Look for free checking


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It’s great to get interest on your checking account balance, but the trade-off can be awful. Interest-bearing checking accounts at brick-and-mortar banks traditionally require hefty minimum balances if you want to earn the interest, and an even higher balance if you want to avoid a hefty monthly service fee. Pay just one of those fees in a year and it will probably wipe out the interest earned for that year, because the rates on these accounts are typically miniscule.

Noninterest checking accounts are the best bet for most people. They usually require a low minimum deposit to open the account, and a low minimum to avoid monthly service fees.

The average balance required to open an interest-bearing account and earn interest is $376.75. The average interest paid on these accounts is 0.24 percent, down from 0.32 percent a year ago. But if you’d like to avoid monthly fees, you’ll need to maintain an average balance of $3,461.84, a stunning amount and an increase of approximately 4 percent over last year. If you maintain that balance, you’re basically giving your bank a line of credit for that amount at your expense. That monthly fee, by the way, is $11.97, up from $11.72 last year.

Average balance requirement (interest)

Noninterest accounts, on the other hand, are a demonstrably better deal.

The average minimum required to open a noninterest account is $82.71. This amount has risen over the years but, at least for now, is actually down from the $83.02 required last year. The minimum balance you need to maintain to avoid fees averages $109.26, down considerably from last year’s $155.49. This fee has steadily declined over time. Ten years ago it was $483.75. If you fail to maintain the minimum, at least you’ll pay a smaller monthly fee than ever before. The average monthly service fee is $1.93. This is another one that’s been shrinking over the years.

Average balance requirement (noninterest)

Look for banks that offer free checking accounts. You may have to pony up a small amount to open the account, but you won’t have to maintain a balance and there are no monthly service fees. Some banks require a monthly direct deposit such as a paycheck or government check, or some may require a certain number of debit card transactions per statement cycle — small trade-offs for a great service.

Methodology: Bankrate.com surveyed one interest checking account and one noninterest checking account at the largest banks and thrifts in each of 25 large markets to find the latest trends on checking account and ATM fees. There were 247 interest accounts and 226 noninterest accounts surveyed at 249 banks and thrifts in the top 25 metropolitan areas.

Bankrate.com also looked at 22 checking accounts at 18 institutions offering online accounts and compared them to their brick-and-mortar counterparts.