Banking is complicated. There are thousands of banks, and once you select one, disclosures and fine print can confuse even the most experienced consumer. And then there’s the rates and fees — which come in more permutations than Starbucks lattes.
That’s why we compiled these tips and tricks to help you bank smarter — so you can earn more money and save time.
1. Re-evaluate your bank
The average U.S. adult has had the same primary checking account for around 16 years, according to a 2017 survey conducted for Bankrate and Money. A lot has changed over that time – from new players in the industry to technological advances.
Yet, the J.D. Power 2019 U.S. Retail Banking Satisfaction Study recently found that only 4 percent of customers switched banks in the past year.
“Just don’t fall asleep at the switch,” says Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate chief financial analyst. “The marketplace is constantly changing with new offers, innovative products and features that might put more money in your pocket or make your life easier. Or both. So it pays to have your antenna up and be on the lookout for something that is a better deal or works better for your financial lifestyle.”
Take a close look at the fees you’re paying and whether you can avoid them. If your bank requires a lofty minimum balance, for example, see if there are online checking accounts that have lower minimums to sidestep maintenance fees. These banks may even offer you a certain number of fee-free ATM withdrawals, plus large ATM networks convenient to where you live or work.
(See Bankrate’s best banks of 2019 to find the right bank for you.)
2. Don’t assume your bank is giving you the best rate
You may really like your bank. But while they appreciate you as a customer, that doesn’t necessarily translate into earning a competitive annual percentage yield (APY) from them.
“Part of it is people just assume that their bank is going to do, I’ll say, ‘right by them’ so to speak and give them what they should be getting,” says Elizabeth Buffardi, a certified financial planner at Crescendo Financial Planners in Oak Brook, Illinois.
In July, the Federal Reserve cut rates for the first time in a decade. Some CDs started to decline in late March or early April when the Fed’s projections indicated there wouldn’t be further rate increases in 2019.
Now, another Fed rate cut is projected during its Sept. 17-18 meeting. If this happens, savings account and money market account rates are likely to decrease. If you feel there will be further rate decreases, CDs usually provide you with a fixed APY during the term.
(Compare rates on CDs to find the right one for you.)
3. Don’t let a high rate fool you
Check the fine print to see how long the rate you’re being offered will last. A promotional or introductory rate may be competitive, but could only last for a few months or a year. After that is when you must be vigilant – especially if the APY following the initial period is significantly different.
APY includes the effect of compounding during a 365-day period. Be sure to compare interest rates and APYs when shopping for savings accounts and money market accounts. If the rate is a little lower than the APY, that generally means the bank is offering a consistent standard APY, though most savings and money market accounts are variable.
If you see the opposite – where the interest rate is drastically higher than the APY, that means you’re likely looking at a promotional rate that’s in effect for less than a year.
Promotional rates may be fixed for a certain amount of time, unlike typical APYs. But it’s important to choose a bank with a consistently competitive APY. Unless you like switching banks, which you may have to do if the APY outside of the promotional period isn’t competitive.
4. Strategically plan your bank interactions
As long as it’s not something urgent, try to plan your visit to a branch. If you’re going there for a mortgage, make sure that a mortgage specialist will be there when you go. Calling ahead and making an appointment – if the bank allows it – might save you time and help make it a better experience. These days, many transactions can be done online. So check to see if this is a time-saving option.
Also, when calling a bank’s customer service phone number for routine matters, try during off-peak hours. This could be late at night or early in the morning – before the typical nine-to-five day starts. This may reduce the wait time.
5. Communicate if you plan to close an account
Don’t assume that your bank account will automatically close if you zero out the balance. If you’re closing an account, contact the bank to see how this can be taken care of. Also, compile your automatic monthly bills pays – if applicable – and get them moved over to the new account before closing the old one. The same applies if you receive Social Security or a pension. Get these moved over to your new bank account before closing out the old one.
Overdraft charges and maintenance fees may be incurred if you don’t notify your bank to close your account. An automatic bill payment can cause an overdraft and this negative balance can trigger a maintenance fee. If this debt isn’t paid in a certain period, the account may be charged off. This can hurt your credit and make it harder to open future accounts.
6. Utilize a CD for a fixed APY
Savings accounts and money market accounts can help you earn a yield around 1.8 percent APY. But a 2-year CD may make sense if you have longer-term money that you want to grow and won’t be withdrawing soon.
