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There are many choices that we plan and research carefully for, like choosing a car or a house. But how much thought have you put into choosing your bank? If you're like most Americans, you probably didn't think about it at all, but just stuck with the bank you've always had. A recent survey found that the average American has had the same checking account for 16 years.
Obviously it's easiest to keep the account you've had forever and not make new choices. But staying with your bank is also a choice. The average American with a checking account is currently paying $14 per month in fees. Over 16 years, that adds up to $2,688. And for that kind of money, it's worth taking a moment to think about what you should look for in a bank account:
- Convenience - One of the key functions of a bank is to give you access to your money when you want it. A bank with no local branches may be inconvenient, but so is a bank that closes at 4pm, has no online banking, and has few ATMs (and won’t reimburse you for out-of-network ATMs). If it feels like a big effort to access your own money, it may be time for a change.
- Interest Rates - If you only keep a little money in your checking account, you may not mind that the average interest rate at brick-and-mortar banks has fallen to an abysmal 0.04%. But many banks don't offer any better a rate for standard savings accounts. If you're looking for a better annual return, and don't mind not being able to withdraw your money, consider a Certificate of Deposit. Another option is an online savings account; without the overhead of a physical location, online banks can offer much higher interest rates, often in the 1-2% range.
- Fees - While banks profit from lending out money, they have also increasingly been profiting from the high fees they charge their customers. Last year consumers paid a total of $34.3 billion in overdraft fees alone. If your bank doesn't have ubiquitous ATMs, you'll also want to consider their ATM fee for using out-of-network machines. The average ATM fee is now approaching $5, which can add up awfully fast. Many accounts also charge monthly maintenance fees, although some banks will wave these fees if you maintain a minimum balance. A quick conversation at your bank to switch to a no-fee account may save you money without even needing to switch banks.
- Amenities - While no one bank offers everything, it's worth thinking about what amenities are important to you. Online bill pay? 24-hour customer service? Free checks? Shop around to find a bank that suits your needs.
Finally, while most banks are FDIC-insured for up to $250,000 per customer, not all are. It's worth checking to make sure yours is; everything else on this list is irrelevant if they lose all your money.