What Features Are Most Important For Your Primary Bank? My Thoughts and Recommendations

Midland Bank, City of London by stevecadman on Flickr!As most longtime readers know, I’m a very happy customer of ING Direct for both my primary checking account and my primary savings account.

Before I joined ING Direct, though, my primary bank was one of the largest banks in the United States, one that had a branch in the town where I attended college (I won’t name them because of libel concerns, but I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of them). I stuck with them for a long time simply out of habit – the status quo bias at work – but when I started to get my financial life in order, I began to seriously look at the ways that my bank was costing me money:
+ My checking account didn’t earn any interest at all. Just before I moved, they made a big deal about rolling out a 0.25% APY interest rate for the account.
+ The account also had a rather high minimum balance – $300, according to my notes. If you went below that minimum balance at any point during the month, you were dinged with a fee – $2.95 a month, if I recall correctly.
+ They also charged a monthly maintenance fee for a pretty standard online banking service. This fee was $7.95 a month.
+ The savings account offered only a 0.50% APY.
+ While there were a lot of ATMs in town that were fee-free, if you were in a town that didn’t happen to have a bank branch, you got dinged hard with an ATM fee.

These “features” added up to a pretty major money leak, so I went hunting for a new bank. I identified some features I found important (a decent interest rate, free online banking, no fee nightmares) and eventually wound up with ING Direct as my primary bank. Later, I found other features that would be useful (good customer service, a local teller window, etc.) that ING did well in some respects and not so well in others, but they’re still strong enough (and have treated me well enough) that I’m very happy as a customer.

In short, here are the factors I would look for when choosing a primary bank for my personal business, ranked in their order of personal importance. Please, in the comments, if you disagree with the ordering here, let me know why. Quite often, the importance of certain features varies depending on your life situation and experiences.

No (or very low) fees Before I switched to a bank, I’d want to know every fee that I’m going to incur during normal usage of the account. Maintenance fees are an absolute no-no, as they’ll eat all interest I might earn. I also demand a huge network of ATMs that are fee-free, especially in my local area, but also availability nationwide. This is make or break for me – if I get dinged with a fee or two a month, it eats up any interest I might earn and likely also costs me, too.

Some common fees to look for (and avoid) include minimum balance fees, ATM fees, regular maintenance fees, fees for online banking, and excessive overdraft policies. Make sure you know about these fees before you commit to any bank with your account.

Free online banking and bill pay Online banking and bill pay are essential, and the services should be free, too. The ability to pay my bills just by typing in the amount and hitting “submit” not only saves on the cost of stamps, but makes money management easier, too.

Customer service and ease of use Some people tend to pooh-pooh the value of good customer service at a bank. Those who do are ones who have never had a crisis where funds were misdirected by another agency or a similar mess. In those situations, good customer service is worth its weight in gold. For me, I must be able to talk to someone during normal, reasonable business hours. 24 hour customer support is a definite perk, as is the availability of a local teller window.

For day to day use, a bank that’s easy to access at all times without a bunch of hoops to jump through and a clear and easy to use interface makes all the difference. If you use your bank twice a week and a well-designed online banking interface saves you two minutes per session, that’s a savings of three and a half hours over the course of a year.

Generally, this is fairly hard to research when it comes to a bank, as most people generally just complain when service is bad but don’t say much when it’s good. Do some Google searching about the bank’s customer service (like “ING Direct customer service”) and see what you find out.

FDIC insurance This is almost a gimme for any bank in the United States, but it’s still important, and it can be vital if your bank fails, as with the recent trouble with IndyMac. Just make sure that your account is FDIC insured before putting your money in.

Interest rates Almost every article I read online seems to greatly overvalue interest rates, even claiming that one bank is better than another one because of a 0.5% APY difference. In my view, that’s nonsense. Look at it this way: 0.5% of $2,000 is $10. You can easily lose that much to fees in a month. Not having online bill pay can cost you that much in stamps. Poor customer service can cause all sorts of penalties and delays. In my view, all of those are far more valuable than a slight difference in interest rates. A competitive interest rate is required, but once you have that, the minor rate differences are trivial, especially when you consider how often banks alter their interest rates for promotions and in response to Federal Reserve moves. What’s competitive? As of this writing, you should be receiving at least 1% on your checking and at least 3% on your savings. If you’re not clearing that much, then interest is a problem.

A paper checkbook This is actually less important than you might think. I was very hesitant to switch to a bank that didn’t offer paper checkbooks and, for a long time, I held onto my old checking account just to keep paper checks around. What I eventually found was that I simply didn’t use them very much in the presence of online bill pay. I paid most local bills with cash or with credit cards and used online bill pay for everything else. In fact, after going for several months without writing a check at all, I’m about to close that account.

Putting This to Use
The choice of a bank can seem trivial to some, but it’s a surprisingly important choice. From my own personal experience, switching to a better bank saved me about $40 a month in improved interest and reduced fees – that’s $480 a year. Spending an hour or two now to find a better bank – especially if any of the factors above set off warning bells for you about your current bank – will definitely pay off over the long run.

Use the above checklist of features as a starting point. Decide for yourself which features matter the most to you and focus on them. Use Google to find information about the banks you might be interested in – and stick with reputable banks.

My Personal Experiences
I use ING Direct as my primary bank, but I dabbled with other banks for a period of time in order to try them out. Here are notes on my other experiences.

HSBC Direct I signed up with HSBC Direct simply because their interest rate was higher than ING Direct (it usually runs about 0.3% higher than ING) and I was looking for a savings account to sock away my emergency fund. While it worked well as a place to simply drop cash and leave it, the interface was too clunky to serve as my regular online bank. I had repeated difficulties logging on (their system requires you to use a keyboard-like interface with your mouse that has some compatibility issues) and also had a very difficult time initiating and stopping regular balance transfers. It’s a solid place to set up an emergency fund or a savings account for a specific goal, but it’s frustrating to use as a regular bank.

Washington Mutual had the best competition for ING Direct in my experience, offering a consistently higher interest rate on the savings accounts (as much as 0.75% higher than ING), strong customer service, and free paper checks for life. However, their checking account offered no interest rate at all. If I were to carefully manage the account, I could juggle my way around that, but for me, it wasn’t worth the effort, so I’ve just left the account idle. I have considered using it as an emergency fund, however, but as of yet I’ve stuck with the convenience of multiple savings accounts at ING.

My local bank blows away the others on customer service. I can talk to a teller during normal business hours and get services like cashing in change for free, free and immediate check cashing, and immediate resolution on banking issues (I don’t use this bank personally, but am involved with community organizations that do). Unfortunately, their rates are simply not competitive with some of the online offerings. I have considered opening a checking account there anyway just for the convenience of check cashing and change redemption.

Whatever you choose, choose wisely and carefully and do your own research. A poor banking choice can be a constant small drain on your personal finances, while a good bank can not only patch the leaky holes, but provide good service and drop some additional money in your pocket as well.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.