Are senior checking accounts good deals?

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Discounts and free services are a few of the enticing bonuses frequently handed out with senior checking accounts.

But not all that glitters is truly gold, and that goes for senior checking accounts, too. At banks and credit unions, these accounts can vary widely, may require high balances and dish out freebies that may not suit everyone.

The upshot: Standard basic checking may sometimes be a better deal for seniors, according to a 2012 Pew Charitable Trusts report. The independent nonprofit studied checking accounts at 12 large banks and 12 credit unions, comparing senior checking accounts at those banks that offered them with those institutions’ basic checking accounts. The findings? Simple senior checking accounts were cheaper than standard accounts, but not by much.

There may be better low-fee, low-cost accounts like standard checking being offered, says Susan Weinstock, director of consumer banking at The Pew Charitable Trusts. “So look at all the accounts,” she says.

Sometimes, senior checking accounts may just be a marketing ploy, since financial institutions covet seniors. “They’re likely to have more assets,” says Sally Hurme, project adviser at AARP. “So they’re attractive customers.”

Senior freebies at some banks

Hurme says senior checking accounts can be completely different from bank to bank. At some banks, the minimum age to qualify for a senior account is 65; at others, it’s younger. Even fee discounts and freebies vary widely.

For example, one large U.S. bank offers free checks and discounted safe deposit boxes, along with free checking, to its premium checking accounts holders who are 65 and older.

Freebies such as free checking are an attractive option, says Greg McBride, CFA, chief financial analyst at Bankrate. “Many seniors still write checks,” he says.

If you have stock certificates, car titles and the like, safe deposit boxes are also discounted perks. Also ask for a bump-up in interest rates for deposits, McBride says. “The key is knowing which services you’ll utilize,” he adds.

To get the best senior checking deal, compare one bank’s bundle of benefits to another bank’s, Hurme says. “Know what you’re getting and how much it will cost,” she says. “The package should enhance security and not cost too much.”

Some fees might be waived

Other banks may waive fees, which also vary, on senior checking accounts. The Pew report found that the service fees most likely to be waived are infrequent ones, such as for cashier’s checks or printing out mini-statements at an ATM. Some fee waivers may not even be for services you need, Weinstock says.

To find the best option, look at senior checking accounts with lower monthly fees than standard checking and lower minimum balances to maintain, according to the Pew report. These accounts also include fee waivers for services such as check images and discounted checks.

Seniors can save $48 to $96 per year when signing up for these senior accounts, the Pew report says, as long as seniors meet the account’s conditions. But it is best to compare a bank’s senior checking with basic checking. The best deal might be the latter, Pew says.

One “gotcha” that seniors often face is a high minimum balance requirement needed to waive senior checking fees. For example, at one Minnesota-based bank, you’ll need to meet either a $10,000 minimum balance requirement or transaction minimums, or you’ll get socked with a $9.95 monthly fee.

Choose a bank that’s close to home

However, seniors who get Social Security checks deposited in their account can usually get fee-free checking anyway. “Direct deposits are a good way to get fee waivers,” Weinstock says. “Many banks say that if you have direct deposit of $250 to $500, they’ll waive monthly fees.”

McBride agrees. He advises seniors not to limit checking account options to just senior versions. “Stay away from monthly fee and balance requirements,” he adds.

“Make sure you’re with a bank that’s close to your house and meets your lifestyle, too,” says Ryan Bailey, head of retail deposits at TD Bank.

Hurme says AARP’s research shows that older banking customers are looking for personal service. “A friendly face in the neighborhood branch is more attractive than mobile banking since seniors are hesitant to use technology,” she says.