Want to open a checking account? There is a dizzying array of options from which to choose.
Sorting through bank and checking account options can be daunting and confusing. Some accounts charge monthly maintenance fees, while others limit check writing. One account may offer free overdraft protection, while another dangles the promise of free checks.
When choosing a checking account, consider your banking habits and preferences and try to match them with an account’s features, financial experts say.
“Keep in mind how you tend to manage your money,” says Todd Barnhart, senior vice president of retail banking at Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group, operator of PNC Bank.
Selecting a bank
Before choosing a specific type of checking account, you’ll need to select a bank. It’s important to think about your lifestyle when making this choice.
For example, Adam Isler, client services director with PNT Marketing Services in New York, says convenience of access to the bank’s branches or ATMs is an important feature to consider.
If you travel frequently outside your hometown for work or leisure, it may be essential to open a checking account at a bank with an extensive ATM network you can tap both within and outside your hometown.
Mike McGervey, a Certified Financial Planner and president of McGervey Wealth Management in Canton, Ohio, says it could be valuable to have your checking account with a bank that has ATM partnerships with retailers or gas stations. This will give you more places to make no-fee withdrawals.
“Little things like that can go a long way, whether you have much money or not,” say McGervey.
Choosing an account
Once you’ve narrowed your options down to a few banks, consider the checking account options these prospective banks offer. Match the account options against a list of features most important to you.
This process may be especially daunting for some customers. A surprising percentage of people lack basic skills to maintain a checking account, says Ryan Pinney, a Chartered Senior Financial Planner in Roseville, Calif., with Pinney Insurance, a financial services and insurance brokerage.
As part of the FDIC’s “Money Smart” national financial education program, Pinney teaches adults and high school youths how to pick a checking account and properly manage it.
“You have to understand how to balance a checking ledger,” Pinney says. “You have to know how much is going in and coming out so you don’t bounce a check.”
Once you’re up to speed on checking account basics, zero in on the right type of account. It might help to ask yourself certain questions, such as:
- Do I want to walk into a branch for service or do I prefer to handle my checking account and bill paying online?
- Do I travel enough to require ATMs spread across the state or several states?
- Will I actively manage my account?
- Do I want to have my paycheck deposited directly into the checking account?
“Keep in mind how you tend to manage your money,” Barnhart says.
For example, people who are less organized might place a higher premium on overdraft protection.
“If you are in danger of overdrafting your account on a consistent basis, it’s smart to consider an account that offers overdraft protection options,” Barnhart says.
Getting free services
Once you’ve found a bank with the right checking account options, determine how much the bank will charge you for the account you want.
Your goal should be to try to get the checking account free of monthly maintenance fees and surcharges. The banking climate is extremely competitive, and that can work in your favor, Isler says.
There are many ways to nab a free account. One common way to get a free checking account is to have your paycheck directly deposited into the account.
Customers who sign up for direct deposit signal that they intend to become a loyal customer with consistent deposits and several monthly bill-pay transactions, Isler says.
Other ways to secure free checking include agreeing to keep a minimum balance in the account, or agreeing to open a companion savings account, money market account or a certificate of deposit at the same bank.
“If you have enough money on deposit in the bank, you can probably have a free checking account at many banks,” Isler says.
From the customer’s perspective, Pinney says it all comes down to: “How much are you willing to pay for the ability to write checks and access your money?”