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What Is a Lifeline Checking Account and How Does It Work?

By Jamie Cattanach · May 22, 2022 · 5 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

What Is a Lifeline Checking Account and How Does It Work?

A lifeline checking account is a basic bank account that features minimal fees and other cost-cutting elements, making it more accessible to first-time bank-account holders and those at lower income levels. These accounts can be, as the name indicates, a lifeline for those who are seeking firmer financial footing.

For example, a lifeline checking account may have no monthly maintenance fee, no minimum balance requirement, and no minimum opening-deposit requirement — or be at the lowest possible level in each of these categories. However, there are sometimes trade-offs to these sorts of accounts.

Let’s take a closer look at this important category of banking products and explore:

•   What is a lifeline account

•   How these accounts work

•   The pros and cons of lifeline accounts.

What Is a Lifeline Account?

First, it’s time to establish a lifeline checking account’s definition: A lifeline checking account is a bank account designed specifically for underbanked and low-income customers. Basically, it’s an account that’s as generous as possible to its account holders, often featuring zero account fees. These accounts typically also offer additional consumer protections such as free overdraft coverage and waived ATM fees.

Having access to a bank account is such an important step towards financial wellness. Without one, safely saving significant amounts of money and paying bills can become much more difficult. Recognizing this, some jurisdictions have laws in place requiring banks to offer low-cost accounts to consumers. For example, New York passed a law in 1994 requiring banks in the state to offer lifeline checking accounts to any customers who might want them.

Furthermore, the increase in digital-first and online banks has increased the public’s access to low-cost banking products. Online banks don’t have the same kind of costly overhead as banks that operate brick-and-mortar branches. For that reason, they’re more easily able to offer accounts with minimal fees. That means more affordable, accessible banking for more customers. Quite the win-win.

Recommended: How to Avoid Monthly Account Fees

How Do Lifeline Accounts Work?

Lifeline checking accounts work a lot like any checking account does. You open the account, deposit money into it, and then use those funds to pay bills and make day-to-day purchases. You can do so by using bank transfers, a debit card, or cash you withdraw from the bank or an ATM.

There is a main difference between lifeline and other accounts. Many typical checking accounts assess monthly maintenance fees or require a certain minimum balance to be maintained. These requirements may be waived in a lifeline account (or, if they’re still in place, the dollar amounts will be very low).

Of course, bank accounts with higher fee structures do sometimes come with additional benefits that may make the fees worthwhile to certain customers. For example, with a lifeline checking account, you may not be able to use paper checks — or head into a physical bank to interact with a live teller. Still, for those whose choices are limited by financial circumstances, lifeline checking accounts can be… well, a lifeline. They’re also useful for anybody who’s hoping to minimize the amount they spend on banking.

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Examples of Lifeline Checking Accounts

Lifeline checking accounts, or low-cost accounts that serve as lifeline checking accounts, are offered by many different financial institutions, including big box banks, regional credit unions, and online banks.

For example, at press time, BankFinancial offered a Lifeline Checking account that features overdraft protection services, free in-network ATM transactions, and a $0 minimum balance requirement. It charged a $5 monthly maintenance fee — which is still pretty minimal in the world of brick-and-mortar banks. Wells Fargo’s lowest-cost checking account also assessed a $5 monthly service fee, though this cost is waived for account-holders between ages 13 and 24. The minimum opening deposit was $25, and there was no required minimum balance.

Pros and Cons of a Lifeline Checking Account

Like any other financial product — or anything in life, really — there are both pros and cons to keep in mind when you’re considering a lifeline checking account.

Pros:

•   Low costs make these accounts more accessible to a wide range of consumers

•   Lifeline checking accounts can help any money-savvy account holder save more of their money

Cons:

•   Lifeline checking accounts may come without features considered “basic” by many, such as paper checks

•   Many lifeline accounts are offered by online banks, which don’t give account holders the option to bank in person

The pros of lifeline accounts are certainly valuable. Being able to pay lower fees and keep more of your cash is a tremendous help to those who are just starting their banking lives or who are earning a lower income. Think about the other banking products that can make a real difference when money is tight, like personal loans with no fees, no-interest credit cards, and overdraft coverage. Lifeline accounts can similarly play an important role when a person has limited cash.

But only you know what kind of banking products are right for you. To help you decide, here’s how the benefits and downsides of lifeline accounts stack up side by side:

Pros

Cons

Accessible to those who need a low-cost option May not include “basic” features, such as checks
Offer savings to all money-savvy customers Tend to be offered by online banks, so no in-person support

How Can I Qualify for a Lifeline Checking Account?

Let’s say you’re ready to open a no fee bank account. Here’s some good news: In general, qualifying for a lifeline checking account is pretty easy. You’ll just need to provide your proof of residence and other identifying and demographic information, and provide whatever minimum opening deposit is required, if there is one.

That said, some banks will look into your banking background before allowing you to open an account. For instance, they may use ChexSystems, which is a reporting agency that consolidates information about consumers’ banking behaviors. It’s kind of like a credit report, but for your interactions with banks. A poor ChexSystems record can make it impossible to qualify even for some low-cost accounts. However, there are still second-chance checking accounts out there that can provide the banking products you need while your ChexSystem record improves.

What Can I Do If I Cannot Find a Lifeline Account?

Fortunately, with the proliferation of online banking, lifeline-like checking accounts are pretty much everywhere — all it takes is a few mouse clicks to search for one. It’s always a good idea to verify the validity of any online bank accounts you find, however, and to ensure that the accounts are FDIC-insured. That means you don’t have to worry about losing your hard-earned money if the bank goes out of business or loses revenue.

The Takeaway

Lifeline checking accounts are low-cost accounts that make it possible for people with lower incomes or are new account seekers to get the checking capabilities they need. These accounts often feature no or low feed and minimal beginning balances. The downside is that they may skip some banking basics, like paper checks. Fortunately, in our increasingly online world, this isn’t a deal-breaker. It may well be a trade-off that’s worthwhile to secure the convenience of a checking account.

When it comes to deciding which checking account to choose, take a look at what SoFi offers. Our Checking and Savings accounts, when opened with direct deposit, gives you terrific banking benefits with no fees — no monthly, minimum-balance, or overdraft fees. And we offer a competitive APY on your balance. Talk about a lifeline!

Better banking is here with up to 3.00% APY on SoFi Checking and Savings.

FAQ

Are there benefits for lifeline checking accounts?

Along with their low fees, some lifeline checking accounts do come with extra benefits such as free overdraft protection or ATM fee waivers.

Can I open a checking account with no money?

Yes! Although it’s not true of all lifeline checking accounts, many come with a $0 opening deposit minimum, which means you can start the account even if you don’t have any cash on hand right now.

Which banks are best for low income?

Whether your income is low or high, looking for a minimal fee structure is the best way to save money — in banking and beyond. Typically, online banks offer lower fees and higher interest rates than bricks-and-mortar financial institutions.


Photo credit: iStock/gorodenkoff

SoFi members with direct deposit can earn up to 3.00% annual percentage yield (APY) interest on Savings account balances (including Vaults) and up to 2.50% APY on Checking account balances. There is no minimum direct deposit amount required to qualify for these rates. Members without direct deposit will earn 1.20% APY on all account balances in Checking and Savings (including Vaults). Interest rates are variable and subject to change at any time. These rates are current as of 11/3/2022. Additional information can be found at http://www.sofi.com/legal/banking-rate-sheet
SoFi® Checking and Savings is offered through SoFi Bank, N.A. ©2022 SoFi Bank, N.A. All rights reserved. Member FDIC. Equal Housing Lender.
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