Unless you’re the type to hide money under your mattress, at some point you’re going to deal with a bank. In fact, banks are so central to our lives, even wizards have them. (Gringotts , anyone?) But whether you’re a wizard, a goblin, or an ordinary muggle, at some point you’re going to have to answer this question: how to choose a bank?
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insures more than 5,500 banks in the United States. So how do you narrow it down to the one bank that’s right for you? Options include everything from traditional brick-and-mortar banks to online-only, worldwide banks that operate via an app.
All these choices can make finding the right bank stressful. You encounter a host of numbers, jargon, promises, and marketing that all seem great, but what’s in the fine print? Are you really getting the most work out of your money, or the highest interest rate, or a fee-free ATM experience?
Although these days choosing a bank takes more research than in years past, it can be relatively easy to make solid comparisons based on a few universal questions. A good first step is to make yourself a comparison chart. Then use process of elimination to find your perfect financial institution. Just remember—personal finance is a personal choice.
So while it’s certainly smart to take friends’ suggestions into consideration, the final choice should be the one that is all about you and your needs… not just what has a good marketing gimmick. Here’s what you need to consider when choosing a bank.
We listed fees first, because the amount of extra money your bank keeps for itself can make or break a hard won balanced budget. The obvious fees are ATM charges, yearly maintenance fees, and overdraft protection, and they can add up quickly.
The average overdraft fee is currently around $30, and while they’re a good way to avoid negative balances, they can cost you hundreds of dollars if you fall behind.
Returned deposits, foreign transactions, low balances, lost cards, and sometimes even interacting with a human can also incur fees. Be sure to read through the terms and conditions carefully so you aren’t unpleasantly surprised. You may just want to choose an account that’s fee-free instead.
While some lenders might still offer the traditional—and very low—0.01% interest rates on savings accounts, it doesn’t mean you’re stuck with that.
Especially with online-only banking where overhead is much less than traditional brick-and-mortar banks, customers are able to enjoy upwards of 1% annual percentage rates (APRs) on not only savings accounts, but checking accounts, too sometimes.
And while some banks require balance thresholds to get high interest rates, others have no minimum, which means you don’t have to be originally wealthy in order to take advantage of higher rates.
Take a mental inventory of how you do your banking. Do you need to visit branches or use ATMs frequently? If so, one deciding factor could be which bank has locations closest to you. This is also important for avoiding ATM fees, so check into a bank’s partner network of fee-free machines.
ATM locations may not be as important if in-person banking is something you haven’t done since the Harry Potter movies were still coming out, but everyone needs cash in a pinch. Having a debit card with fee-free access is a plus.
A bank’s app and online services are becoming increasingly important, especially as millennials start to open accounts for their kids and Gen-Z enters the workforce. Again, the best approach is to decide what features are important to you and narrow down from there. Does the bank offer online deposits via smartphone? Is their app easy to navigate?
Can you activate push alerts for low balances, or can you link your account to another financial institution? (Life hack: Linking to an outside bank account can help you lower overdraft fees—you’ll still get charged if your bank has to pull from the external account, but it’s typically less than if you didn’t have any other account to pull from at all.)
To get a good idea of a bank’s actual user experience, see if you can download a demo or find one on YouTube. Ratings and reviews can also be a great way to find out other customers’ experiences— the good, the bad and the ugly—as opposed to trusting a commercial to be honest with you.
Investment Account Options
If you’re looking for more than just checking and savings, consider a bank that also has investment account options. Having everything you need within the same financial system can make deposits, withdrawals, transfers, and automatic saving a breeze.
The Fine Print
A bank’s marketing and large-print promises may seem perfect at first blush, but it’s imperative to read the terms and conditions. Look for things like expiration dates for any introductory APRs and the rate moving forward, monthly account maintenance fees or out-of-network ATM charges, and whether the bank is FDIC-insured. (Make sure it is.) More often than not, banks can leave the less-desirable components of their account structures out of their marketing materials.
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