A 2 percent APY on a 2-year CD should be attainable. However, there isn’t much upside to longer-maturity CDs since 1-year CDs and 5-year CDs have similar APYs.
Especially in a decreasing rate environment, a CD can help protect you from rate decreases in savings and money market accounts. Savings and money market account rates are usually variable.
But a CD might have a higher minimum balance requirement than a savings account. Also, if you withdraw the money before the end of the CD term you may incur an early withdrawal penalty, which may take a bite out of any interest that you earned. If in doubt, put your money in a liquid account – such as a savings or money market account instead.
7. Closing a savings or money market account too soon could cost you
While savings accounts and money market accounts have certain withdrawal limitations – under Regulation D you can only make six withdrawals or transfers per month – you generally are able to withdraw from them.
Some withdrawals, such as from a branch and ATM, don’t count against this limit. But those types of savings deposit accounts may have early closeout fees. Generally, if these exist, they’re only triggered if you close the savings or money market account during the first six months. Some checking accounts may also have this fee.
8. Get the best of both worlds to maximize your APY
In 2019, having a brick-and-mortar bank is still relevant for certain banking transactions. For instance, a large cash withdrawal or deposit may need to be done in a branch.
If your brick-and-mortar bank isn’t offering a competitive yield on your savings – or if you have money collecting dust in your non-interest-bearing checking account, a high-yield online savings account is the perfect complement to a branch account.
9. Don’t forget about that card you never use
There’s nothing wrong with a credit card or debit card sitting in your wallet unused, assuming the credit card doesn’t have a high annual fee. You may not want to close the former since it could affect your credit utilization ratio – the percentage of credit used compared with the amount of credit available. That could lower your FICO score. It could also lower the length of credit history on your FICO. But some banks will close your credit card if it isn’t used often enough.
When it comes to a debit or ATM card, you simply might not use an ATM as often in today’s society where cash-only transactions aren’t as common and paying with cash or a debit card means missing out on credit card cash back and points. But not using these cards often enough may cause a financial institution to close them. To prevent this, a useful strategy to employ might be setting up an auto insurance payment, a gym membership or some other recurring charge on the card you don’t plan to use often.
If you make a withdrawal or purchase once every couple of months with your debit card, you should be OK. The concern with a debit card closing is that if you have an emergency where you need cash, you won’t be able to withdraw money because the card has been deactivated.
10. The same goes for your bank account
It’s possible that a bank will close your bank account if you aren’t using it often enough or your balance is below a certain amount. A bank may charge a dormant account fee if there isn’t activity during a certain time period. Check with your bank for its policy. But a good rule of thumb is to use your account at least once every couple of months. Keep in mind that small, recurring deposits into a savings account add up over time.
If you think you had a bank account in the past that you lost track of, it may have been sent to your state as abandoned or unclaimed property. An account is escheated – which is the process of a financial institution turning over unclaimed or abandoned property – when it’s inactive for three years in New York, according to the state’s Department of Financial Services. Check with the state you live in, on its official site, for its abandoned property policies. Always give your bank an up-to-date address so it can contact you if your account becomes inactive or dormant.
If your money is sitting in an old account collecting dust, it may be in an outdated account that has a yield that isn’t keeping up with inflation. This money could also be incurring a dormant or inactive fee.
11. Let your bank know when you’re traveling
When on vacation, a declined credit card, debit card or ATM card transaction is the last thing you need. Each bank may have different policies, but you may want to err on the side of caution and let your bank know you’re traveling to avoid having a credit card, debit card or ATM transaction declined.
Your bank may have an option on its app to report this travel info. You may also be able to send a secure message, or just call your bank to relay your travel dates and destinations. Carrying a little emergency cash in your wallet is a traveling strategy to consider, assuming you safeguard this money.
12. Budgeting will help you save
Every time you spend money, it adds up. That’s why budgeting is vital for achieving your savings goals. If you don’t know how much you’re spending, it’s difficult to know how much you have remaining to save.
When creating your budget and analyzing your expenses, you might find recurring payments for services you no longer use. Subscription fees and automated purchases can add up over time, and so can annual fees.
Budgeting apps such as Mint, Simple and YNAB can help automate the process. But, with Mint for instance, you need to trust that the app will safeguard your information since you need to enter your banking log-in information for it to pull your transactions.
If you don’t feel comfortable sharing specific financial transactions, Bankrate’s Home Budget Calculator allows you to input your income and spending. This can be a great way to start saving on a budget.