybe a fire department, for example. And that’s what those types of entities used to have solely. But then a few years ago, those types of entities could also have a 401(k) plan. The primary uniqueness to both is that it gives a participant, an employee, the ability to defer, say, up to $18,000 a year from their own pay.

This is all good to have the savings vehicle at hand. The problem though is often times the providers chosen are taking those savings from Billy or Sally who are putting in their hard earned money from their pay check each week. And more of their savings are going to pay third party providers than actually working for them over time. So while it’s great to have an employer sponsored retirement plan, it also pays as we’ll talk further in our discussion today, of the type of plan you have, and who they’re with, and the investments within. Because it might not be doing you a heck of a lot of good even putting money into those plans.

Hoff: OK, wow. Interesting. So is there a bit difference between a 403(b) and 401(k), or is it, like you said, just really what industry you’re working in?

Zgainer: Yeah, it’s more of the industry as opposed to the differences because both allow employer contributions. Both allow participants to take money out of their own pay. It’s just going to be a matter then of where those dollars are being invested for the most part.

Hoff: And take money out of your pay means you get to defer taxes. You don’t pay taxes on that initial money that’s going into that 401(k) or 403(b)?

Zgainer: Well, it’ll depend. Like a lot of 401(k) plans now, most do have both pretax option and a Roth option. So if for example, if I have $1,000 taken out of my pay this month. If I have it taken out of the pretax basis, and I make $5,000 a month, I’m only taxed today on $4,000. My federal and state tax liability is deferred until age 59 and a half when I take those monies out. However, in the Roth option, if I make that same $5,000 a month and put $1,000 into my 401(k), I’m still taxed on $5,000 today. What does that mean over time? Well, when I look at my balance at age 60, and I see one million dollars in my account, if it’s pretax, it’s not really a million bucks. Probably 35% less because now I have to pay federal and state taxes. But if I’ve been putting money in all along the way in a Roth 401(k), that million dollars is my one million dollars because the tax is already taken care of. And there’s not really a right or wrong per se. It’s how you think tax rates might go up or down, or if you want to reduce your tax liability at retirement.

Hoff: Are you taxed on also the interest that you accumulate with your 401(k) or do you just pay tax on the principal, the money that you actually put into it?

Zgainer: Yeah, so in the Roth, same way, your growth of your assets over time are not going to have any taxation. Whereas in the pretax version, that balance that’s accumulated includes also the growth of your deferrals and will be subject to taxation.

Hoff: It almost makes no sense to not do the Roth.

Zgainer: Well, you’d be surprised. We have a lot of folks that still kind of hedge their bets. They’ll put $9,000 in the pretax and $9,000 in Roth. Why would somebody do that? Some people might think tax rates are going to go down, and so therefore if you defer your taxes, 20 years from now you take your monies out, you would have paid less money. The fact is no one is Nostradamus here. We don’t really know what’s going to go on. So often times if you’re at the younger age, and you’re essentially in a lower tax bracket now, take advantage of that Roth to get the taxes out of the way. It’s really a personal opinion, not a right or wrong kind of answer.

Hoff: So now I want to talk a little bit about – you mentioned overpaying for funds. So Tony Robbins who we interviewed on Charged Up a couple of weeks ago. He’s a partner in your company, America’s Best 401K. He said people who have a 401(k), which is about 90 million Americans, and a 403(b) are overpaying for their funds. Can you go into that more? What does overpaying mean? How much would the fees be, and what is the difference if we’re paying an extra percent?

Zgainer: Yeah, this is a fascinating topic, and it all goes to if you’re a participant in a 401(k) plan or a 403(b) plan, you are restricted to using the provider’s and the investment options chosen by your well-intentioned employer. And I emphasize well-intentioned because they think they’re putting together a good benefit for themselves and their employees. But then it really depends upon what provider did they choose. Because if for example, they’re using a 401(k) plan that maybe is through an insurance company with brokers and also paid providers, there’s going to be a certain type of funds that are enlisted in the investment options. They’re generally called actively managed funds.

