Which bank offers the best deal on checking accounts?

How to be the best consumer you can be.
March 31 2009 11:43 AM

Battle of the Banks

Which checking account is best?

(Continued from Page 1)

I pressed on, only to find numerous service charges. For a basic checking account, Apple slaps you with a $3 monthly maintenance fee regardless of your balance and permits only 8 free withdrawals per month. Even S. shrugged when I asked her why I ought to switch to Apple. She admitted that the ATMs were few and far between (and nonexistent outside the New York City area) but added sullenly that customer service was great.

As I got up to go, astonished that such an institution could possibly flourish, S.'s parting line reminded me why it does: "We are a good bank, a solid bank, no subprimes."

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E-Trade After my Apple experience, I considered the dramatic move of abandoning the traditional brick-and-mortar bank entirely by switching to etrade.com, the online brokerage that also offers checking accounts. All deposits earn interest at a rate of .05 below $5,000, and an impressive .75% for accounts above that amount. Minimum-balance fees are waived with direct deposit, and, holy of holies, all ATM fees are reimbursed. No more $5.50 coffee! But E-Traders have to give up certain simple pleasures, like haggling with a customer service rep in person.

Plus, depositing money is a hassle—you have to mail a check, wire funds, or transfer from another account. To keep my perfect overdraft-free streak going, I need checks to pop up in my account immediately. Sure, I can use direct deposit for my biweekly paychecks from Slate, but what about freelance gigs? Or birthday checks? I may be a child of the Internet age, but I'm not quite ready for E-Trade.

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Citibank The morning after word got out that Citibank might be nationalized, I moseyed on by a branch near my office. When I informed the greeter that I was shopping around for a new checking account, she looked me up and down and then demanded photo ID, a copy of my Social Security card, and other official flotsam. Much as I enjoyed this Soviet-style greeting, I was relieved when she hustled me into the arms of M., her slightly more affable young comrade.

M. lacked F.'s velvet-gloved killer instinct, but he did a fine job selling his product. He whirled me through a dazzling array of "packages" (accounts, for the layman) before delicately nudging me to reveal my net worth. I appreciated his sensitivity and quelled the wild desire to name a fantastic sum. He steered me toward the same basic package I'd seen at the other behemoths, one which serves my needs adequately but lacks zing. Citi has fewer ATMs nationwide than its main competitors, but the ATM fee is just $1.50—lower than the $2 charge at either Bank of America or Chase.

Still, I pushed for more—a toaster? Perhaps a recession special? M. laughed at both suggestions. Then, to mollify my hurt feelings, he began describing "Thank You Points," Citi's check-card reward system that—at my expenditure level—results in the adult version of carnival stuffed animals. Citi's debit card also has a program offering frequent-flier miles—but for an airline I dislike.

Just as I was ready to leave, M. offered to check whether my employer has a relationship with Citi. As it turns out, as an employee of the Washington Post Co., I'm eligible for a slightly nicer checking deal, one that normally requires maintaining a $6,000 minimum balance. The main advantage, at least for me, is that the bank waives non-Citi ATM fees. Bingo! (Here it should be noted that other large banks have a similar deal with various companies. At Bank of America, F. searched valiantly for a corporate discount on my behalf, but ours was a star-crossed relationship.)

I headed to the Chase bank across the street to see if they'd be willing to match the deal I'd gotten at Citi. It was crowded, and I ended up waiting for half an hour to see a customer service rep. Would they have paid a little more attention if they'd sensed my potential betrayal? When I finally got in to see a representative, I laid out the terms of the Citi offer and asked if she would be willing to match it to keep my business. She laughed, and told me nope, no way. I must have looked a little sad. "Honestly?" she added. "That's a really great deal." It was tantamount to a blessing: Chase understood that I'd be better off with someone else.

I haven't quite worked up the oomph to switch banks yet—inertia is a powerful force, paperwork is a hassle, and I'm a little leery of handing over all my hard-earned cash to such an unstable institution. But my rational side knows that Citi is, as they say, too big to fail. And if Citi does go under, at least there are plenty of brick-and-mortar branches countrywide where I can bang on teller windows and demand my money back.

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