Would you accept $200 to sign up for a checking account?

A bank just upped the ante to get your business. Last year, as we wrote about on WalletPop, banks were routinely giving out $100 in cold, hard cash to any customer willing to sign up for a bank account. Now SmartMoney.com is reporting that Capital One just began advertising that it will give $200 to anyone who opens a Rewards Checking account between now and February 28, 2010 -- that is, anyone living in New York, New Jersey, Texas and Louisiana, where the Rewards Checking account is available.

Other banks are making cash offers as well, with JP Morgan Chase offering $125 to anyone opening a checking account by January 15, 2010, and Bank of America willing to pay $100 to new checking account customers through February 28.

So this begs the question: Should you take advantage of these offers? For the most part, no. Absolutely not. Look at the offer, nod and walk on by.

I learned this the hard way. A few years ago, I signed up with a bank branch at our local grocery store. I truly wanted to find a new bank, and since they were offering $75 in groceries and we were in a tight spot financially, I was all too thrilled to have some grocery money. So instead of looking around to check out a few more banks and doing a little comparison bank shopping, I signed right up.

But as I quickly found out, the free groceries weren't available right away. I think at least two weeks went by before they made good on their offer, a delay that nobody explained to me when I mentioned the offer and said that I wanted to sign up. I can't quite remember exactly how it worked once we were finally eligible, but I think we had to buy the groceries, show the bank our receipt, and the $75 was credited back into our account. It was a good deal, and I'm not complaining -- I'm just saying that if getting the $75 in groceries had been a matter of life and death, my family and I would have starved.

So, sure, the offers are nice, and if you need a new bank account and you like everything else about the bank and you're 100% sure you'd be signing up for the account with or without the reward, then, of course, sign up and enjoy the cash or whatever else it is the bank is offering.

But if you're on the fence, or solely signing up to take advantage of the cash, I wouldn't. Sure, you're probably thinking that you'll keep your account at your old bank and just sign up and get the money but never use the new account. But usually these offers require you to direct deposit your paycheck, or make several purchases with a debit card, or some other red tape activity, before the cash offer kicks in. Understandably, the bank wants to give money to a real customer -- and not fork it over to someone just hoping to make a little extra cash. So be sure to read the fine print before you sign on the dotted line in exchange for that Benjamin.

I can also tell you that my bank made back that $75 they gave me--and then some--a long, long time ago. In fact, I'll bet not even a month or two went by after we had signed up before I made some boneheaded error with my checking account, and we went into overdraft by a hundred dollars or so, completely wiping out the gains we made with the grocery money. Remember, the banks may want to give you cash, but only because you're their cash cow.

Geoff Williams is a regular at WalletPop and co-author of the new book Living Well with Bad Credit.

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