Year-End Review: 9 Questions to Ask to See If Your Bank Is Right for You
There's the household budget, tax strategies, and your benefits at work to be reviewed, of course -- but don't forget about your bank. Banks make money by serving you, but sometimes they do a better job of serving themselves -- at your expense.
Here's a checklist of questions to help you determine the state of your banking needs and whether you might be better off taking your business elsewhere in 2013.
1. Am I using the right kind of bank account? Most of us know about savings accounts and checking accounts, but we don't always think about what they're best for. If you don't need to write checks, for example, consider using a savings account, because it will probably offer a higher interest rate. There are other kinds of accounts, too. If you have a lot of money sitting around, you might want some of it in a money-market account. Money-market accounts typically require a higher minimum balance, but in exchange, they'll pay a higher interest rate. (If you have a lot of money that you won't need for at least five or more years, consider investing in stocks, through a brokerage account.) Certificate of deposit accounts are another option, often offering higher interest rates if you leave your money in them for set periods of time.
If you find that you're paying unnecessary fees -- or ones that seem particularly punitive -- start your search for a better banking fit at your current bank. There may be different kinds of savings and checking accounts, offering different combinations of benefits. (If you maintain a certain minimum balance, for example, you might be able to get free checks, or interest paid within a checking account.) There may even be a no-frills account available, if you're financially strapped. Ask a bank employee if you qualify for some other accounts.
2. Am I paying any unnecessary fees? Another factor to consider is whether you're paying fees that you don't have to pay. In their quest to generate new revenue, some banks have begun charging customers for not using their accounts much, via "inactivity" fees. Look closely at your statements for such fees, and know that you can often take your business elsewhere to avoid being charged such fees. A little chat with your bank might get unwelcome fees waived or reduced, such as fees for bounced checks or for new checks that you order. It doesn't hurt to ask.
Switching banks may improve your fee situation in other ways, too: If you're paying a lot in ATM fees, check to see if another bank has a wider network of machines in your area that you could use without charges.
3. Am I paying more in fees than I need to? Unfortunately, fees are unlikely to ever go away completely. If you're just paying $10 or $20 a month more than you need to at your bank, it might not seem worth the hassle to make the switch. But those fees add up. Do some comparison-shopping. At FindABetterBank.com, I checked out the options for a typical consumer in my town, and found that the estimated annual fees for a handful of local banking options ranged from less than $100 to more than $700.
4. Are my interest rates out of whack? Interest rates can vary widely among banks. Websites such as Bankrate.com can help you zero in on the best deals in your region or nationally for bank accounts, CD rates, mortgage rates, and more. Check available rates on credit cards, too, at sites such as LowCards.com or CardRatings.com.
Also, give some thought to refinancing your mortgage while rates are at historic lows. A seemingly small difference in your interest rate can result in huge costs or savings over the life of the loan.
In a nutshell, though, the FDIC's standard protection is $250,000 per depositor, per insured bank, for each account ownership category. You can look up your bank's protection status with the FDIC's BankFind tool.
6. Does my bank fit my lifestyle? Your bank may not be a good fit for you in lots of ways. Consider its hours, for example. Is it only open when you're at work? Some banks have customer-friendly hours into the evening, and even on weekends. If you like to do your banking in person, does your bank have conveniently located branches? If you travel a lot, you might want to go with a big national bank. Those with no interest in branch banking might find a good fit among banks that are accessible primarily online.
If your life situation has changed recently, it might be time for a bank swap. If you're now married, for example, compare your bank with your spouse's, to see which offers the best combination of rates and services. You might also want to combine some accounts. Doing so may qualify you for accounts that offer special benefits, such as higher interest rates or free checking.
7. Am I fed up with big banks? If so, you're not alone. Steadily rising bank fees caused a tipping point of sorts a year or so ago, when Bank of America (BAC) tried charging its customers $5 per month for using their debit cards. even though it backed off, the attempt, and similar moves by other big banks, led to millions of customers switching to smaller institutions
Many consumers (and small businesses) prefer regional banks. If you do decide to dump your bank, it will take a little work. Be sure to update your direct-deposit arrangements, and any automated bill-paying that you've set up, among other things.
8. Am I fed up with all for-profit banks? If you're feeling fleeced by for-profit banks, whatever their size, consider credit unions. They often offer better interest rates for savings accounts and mortgages, and may offer all the services you need as well.
In the past, some people didn't qualify for membership in a credit union, but it's much easier these days. In many places, you simply have to live in a certain region in order to qualify. The National Credit Union Association can help you find a credit union near you.
9. Am I getting good customer service? Finally, ask yourself whether you're getting good customer service from your bank. If dealing with your bank is always a headache, remember that you can take your business elsewhere. Perhaps stop by a few local alternatives and ask a few departing customers what they think of that bank's service.
Motley Fool contributor Selena Maranjian has no positions in the stocks mentioned above.