Banking is a relationship, and its breakups are as logistically difficult as any other.
Consumers may not feel emotionally connected to their banks, but they are tied to financial institutions in other ways that can make it hard to walk away. For more than a decade, I’ve been in just such a banking relationship with Bank of America, and I’m finding it far easier to stay than to go.
Back in 2007, I moved to Boston and discovered that Bank of America was basically everywhere I looked. It had acquired local bank FleetBoston just three years earlier and had outposts all over the city. There was one near my apartment, a Bank of America ATM at my subway station, a branch near my job, a branch near my next job, and a branch just down the street from the apartment I later moved into with my wife.
It was incredibly convenient for me to stop in and withdraw cash from ATMs without fees, deposit checks when a direct-deposit option wasn’t available, and to simply hand them bags of change I’d been collecting for the better part of the prior two decades (it was a different time, clearly). In the meantime, I used my account to automatically pay my phone and credit card bills, as well as other utilities.
In 2007, I moved across country to Portland, Ore., and found that Bank of America hadn’t exactly moved with me. There were locations here, sure, but they weren’t as abundant as, say, U.S. Bank or Wells Fargo (which has a large white tower downtown) or the myriad smaller banks and credit unions. However, we lived close to the Portland State University campus at the time, and there was a location close enough to make me think twice about switching.
It was only after my wife an I bought our farmhouse in unincorporated Washington County, Oregon, that things became complicated. The nearest Bank of America branch, in the town directly to our south, closed within a few months of us moving in – forcing me to upgrade from my cheap, dumb keyboard phone to a smartphone just to deposit checks. By that time, all of my direct deposits, mortgage payments, auto lease payment, and utility payments were tied into that account.
While there’s no real need for me to go to a location anymore, Bank of America made changes to my account last year that tacked on some considerable fees. While I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid the $12 monthly fee for not making direct deposits or having a monthly account balance under $1,500, the dearth of Bank of America ATMs in my area means I’m charged $2.50 by Bank of America each time I use an outside ATM. That doesn’t even count the fee charged by the ATM’s operator.
There are independent banks and credit unions closer to home that won’t charge me ATM fees, and online banks that reimburse such charges. But after more than a decade of wrapping my life into this account, how could I get out?
The answer? Not easily.
Bank of America requires customers who want to close an account to visit one of their financial centers. If it was too far for me to use its ATMs or deposit checks, it doesn’t get closer when you have to spend an afternoon explaining to a staffer why you want to quit the bank. My other options are to either call Bank of America (800-432-1000) or mail them a request in writing. (Bank of America, FL1-300-01-29, PO Box 25118, Tampa, FL 33622-5118). Closing an account online isn’t an option.
However, as Consumer Reports points out, closing your account really shouldn’t be the first step toward breaking up with your bank anyway. The consumer watchdog suggests opening a new account at a bank, credit union, online bank, or smaller regional or community bank first, without closing your existing account. Online banks don’t require any mail or face time, but the others may require 30 minutes to an hour of your time and a $50 minimum deposit or less to get the ball rolling.
Consumer Reports notes that online banks like Ally and Synchrony tend to reward customers with higher interest rates, but smaller, regional financial institutions tend to rate better overall for customer service, teller wait times, website and mobile app use, and convenience of hours and locations. Consider that CR’s highest-rated banks were First Republic in San Francisco, Frost Bank in San Antonio, First National Bank of Omaha, and Third Federal in Cleveland. This doesn’t mean that all of the above are better picks than big banks – Chase’s ATM and branch network, mobile and online services, and financial advice also scored well – but it does give consumers a lot to consider.
Once you’ve made that switch, contact your employer (or, in my case, employers) and change the direct deposit of your paycheck to go into the new account. As a freelancer, this has been one of the more daunting obstacles to switching banks, given how many employers and human resources departments are involved. While it’s easier to open a new account by transferring money in from an existing account, direct deposit (as we saw with Bank of America) often makes you eligible for free checking.
Another key hurdle involves stopping your automatic bill payments. If you’re simply making those payments through a bank’s online bill-pay feature, that’s going to be easy enough to stop and switch. However, if you’ve simply allowed a utility, credit card issuer, or mortgage holder to pull payments from your account – as I did in several cases – you’re going to have to contact each company and find out how to both stop the automatic payment and set up new ones. That also means you’re going to have to keep your old account open until you can sort everything out, to make sure you don’t miss any payments.
Meanwhile, undo some of the mistakes you made with your old account. Look into online bill pay options, mobile banking, money transfers, and alerts. Once all of your payments and direct deposits are switched over, it’s time to close your old account. In my case, that would involve asking Bank of America for written confirmation that the account is closed and determining how to transfer any remaining balance out of the account. That will likely come in the form of a check, as Bank of America limits just how much customers can transfer in a day.
I’ll admit, none of the above hassles makes me more keen to start the process. I’ve had this account through multiple changes in banking technology, and many of the features that would’ve made it easier for me to switch accounts just didn’t exist at the time I needed them. However, now that I know what lies ahead, it should be easier for me to open an account I’m more comfortable with and start the transfer process.
It may be a long, drawn-out breakup, but acknowledging there’s a problem and finding a way out of it is better than staying in an unhealthy banking relationship.