With Banks Courting Customers, You Can Try Before You Buy

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People who can't sample ice cream without buying a sundae might have a difficult time taking advantage of banking freebies. But if you have the discipline to stick to your financial plan in the face of a high-pressure sales pitch, then bank-sponsored seminars, consultations, and webinars offer a perfect learning opportunity.

Banks offer these informational events as a way to introduce potential customers to their services. And while the intent is obvious, you can glean a lot of good information on everything from buying a home to paying for college to planning for retirement -- all while scoping out service providers.

Try Before You Buy

Many banks, large and small, want current and prospective customers to understand the full range of products they offer, and see consultations as a means of finding the right fit.

The idea isn't a new one, but with as big banks struggle to appear more customer-friendly in the wake of years of banking scandals, those marketing pitches are coming with a softer side that includes personal consultations, for customers and non-customers alike.

And if gaining financial information has never been easier, making sense of it has never been tougher. What is the full cost of a service? What fees are involved? What does the fine print really mean? This is your chance to get those answers before you commit to becoming a customer.

Richele Messick of Wells Fargo says there's only so much the Internet can do: "There's no replacement for sitting down with a banker and having that conversation [about] 'What do I think I have together and what do I not?'"

Smaller, Friendlier Banking

Many credit unions consider increasing financial literacy to be one of their core missions and, like the State Department Federal Credit Union in the metro D.C. area, offer classes in everything from home-buying to financial planning to saving for college.

But some take their outreach a step further. Bay Federal Credit Union in California, for example, offers a comprehensive suite of financial literacy programs for kids, teens, adults and teachers. And it's hardly the only one. Credit unions across the country frequently offer similar seminars, often without the hard sell of larger, for-profit banks. And because many credit unions link into networks, a member of one can often take advantage of learning opportunities at another.

Get the Most Out of Your Scouting Trip

Before you attend a seminar or one-on-one consultation, think about what you ultimately want from the service provider.

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People who wait until all their paperwork is in order to schedule a review might be missing out, says Wells Fargo's Messick. "We have people who come in like they're going to their tax adviser: 'Here's my portfolio, statements, here's where I have all my accounts, here's my five-year plans,' " she says.

But even if you don't have your color-coded files ready for a financial pro to review, you can still get some valuable information by attending a seminar. "We don't want people to be frightened away, or think they need to overly prepare," she says. Simply starting the process of learning more is a step in the right direction.

Have a Plan to Avoid Committing

People worried about getting talked into products that might not be a right fit or before they've had time to consider all their options can avoid getting roped in.

Use competition to its fullest advantage; shopping around for rates and features offers the same leverage with banking products as it does with any major purchase such as a car or a home. The days of getting a toaster with a new checking account may be long gone, but every fraction of a point in interest rate matters.

Ultimately, some banks may just not offer the products you need, and in that case, it's OK to walk away. The exercise is certainly worth it if you learn something -- even if it's only that you need to continue to shop around for the right financial fit.