Bank on Better Banking:
Getting More Bank for Your Buck

Looking for the right relationship ... with the right bank? The personals might read, ''Law student, 26 years old, seeks bank with better customer service, less waiting time for check clearing, low-fee checking and a low minimum balance.''

That's what Eric Horn, the 26-year-old law school student, sought. Eric asked his present bank six times to change his address, but they still have it wrong. He also says his checks weren't cleared quickly enough, plus the bank sometimes forgot to mail monthly statements. Plus, the bank promised him free checking when he opened his account one year ago -- which he got. The catch? The bank never said his complimentary checking expired after the year ended.

Getting the Best Deal

Sound familiar? If you think it's time to fire your bank, ask yourself the following:

  • What are my needs? Ask yourself how much money you'll put in your account monthly and how many checks you'll write. This tells you know what kind of account you need.
  • Figure out how much you want to invest. Investing more money means access to more services, and if you own stock, you might be able to combine traditional checking with a brokerage account.
  • Tellers or Technology. Some people prefer ATMs and phone or online banking, while other favor direct service with tellers. Perhaps you'd be happier at an extensive branch network with regular hours, or one with more ATMs and online banking resources.

Most likely you'll want a bank with little to no fees. Banks love fees. They charge for everything from ATM usage and check writing to going below the minimum balance, bouncing checks and canceling checks.

One way to avoid fees is by banking at credit unions. Credit unions are member-owned and don't pay stock dividends as commercial banks do. Larger credit unions have branches and ATM networks and offer all the services a bank does. Many companies, unions, state and local governments have credit unions you might qualify for. If one member of your family is eligible, everyone can join. Credit unions are federally insured, too. To see if you're eligible, contact the credit union league representative in your state. And make sure you're willing to part with ATMs -- most credit unions don't offer them.

To find the best deal, carefully go over this checklist:

  • What is the interest rate on the account?
  • If the account doesn't pay interest, what's the difference between the fees on the interest account and the non-interest account?
  • What is the minimum deposit to open the account? What is the minimum balance to avoid fees once the account is open?
  • What is the per-check charge? What is the charge for ordering new checks?
  • What is the charge for a bounced check?
  • Are canceled checks returned with the monthly statements? Are there charges for having a canceled check returned?

Road Map to a Better Bank

Once you know what to look for, you're ready to shop. Check for the FDIC label. Any bank that's insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation will protect your deposits up to $100,000. FDIC stickers are tacked on doors and teller windows. If you're unsure if a bank is insured, call the FDIC's division of compliance and consumer affairs office at 1-800-934-3342.

Believe it or not, free checking exists -- but it's scarce. A survey by Bankrate of 1,156 checking accounts found that a mere 145 were free. Bankrate ( will help you find listings of checking and ATM fees.

What about banking online? You're perfect for online banking if you're online already, have more than a few bills to pay, and already use a personal finance program like Quicken or Microsoft Money. If you checked off one or two, you're still a good candidate for online banking. For a list of the top online banks, consult the e-consumer ratings service Gomez.

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