As a result, those types of funds will often have expense ratios, the annual costs of buying the fund, well north exceeding 1.5 to 2 percent. Why is that? Well, it’s because embedded inside that fund cost, multiple people are getting paid little slices of it. So you might think you’re putting $100 away from your paycheck, but there’s parts that are getting partialed out to third parties that do nothing in exchange. They’re not providing any value in exchange to justify it.

So alternatively, you can use a line up like we do where you’re going to use index funds. In a case of, say, Vanguard, for example, where there are more retirement planned assets using Vanguard’s funds. And they’re the number one company in the world. What’s different there? Well, now the expense ratios of those funds are about 0.12%. Just over a tenth of a percent. How can that be? They don’t have those other embedded to pay third parties. It’s stripped of all those fees. And so our well-intentioned employer partners maybe with a national payroll company as a matter of convenience integration with payroll. Or they know Joe the broker down the street from rotary club, or school, or the little league field, or whatever it might be. And Joe’s a good guy, and he sends you to this insurance company solution. Right? But you don’t know the fees embedded in that plan are essentially robbing your retirement savings over time.

It is astonishing what we see day to day, Jenny. We’re on average, we’re reducing investment fees 57% for folks that had no idea that their retirement savings even needed rescue. They didn’t know they needed the lifeline. They didn’t even know they’re out for a boat ride. Right? And then we show them the effective of fees going forward out 20 years, and it becomes astonishing. And they almost get very emotional at this point in time because they’re like, \u2018I thought I was doing something good for my employees.’ So it’s not that the 401(k) is a bad thing. It’s the choice of provider that could be devastating for somebody’s future.

Hoff: So, if you’re an employee, and you get your statement. And it’s filled with all of these lines of different investments that your 401(k) has, how do you read it to kind of know if you’re in a good place? For instance, does Vanguard need to basically be on there someplace so you know that at least some of it is going into an index fund? So how can you read it if you’re not a financial expert?

Zgainer: Yeah, this is why we want people to come to us, and we actually created an ancillary website called That is to help participants in this exact case, Jenny. And here’s why. Before 2012, the financial services industry never had to tell you what they’re charging you. Think of it. This is our largest investment aside of home ownership. Participation in a company sponsored retirement plan. As you mentioned earlier, close to 90 million Americans are doing so. Right? This is the money we need to sustain ourselves 20, 30 years after we work. And yet, we have no idea how fees are affecting us.

So in 2012, after 30 plus years, new requirements came out where providers are now required to provide a disclosure to both the employer and to all participants. But here’s the problem with those. Yes, they’re complying with the rules and the laws, but these documents are 20 to 50 pages long. And there’s numbers all over the place. And then you have to say, \u2018Well, how is this number on page 11 relative to the numbers on page 35?’ Because one thing in compliance can change complete complexion on the other. OK? And so this is where we come in. Because that document essentially becomes the optic for us to provide a diagnosis. And so we have encouraged participant to send us their fee disclosures. Because if we can see in a side-by-side comparison that not only can they potentially improve the plan overall I suggest it look like a hero to their employer. Why? Because their employer often has the largest balance in the plan, and therefore, the most to lose.

So if they send us their disclosure, and we do a side-by-side comparison. And they can see that they can reduce their fees 50 to 70 percent, and over 20 years it puts two to five million dollars back into the pockets of all the participants in the plan. That is something to celebrate. That’s a joyful event to take your employers and say, \u2018I was doing some digging around over here and look what I’ve found.’ And so now we have hundreds of participants every single month sending us their disclosures so that we can try to get to the reasons why there might be opportunities for improvement.

Hoff: Alright. Fantastic. So it’s something we should pay attention to. So you guys have a website, show me the money, right?

Zgainer: It’s your money. It’s your money.

Hoff: It’s your money.

Zgainer: It’s your money, right? We want people to say this is your money. Don’t accept that the math that’s occurring has to be that way. It can change.

