7 questions to ask before choosing a checking account

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Achecking account is one of those grown-up things you often get with your first job. It’s a tool for everyday life. As time goes on, your old checking account may no longer feel like a good fit.

Banks, credit unions and other financial institutions offer a wide variety of checking accounts. Whether you are opening your first account or looking for a new one, it pays to shop around.

Account fees are a key consideration for many consumers. Ideally, you want an account that charges no monthly maintenance fee or offers other ways to avoid account fees.

Here are seven questions to ask that will help you choose the right type of checking account.

1. Is this your first checking account?

If you’re a college student or a parent looking to open an account for a student, consider a starter checking account. Many banks and credit unions offer them for students in certain age ranges, such as 17 to 24.

Banks often waive monthly fees for these accounts as long as the student meets the qualifying transactions, such as having a certain number of debit transactions per month or setting up online bill pay.

Once the checking account is open, students need to keep close track of their balances to avoid overdraft fees, which can be high.

2. Do you prefer branch banking or internet banking?

Whether you decide to open a checking account at a traditional brick-and-mortar bank or go with an online-only bank depends on your needs, preferences and your comfort level.

If you have a smartphone or computer and are comfortable doing all your banking online, there are plenty of solid virtual banks to consider. Online-only banks tend to have lower account fees and pay higher yields because they don’t have branches to maintain. They’re time-savers, too, because you can take care of all your banking needs wherever you are, as long as you have a secure internet connection.

But if you deal with cash, prefer doing business face to face or want a one-stop shop where you can get other bank products, such as a mortgage or personal loan, a checking account at a brick-and-mortar bank is a better choice. Also, many big traditional banks support sophisticated tools for online and mobile banking, offering the advantages of both digital and brick-and-mortar banking.

Check-writing is another consideration. If you need to write a lot of checks, a traditional bank might be a better fit. But don’t rule out digital banks. Your first checkbook is free with Capital One’s 360 Checking, for example; and online-only challenger bank Chime will send payment checks for you.

3. Do you maintain a higher balance in your checking account?

If you keep a couple thousand dollars or more in your checking account, you might consider opening a high-yield checking account. Credit unions, community banks and online banks are more likely to offer interest-bearing checking accounts than traditional banks.

In order to qualify for the highest APY, you may have to:

Maintain a minimum balance
Use your debit card 10 to 15 times a month
Set up a recurring direct deposit
4. Do you use overdraft protection or out-of-network ATMs?

If you tend to overdraw your checking account or use ATMs that are not in your bank’s network, it’s especially important for you to shop around for a free checking account or one that offers low fees.

Overdraft fees and out-of-network (or foreign) ATM fees tend to be high and can add up quickly.

Free checking accounts are harder to find, but they are available. Bankrate’s 2019 checking survey found 42 percent of non-interest checking accounts are free, with no monthly maintenance fees.

If you need to get rid of overdraft or ATM fees, check out challenger banks, like Chime or Varo. These banks often have lower fees or no fees, which can help you stay on budget. And like traditional banks, they are federally insured to protect your deposits either by partnering with a bank or by being a bank.

5. Do you want a smartphone app to manage your account and monitor spending?

If you need to control your spending or manage your kid’s college spending, select a checking account at a bank that offers a well-reviewed app. Numerous mobile bank apps not only track your spending, but they can help you set up a budget, move money to savings, get account alerts and more.

Visit the app store for your particular smartphone and look at apps offered by brick-and-mortar banks and credit unions, as well as fintech companies such as Chime, Varo or Current. You should also read customer reviews of apps.

Some people like to limit their spending by using a prepaid card, but many prepaid cards come with costly fees. A standard checking account that’s free or has a low or waived monthly fee is a better bet. Some apps also let you set card controls to limit your spending.

6. Has a bank ever closed your checking account?

If a bank has ever closed your checking account for chronic mismanagement (overdrafts, bounced checks, fraud or ID theft, unpaid balances, etc.), second-chance checking accounts can help you get back into the banking system — though you’ll likely have to pay higher fees or maintain a minimum balance.

Second-chance checking accounts can help you regain your financial footing. Many banks and credit unions bump you up to a regular checking account after one year of good behavior. Still, consumers can get socked with high monthly fees and strict requirements, such as direct deposit or high minimum balances.

7. Do you want a rewards checking account?

Do you use your debit card a lot? A checking account that rewards certain activities might be the best fit for you.

Some banks offer an interest-rate bonus for maintaining a higher balance, using a debit card frequently, setting up direct deposit or other services. For example, at challenger bank Current, using your debit card at select merchants earns you points that can be redeemed for cash. Discover’s Cashback Debit account gives you cash back on eligible purchases.

But if you don’t use services that will earn rewards, steer clear of rewards accounts and look for a standard checking account that’s free or has a low monthly maintenance fee. Then you could earn extra interest by opening a CD account.

Bottom line

It’s smart to shop around and compare checking accounts from different banks and credit unions before you choose one to open.

Before making a selection, think about your banking needs, habits and preferences and your comfort level with digital banking versus branch banking.

There are many checking account options. Bankrate’s bank reviews can help you make the right choice.

Learn more:
Best banks and credit unions for mobile banking
The best banks for checking accounts
Reward checking accounts: What are they and who should get them?

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