checking

Bank-shopping? Here's how to choose

A desk with coffee and a check book
Highlights
  • Ask about ATMs: Are they are part of a network or will you pay fees?
  • Find out what other fees the institution charges for services you want.
  • If you travel, ask if your bank will travel with you.

Sheila McKean of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago has advice for those looking to choose a bank: Think of it as if you're looking for love, she says; don't just settle for the first one that comes along.

Instead, ask questions about what services a bank offers. Consider whether your lifestyle matches what an institution provides. Don't allow yourself to be swayed by gifts or free checking accounts.

"The first thing as a consumer you really need to figure out is what you want from a bank," says Katie Ross, education and development manager for American Consumer Credit Counseling outside Boston. "Most people don't do that."

This is a guide to selecting the right place to store your cash.

Know what you want

Ask yourself questions first, Ross says. Do you just want a checking account? Or a savings account, too? Do you want to use one bank for all your needs, including a mortgage, home equity line, car loan and other products? Are there discounts if you use the same bank for multiple services? Or are you willing to spread out your business?

Figure out whether you even know what services you should be looking for, McKean says.

"Do an honest assessment of whether you know how to deal with a bank. If you don't know how to keep track of a savings account or balance your check book, consider going with an institution that's education-friendly," she says.

"When you're talking to several different institutions, ask 'Can you make time to explain this to me?' and 'Do you offer seminars or training?'"

Keep in mind that depending on where you live, your access to financial institutions will be different.

Consider your convenience

"Think about how you like to do your banking," Ross says. "What kind of shift do you work? Is the bank going to be open?"

Visit the institutions you are considering in person and see how long it takes for someone to see you.

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Does the bank offer online services that allow you to keep up with your account and pay your bills? If you are comfortable making all transactions online, on the phone and at ATMs, don't forget to consider online-only banks, Ross says.

In addition to researching bank hours and locations, Ross says to ask where their ATMs are located and if they are part of a network of machines that won't cost you a mint in fees over time.

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