Hoff: Alright, You can plug in the numbers or send over that disclosure so you can see exactly what you are paying in fees and what you could be paying in fees. And that difference – that knowledge can change your life probably.

Zgainer: It is literally life-saving. Because think about yourself at age 65 and having less than $1,000 saved for retirement. How does life look at that point? Right? It is filled with concern and worry. And this is why we’re having to go out and work somewhere at age 70 because we didn’t pay attention. What we’re doing during our years of accumulating income, be it as an employer or an employee – it doesn’t matter. But in those working years, if the accumulation of your income was not also building your security bucket that will sustain yourselves, boy you’re in a troublesome spot at that point.

Hoff: Yeah, absolutely. So what do you do if you’re in a corporation? A huge corporation. And nobody’s listening to you. You’re saying, \u2018We’re paying too much in fees.’ Is there anything you can do individually to take care of the fees that you’re at least paying, or are you just stuck with the plan that you’re given?

Zgainer: Yeah, this goes back to the comment earlier where if you’re employed, and your employer offers a 401(k) plan, whether they’re a small company, medium, or large, you’re stuck for you 401(k) to using that 401(k) plan. Unless you have side income where you can set up an individual 401(k) plan that could be really great for you. But that’s not most people. Right? These 90 million Americans we’re talking about, they are expecting or believing that their employer sponsored plan is great. And so you’re kind of stuck. You could go out and pivot out, and get an Individual Retirement Account. And I can put away 5,500 bucks a year. That’s better. If your 401(k) plan is so horrible, maybe that’s a consideration. Right?

Ideally though is that you should try to have a voice, and share this with ownership and management. And granted the very largest corporations in America, Jenny, should have and often do have a great plan. But if you pose a question to say, \u2018What about small companies?’ Right? Well the financial services industry does clearly make a distinction that size matters. So you said, \u2018Hey, Tom, I want to start up a 401(k) plan today. I’ve got five employees.’ You’re most certainly going to be rejected or treated differently by providers. They don’t see any money in it for them, so they don’t want to serve you. Right? Or they will manufacture additional asset based fees on top of the expenses ratio to make sure that they line their pockets first at your expense.

The model that I created in 2012 with America’s Best 401(k) is to say that is just BS that has been fed to people for 30 years. Because on any given street, if we were to have a barbeque today, invariably somebody would be paying 10 to 15 times more in their 401(k) purely because of the size of their company. I set out to change that and said, \u2018That is wrong.’ Every company, no matter the size, should have access to the same low-cost investments that any massively large corporation. It’s a 401(k) plan for crying out loud. There’s nothing you need to qualify for. Right? It their money, and we keep focusing on it’s their money, not ours. And so that’s where you can create a new way of doing it. The financial service industry just cares not to do so.

Hoff: So, can you quickly tell us what is the difference? For the average person who may be like, \u2018OK, so 0.65 versus 1.5. That’s not that big of a difference.’ But it is. So can you quickly illustrate how big of a difference that is when it goes down to when you’re retiring?

Zgainer: If we had three people, and we have Angelica who has 1% in fees, and we have Arman who has 2% in fees, and we have Erin who has 3% in fees. And they each put away monies over the course of 30 years of their work life to around the same figures. Then the people who have 1% difference in fees are essentially going to lose 10 years off of their retirement savings. So the difference between 1 and 2% over the course of your work life can be 10 years of retirement savings lost needlessly to fees over time. It is the small numbers that are massively critical for us to understand. Where I mentioned at the top where 70 percent of participants in 401(k) plans don’t believe that there are any investment fees. If you don’t even know that there are fees, my goodness, you sure don’t know the effect of them. And so when we put that on paper, it does have a truly visceral reaction amongst people who get truly emotional saying, \u2018How could that be? That number seemed so small.’ But over time, with compounding, negative or positive, it could be devastating to your future.

Hoff: Wow, okay, let’s talk about self employed individuals. You mentioned if you had a side job, you could do another type of 401(k). Could you talk about your options? There’s a lot of freelancers now. There’s a lot of people trying to kind of do their own gigs and not be full-time with any company, so they don’t have that 401(k) matching perk. What can they do to defer as much money that they’re making as possible and get that into a retirement plan?

