As free checking disappears from the nation’s biggest banks, the accounts remain alive and well at credit unions.
About 72% of credit unions offer free checking accounts with no strings attached, like required minimum account balances or direct deposits, according to a Bankrate.com survey of the 50 largest credit unions.
It’s a very different story at the big banks, though. Only 38% of banks now offer free checking accounts, which is down slightly from 39% last year and a big drop from 65% in 2010, based on responses from 10 major banks.
Even if you have a free checking account, you can still incur other fees for overdrawing your account or using an ATM. But fees at credit unions are a lot lower than those at banks. The average credit union overdraft fee is $26.96 versus $32.20 at banks.
Checking Accounts: What You Need to Know
By John Gower
Unfortunately, these accounts are far from standardized. Fees, features, and requirements all differ vastly from one account to another, and from one bank to another. Chances are, the first checking account option you stumble upon is not actually the best fit, so it’s essential to do your homework before choosing where to deposit your money. The first step to getting the most of your checking account is to understand a little bit more about yourself.
What are your basic requirements in a bank and an account? Consider the following to narrow down your options.
- Demographic – Many banks and credit unions offer accounts tailored for certain ages, including teens, college students, and even senior citizens. Special accounts like these often carry benefits you wouldn’t otherwise receive.
- Type of institution – Do you prefer a nationally-available bank, a local credit union, a community bank, or maybe an online bank? Each of these groups comes with a certain set of advantages and disadvantages.
- Other Features – Keep an eye out for some key checking account benefits that fit your lifestyle and preferences. For example:
- Are you a tech geek who lives on their phone? Choose an account that offers a mobile banking app.
- Are you a sucker for rewards? Look for accounts that earn interest, offer a new account bonus, or award points for certain activities.
How you live your financial life will affect which checking account is the best option, thanks to certain fees and requirements. Read on for more details, then use the filters and calculator option in the tool above to see how your financial habits can affect the total cost of your checking account.
- Typical minimum balance – Many checking accounts carry a monthly fee that may be waived when you maintain a certain minimum balance each month. If you know how much you typically can keep in your account, you can look for one that will waive fees for doing so, potentially saving hundreds each year. If you know your balance fluctuates often and may dip close to zero, then an account with no monthly fees will be best, and one with a low overdraft fee will be even better in case you make the occasional slip-up.
- Direct deposit – Direct deposit is another way that many banks allow customers to waive monthly checking fees, so if your job offers this option and you haven’t already signed up, do it before you start shopping around.
- ATM usage – Do you travel or use cash often? If so, look for a bank with a large surcharge-free ATM network to avoid pesky $1-$3 charges for each withdrawal.