I’ve written this list to include some of the most important things that I look for when evaluating bank accounts. It also assumes certain baseline ‘must have’ things like no charge for incoming wires or direct deposits, a free debit card with a MasterCard or Visa logo, text and/or email alerts, and FDIC/NCUA insurance. Notice that ‘high interest rates’ is not on this list – with interest rates being as low as they are, it is more important to look at things like convenience, low fees, and security than a marginally higher interest rate.
9) Unlimited ATM refunds. Even if you bank with someone that has an extensive ATM network, nothing is worse than having to drive around and hunt for a compatible ATM in an area that you’re unfamiliar with or being somewhere where like a sporting event where there is only one bank’s ATMs. Some banks offer limited ATM reimbursements, but ideally you want to find a bank that refunds an unlimited amount of ATM fees as I’ve seen ATM charges up to $5/each now. Also look for those charges to be refunded as soon as possible after they’re incurred – not at the end of the monthly cycle.
8) Free web bill pay. Every bank I know of now offers web bill pay – just make sure you don’t have to pay anything for it! If you aren’t using web bill pay you should be as it will save you time & money!
7) Aggregation or other money management tools. Yes, I know about Mint.com & Quicken and don’t have any doubts as to their safety and effectiveness. The benefit to having money management and aggregation tools with your primary bank is that it is simpler to keep things updated in one place rather than toggling back and forth between your financial software and your bank. Sometimes the data feed will also be more up to date in the bank native application than aggregating it somewhere else.
6) No maintenance charges and no minimum balance. I’m a big believer in having different accounts for different purposes and also using a separate account to ‘escrow’ money for big purchases such as vacations, vehicles, and home improvements. After making that big purchase however, you probably won’t have much, if anything, left in that account for a while. By having an account that’s not subject to a minimum balance and with no maintenance charge you don’t have to worry about leaving enough in the account to avoid penalties and/or fees.
5) Free overdraft protection. Even if you carry a healthy balance in your checking account something crazy can happen where your account becomes overdrawn. Free overdraft protection will automatically move money over from a different bank account (or even take a cash advance against a credit card in some cases) so that everything clears and you avoid the cost and embarrassment of NSF fees.
4) Free checks. I don’t know about you, but it seems like I go through stretches where I won’t write any checks for a couple months and then I’ll write a handful of checks in a couple of days. You won’t get anything fancy with free checks but the savings add up, especially if you write a lot of checks. One variation that I’ve seen is that only the first order of checks is free, not all orders.
3) Robust website and mobile app. This is probably the most important factor. If the website and mobile capabilities are good, you can conduct your business wherever and whenever you want and be on your merry way. There’s no black and white for this, but if you find yourself calling or going into your bank for simple service issues, it’s probably a sign that the bank’s online presence is lacking.
2) Customer service hours that align with when you want to do business and customer service agents that are competent yet not hard core sales people. As mentioned in the last item, in a perfect world you could get routine business done with little, if any, human interaction but that’s still not reality in most cases. As someone who works a lot of hours and has young children I frequently find myself catching up on my finances after my kids go to bed and on weekends. Nothing is worse than finding an issue that can’t be resolved online and the office is only open Monday-Friday from 8 AM to 5 PM!
1) Ability to deposit via mobile device with immediate crediting to account. I remember working at USAA when they were the first institution to offer ‘remote capture’ but this is now becoming more and more common. The key things to look for are: 1) that you don’t have to mail in the checks after you deposit them; 2) that the check is credited immediately to your account as I’ve seen some providers that hold them until the next business day; and 3) make sure your device is supported.
I hope this list helps you if you are in the market for a new bank. By the way, I don’t know of any bank that offers all of these things, so you’ll have to prioritize on what’s most important to you and your situation.