Zgainer: You can get what’s called an individual 401(k) plan that essentially mirrors the same options and opportunities that a corporately sponsored one. Meaning that you can have a Roth option, you could have a pretax option, you can still put away 18,000 bucks. So let’s just say for example, that I had an employer, and they had an okay 401(k) plan. Not that great, but they did give me maybe a match. Right? Let’s say it’s 3 percent match of the first 5 percent I put away. And let’s say that that equals to be 10,000 bucks or $5,000 – whatever it is. Right? So I defer as much as I can to be sure I get the match from my employer.

Well, let’s say my 401(k) deferrals added up to be $8,000. Well, if you’ve got a side gig like you mentioned, you still have another $10,000 because the limit is 18. Right? You did eight over at your employer. You still could put another $10,000 into an individual 401(k), and then maybe even more dollars that are considered profit sharing amounts. And so it’s very worthwhile, especially because a lot of our workplace has gone non-traditional, 1099. A lot of freelancers.

For example, Vanguard has a product called the Solo K. Doesn’t cost anything to set up. Uses the same low-cost investment we use in our 401(k) plans. But it gives ability to have people start stocking money away on their own. I would absolutely recommend anybody that has this self employment income to establish an individual 401(k) for sure.

Hoff: And is the Solo K also tax deferred, or is that after tax?

Zgainer: It could be either. You could still put your monies away pretax or after tax.

Hoff: Good to know. So actually, if you have kind of a bad 401(k) plan at your work, and you can’t do anything to change it, you could just put enough in to get your employer’s matching funds because obviously you want their money too. And then take the rest and put it into an individual account if you have a side gig. Correct?

Zgainer: And hopefully in your employer, there’s at least a couple of good funds in there. Some low-cost index funds to minimize your expense. Yes, that’d be an effective strategy.

Hoff: OK, great. Let’s talk a little bit more about the 403(b) just because I’ve gotten several emails from listeners about that. They work in those industries that you mentioned. So who qualifies for this? I think we’ve answered. People who work in those industries. How is it different from a 401(k) and an IRA? And if someone leaves their job, what happens to the money in the 403(b) and also the 401(k)?

Zgainer: In the 403(b) market – let’s just focus on teachers, for example. Most teachers have a 403(b) plan. Our country needs and needs to reward our teachers for getting our youth onto a path be it an elementary school, middle school, high school, university, or whatever it is. And yet, most of the 403(b)s we see have actually more outrageous fees. There was an article recently, I believe, in the New York Times that talked about a lot of 403(b) plans have 2 to 5 percent loads on top of the fund costs. And here’s what that means. So not only does the fund cost have an expense ratio, say, 1.5%. But every time you put money into it each pay period, there’s a 2 to 5 percent services charge. Now that’s just darn wacky that it’s even allowed to exist. Right? Because there’s no value in exchange for that. It’s your money out of your own pay, and they’re charging you 2 to 5 percent.

And this market has historically been dominated by a few industry providers that this is a style of business. And unfortunately, the teachers are not cognizant about that their savings. And especially think about the teacher who in a lot of cases are now having to buy supplies out of their own pocket. They’re buying pencils and papers. Right? And they’re trying to stock money away for their future, and yet the don’t know this devastating effect overtime. So we’re going to see a shift hopefully in the next few years where school districts, universities, hospitals\u2014things of that nature will get away from these 403(b)s and move to a better 403(b) or 401(k) to really cut down these expenses because it’s really, really devastating.

