Personal Finance 101: An Online Banking Primer

Understanding Online Banking and Finding the Right One for You

Katie writes in:

I was wondering if you could do an article on how to set up an online savings account? I remember you mentioned using them and getting a high return on interest, and I think I’d like to switch my savings account over to one. What kind of benefits/penalties have you come across?

pf101The first thing to look at is what the differences between a “normal” bank and an online bank are.

“Normal” Banks vs. Online Banks

With a normal bank, you have your usual checking and savings accounts. They issue you a checkbook with which to write checks and (usually) an ATM card to access your account. When you need to deposit something into your account, withdraw some cash, or make another transaction, you usually visit a branch location, visit an ATM, or use the bank’s online banking services.

With an online bank, all of the above is (typically) true, except that there is no physical branch location to visit. You conduct all of your business with the account via an ATM or via the online banking service.

What do you get in return for a lack of a physical branch to visit? You usually get a better interest rate than you would at a brick-and-mortar bank. You also usually get a very good online banking system and online bill pay service. Most online-only banks usually have minimal fees – no maintenance fees or other things like that. Typically, you get top-notch phone-based and internet-based customer service, too.

For a lot of people, that’s a trade they’re happy to make. The loss of a physical bank can be a big change, but the other benefits of the account make up for that.

How to Distinguish Between Online Banks

There are several things I look at when considering whether to use an online bank.

1. Are the rates offered at least reasonably competitive?

Banks change their exact interest rates all the time, so I don’t view it as a requirement that an online bank have the best interest rate in the land on a certain given day. However, the rate should be within a percentage point of that. I usually use when researching banks.

2. Is it FDIC insured?

I look for the FDIC logo when I visit the website. I usually also follow up at the FDIC website using their bank search to make sure that the bank is registered with the FDIC. The FDIC is essentially insurance for your savings and checking (and CDs) that guarantees up to $250,000 of your account in the event of a bank failure.

3. Is it well-reviewed?

Search Google for online bank reviews, particularly reviews of the banks you’re interested in. Get a diversity of opinions; don’t just rely on the first one you see. Here is a good place to start weighing your options.

4. Does it offer all of the services you need?

Do you need to have a paper checkbook or will online bill pay and an ATM meet all your needs? Do you need a very wide ATM network? Do you need easy access from your cell phone? Do you need Quicken compatibility? Do you have any other particular needs with regards to the account? Know what exactly you need with regards to the account and keep those needs in mind as you look at a few banks.

What do you do once you decide on a bank?

Once you decide on a bank, open the new account, but don’t close the old account. Transition slowly in order to ensure that you didn’t forget about any automatic payments or anything else like that. You may even choose to leave the account at your old bank open, particularly if it does not have any annual fees or maintenance fees, because of the convenience of the local branch.

Funding your new account is done electronically. You simply request a transfer using your new bank’s online banking system and the money moves automatically.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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