Banks love to boast about their accounts’ benefits and features. But if you’re shopping for a new account, it pays to read critically: You might find that some of these benefits sound more and more like the bare minimum.
When a bank touts its cutting-edge security and massive free ATM network, it’s likely just “puffery,” said Jim Frazin, certified financial planner and principal at Communitas Financial Planning in Oakland, Calif.
What truly sets a bank apart from the pack are the fees that it charges (or doesn’t charge) and the rates that it pays on your balances. It’s not hard to find a savings account paying a 1.75% annual percentage yield or higher; compare that with the national average savings APY of only 0.09% — and some banks pay as little as 0.01%. And if your bank doesn’t measure up when it comes to rates and fees, it might be time to switch.
Most banks have robust security. It’s standard for banks to provide chip cards — which are more secure than magnetic stripe cards — and offer text alerts for purchases and the ability to turn a debit card on and off. Fraud monitoring is also typical.
And most banks have a free ATM network. Your bank should offer a way to obtain cash for free on the go — typically that includes an ATM network. National chains such as Chase and Wells Fargo have more than 10,000 ATMs across the country; online banks such as Ally and Discover often have networks of 40,000 or more.
Banks with mobile apps are a dime a dozen. But comparing banks’ rates and fees can actually make a difference in your balance over time.
You don’t have to settle for a 0.01% APY, but you couldn’t tell from looking at the average brick-and-mortar bank. “You’re an ultra-special preferred platinum customer, so you get … 0.05% interest,” joked Jim Hebenstreit, a CFP in El Segundo, Calif. “You’re losing money to inflation.”
Credit unions and online banks typically pay better interest rates, although brick-and-mortar banks sometimes offer generous new customer promotions. In a case like that, Hebenstreit recommends opening an account and linking it to an online bank for easy transfers. Keep in mind that getting 2.0% can earn you about $100 per year on a $5,000 balance, while 0.01% will earn you about $1.
But the interest you’re earning won’t matter if your account also charges fees. Monthly maintenance costs can be as high as $15 at brick-and-mortar banks, and a recent NerdWallet study found that their average overdraft fee is $35.
To lower your fees, credit unions and online banks can come to the rescue again. Because credit unions don’t pay shareholders, Frazin said, they can offer lower costs to members. And online banks don’t have to pay for branches. In either case, free checking and savings accounts are common.
Your bank should absolutely provide online access, safety and a convenient way to get your money — but that’s just a baseline. To truly get the most from your money, find a bank that will pay you above-average interest and won’t charge you fees. And if that doesn’t sound like your bank? Think about choosing another one.
Alice Holbrook is a writer at NerdWallet. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.