To your other question about what happens when you leave? Right? Well, there’s certain rules that are dictated by your balance size. For example, if you leave your employer and your balance is over 5,000 bucks, you can leave that money in that plan as long as you want. By law you’re not required to take it out. Typically, though because we have billions of dollars being lost. Meaning people go from one employer, to another, to another, and they forget to take distributions or roll-overs from their prior employers. So they forget about it. People actually forget where their money is. Right? Think about it. You’re saving and you forget where it is. So the more logical thing to do when you leave your employer would be to roll that money into an IRA, or if you’re going to go directly into another employer’s plan, thinking of the rolling the money over into the plan ostensibly because it’s good. Right? So hopefully the education we’re all getting through your podcast today will have people pause and say, \u2018Well, before I take that action, let’s make sure I’m actually sending it to a good place.’

Hoff: So let’s talk about the difference because we’ve mentioned now IRA a couple of time and Roth. And for people that are a little bit confused about what is the difference between all of these different retirement vehicles. Can we talk about the difference between a Roth, versus a traditional IRA, versus a 401(k)?

Zgainer: Individual Retirement Accounts are typically going to be for folks who either have a 401(k) at their work and still want to put more monies in. 5,500 is the annual limit, for example. Or they have no retirement plan at work, and they want to at least save something for their retirement. OK? So they’re sort of adjunct to each other. So 401(k), 403(b) are employer sponsored.

An Individual Retirement Account is something you went out and did on your own. So the monies are in different places. They can both have pretax options. They can both have Roth options. It’s just a matter of what your personal preference is. But they are two distinct retirement buckets, so to speak. And certainly if you have the ability to fill up both, that’s going to allow you to start accumulating even more savings for retirement.

Hoff: Right. So they’re all tax deferred in some way. So you either don’t pay taxes with the Roth at the end, or you don’t pay taxes upfront. But if you want to save as much money from taxes as possible, you fill up those buckets.

Zgainer: Absolutely, and if you go the Roth. Just know that as the money starts to grow, that’s really your money. If you put monies away in a pretax scenario, beginning at age 59 and a half when you can start taking distributions, whatever your balance has accumulated to is going to be affected by federal and state taxes at that point.

Hoff: Okay. Alright. So how about using 401(k) money early? Or IRA money early. What is the penalty? What expenses are allowed? With lower penalties can you have that flexibility? Is there a time limit to when you have to leave it in there before you can utilize the principle that you put in?

Zgainer: Yeah, the key age is age 59 and a half. If you take a distribution earlier than that, you’ll be subjected to a 20 percent federal tax hit and a 10 percent penalty. So you really want to think about is that your best source to withdraw? Now granted, there are times when we have emergencies in life. Right? And if you really need to do something, and maybe said, \u2018OK, I’m willing to take a 30% hit of this because this is incredibly important to my family.’ Well, you have to be sensitive to someone’s emotions at that point in time. Is it a good financial decision? Probably not. But if it helps them move on to deal with the scenario that’s come up. And hopefully they have more years to work to try to recoup it. Okay. But as a general rule, we really should look a this as your security bucket that, \u2018I’m not going to touch these dollars.’ This is why the advice out there is that it is to build a rainy day account. A liquid account. Right? And granted in a bank or savings account or CD, maybe it doesn’t grow so much interest. But if it does allow you to access it without penalty, then there is certainly logic in doing that. And that’s where we have to really part in partial our savings. \u2018This one is one that I’m not going to touch until I’m top working. This one is kind of an emergency fund if god forbid something happened, I can tap into it. I have access to it easily, and I’m not hit on penalties or taxation.’

Hoff: And let’s talk about again the max that we can contribute to a 401(k) and a 403(b). You’ve mentioned 18,000. How do we set up our plan? What if you want to max it out, but then you get a bonus later on in the year? Is there a penalty if you accidently contribute too much, or how does that work?

Zgainer: The payroll system and the 401(k) platform should not allow you to put in more than that amount. So let’s say for example, heading into this pay period, I’ve put away 17,000 in my 401(k). And out of my pay, my bonus you just mentioned, I say I want to have 1,500 bucks go into my 401(k). Well, there should a reject at that point in time for $500. Right? Because you were at 17. You tried to put in 1,500, you could only go to 18,000. Most providers have systems in place that should not allow that to occur. Now again, to reiterate what we’ve mentioned earlier, if you’re over age 50, you can still do another $6,000. It’s called a catchup provision.

