In the days when our parents opened a checking or savings account at their local bank, savings and loan, or credit union, they used to get toasters, and their kids -- okay, we -- would get lollipops. Nowadays, at some financial institutions, we're lucky if we don't have to pay to get a teller to talk to us.
If you think you're paying more today for banking services and getting less, you're probably right. Instead of full-service banking at one set price, you're much more likely to pick and choose the services you need from an "a la carte" menu. And fees for these services can add up.
But you don't have to be totally at the bank's mercy. To find the best checking account for your money, follow these steps:
Think small. The price spread between the banking behemoths and the little guys can be astounding. "The big banks sell a lot of convenience. They offer a lot of ATMs and branches," says Sara Campbell, senior vice president at Bankrate, an online financial information center. "The smaller banks don't have a branch around every corner, so they provide better prices." That means you have to decide how much convenience you want -- and how much you're willing to pay for it.
Maintain a minimum balance. Some financial institutions will offer you free checking if you don't dip below a certain balance, say $500 or $1,000. That's great if you keep a comfortable cash cushion in your account. But double-check how the minimum balance is calculated. At some institutions, you'll trigger a fee if you dip below the minimum balance for just one day. Look for an account that requires you to maintain an average daily balance, not a daily minimum balance. Also, some banks will waive the minimum balance requirement and any fees if your paycheck is directly deposited into the account.
Don't bounce checks. If you don't have overdraft protection, a single bounced check could cost you up to $60. That includes a financial institution penalty of $20 to $30, and a penalty from the receiving party of an additional $20 to $30. Overdraft protection is a lot cheaper, but still costs $20 to $30 per year. An even better idea is very simple: Keep track of your balance and don't bounce checks.
Buy your own checks. If you don't get free checks, you may be able to save money -- as much as 50 percent -- by not purchasing your checks from the bank. You can get your first box of 200 checks for less than $7 -- and pay even less for additional boxes -- when you order from companies such as Artistic Checks, Checks In The Mail, Checks Unlimited or The Check Gallery. You also get a pretty nifty selection of check designs. Another way you may be able to save money is to let your financial institution keep your canceled checks rather than returning them to you. Many banks now charge for returning checks.
Continued on page 2: How to Save on Savings Accounts