Saving and Budgeting

How do I pick a bank?

You want to weigh a few different things when choosing—namely, fees, interest rates and customer service.

On checking accounts—where you’ll stash all the money you need for your bills and your everyday expenses—interest is rare unless you have a very high balance. So your biggest concern should be fees. Many of these accounts come with maintenance charges, which average around $13 a month. That’s $156 a year sucked out of your account. At most banks, you can avoid the fee either by keeping a certain balance or making a certain number of transactions per month. You want to choose an account that has hurdles you know you can easily jump over. If your income is variable or so low that you’re worried about maintaining a minimum balance, look to the kinds of institutions that still tend to offer no-fee checking: community banks (as opposed to the big national banks), credit unions (which are owned by their members), and banks that operate solely online (which don’t have the costs of running storefronts).

With checking accounts, you should also consider how and where you’ll use ATMs, since the charges you’ll pay to get money out of another bank’s ATM can also add up fast. Say your bank charges you $3 to use an “out-of-network” ATM. Take money out twice a week at one of these ATMs, and you’re looking at paying $312 over the year. Additionally, the bank that owns the ATM will probably charge you for the convenience of using their machine. So you’re out $624 total. Bottom line: You want a bank that either has ATMs near where you live or travel, or that charges you nothing to use an outside ATM and reimburses fees that ATM will assess (many online banks do this).

You’ll also want to think about what level of convenience you need. “Everyone needs a real person to answer questions sometimes,” says John Gower, banking associate at Nerdwallet. If you want to be able to visit a branch and/or ATM often, and you travel a lot outside your neighborhood or local area, you’ll probably benefit from the broad reach of a national bank. If you tend to stay local, it’s hard to beat the customer service of a credit union or local community bank. Don’t mind talking to a rep over the phone? Then you’ll probably be fine with an online bank.

As for your savings—the cash you’re stashing in the bank for short- or long-term goals vs. regular expenses—interest should be your number one priority. Online banks tend to shine in this realm, typically paying rates that far outpace brick-and-mortar banks, typically with no fees. But if you feel like you absolutely need the branch experience, compare rates at community banks and credit unions near you.

You can research fees, yields and minimum deposit requirements for banks nationwide at Bankrate.com or Nerdwallet.com. Or, see Money’s “Best Banks” for a list of our top picks.

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