Hoff: Alright. And so I think I know what your answer’s going to be to this. But what is the most important thing to know about 401(k)s and what can we do immediately to take control of our situation right now?

Zgainer: It’s your money, and so you need to know the cost of things. When it comes to our money, nothing is more important than knowing how much we have and where it is. And if where it is, is being invested, what are the costs of my expenses? What are the cost of those investments? So my first suggestion would be, is anybody who is in a 401(k), or an IRA, or any type of retirement account, go to the website where you manage your plan, or to your HR or benefits department, or the provider, and ask them for a disclosure of the exact cost of your investment. Because it’s often times not just the expense ratio of the funds themselves. We see many providers\u2014certainly insurance company platforms, they may tax on a 1 or 1.5% fee on top of the expense ratio. So think about it. What if your expense ration is 1.5, and they add another 1.5 percent on top? That’s 3 percent. Unless you know that’s occurring, you’ll never know why your balance isn’t really growing. You’ve got this big boulder that’s trying to get pushed up hill because the expenses are knocking down your returns. So you have to know the cost of your expenses. And if somebody has their disclosure, simply by sending it over to info@AmericasBest401(k).com. We will dig into that document for them, and see if we can build a story board that they might want to share with their employer to consider other ways of doing this for the good everybody else. But you’ve got to know what your fees are. You have to.

Hoff: Alright. And, actually, I wanted to get one different question in there real quickly that I wanted to ask earlier and that is, when you are given your 401(k) options, and it’s how risky do you want to be, and you fill out a profile. How do you make that decision? How do you know what is the most appropriate decision for you?

Zgainer: We have a questionnaire – six questions that do not take a lot of deliberation, but give you a feeling for the type of investor you are today. Maybe aggressive, conservative, moderate, somewhere in between. A lot of it is dictated by your age. A lot of it is dictated by all of the things that are going on in the peripheral of your financial life. But then once you know what risk profile you fit, that’s where in our case, our advisory team steps in and helps you build a diversified asset allocation strategy that fits that profile.

And that’s important because you might say, \u2018I’m a conservative investor.’ You might think that you’re conservative by nature as a person. Right? But if you’re 25, and you’re going to still work for 30 more years, then being maybe more of an aggressive investor is to your benefit because you have many years to weather the ups and downs in the market. And you’re looking for growth. But perhaps I’m 58, and I’m going to retire in a couple of years, well now I’m going to be more conservative because I want to hold to what I’ve built. I don’t want it to be exposed to the ups and downs of the markets. So that’s where it’s important that hopefully that your provider that your employer has chosen is giving you resources to help you get to that conclusion because we’re just too much of, \u2018I want to have it real fast right now.’, people nowadays. And we maybe now want to figure out this ourselves, but you darn better well because again, it’s your money.

Hoff: And finally, Tom, what get’s you charged up about retirement planning and helping people save money while reaching their retirement goals?

Zgainer: I have to tell you, Jenny, this is the greatest joy of my business career since the company was founded in 2012. That we’re in a position to rescue the retirement savings of Americans. As I mentioned, close to 90 million Americans are putting money away in their 401(k) plans. Certainly, truly, 90 percent of those plans are just devastating their savings over time due to needless and excessive fees. And so these are people that we will never meet personally. We will never meet their families. But to know that when somebody makes this simple switch of reducing their fees 50 to 70%. And then that company gets to celebrate that with their employees, and show them how this math will now change their outlook at retirement. Even though we never meet them individually, we know of them that they’re now a client, and there’s a wonderful joy across our organization knowing that we could have just given somebody a more secure and dignified retirement.

Hoff: Alright. Fantastic. Tom, thank you so much. We learned a lot about 401(k)s and 403(b)s today. And we need to know that because this is our primary retirement vehicle for most of us. So thank you so much.

Zgainer: My pleasure, Jenny. Great to be with you.

See related: Charged Up! podcast: Becoming Unshakeable with Tony Robbins

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