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Most of us know what a bank is. We know that in order to better manage our financial life; we should have both a checking and savings account at a minimum. We also know their services are similar across the board for most banks. Some of these services include:
• Accepting deposits
• Making auto, home, and business loans
• Reporting what you paid and earned
• Issuing credit cards
• Online bill payment
• Providing investments
The list can go on and on, but those are basic things most banks will offer. However, what vary from bank to bank are the terms and conditions. That is why everyone should consider their unique needs and then select the bank that best meets those needs.
Comparing Your Choices
There are national, regional, and local community banks around the country. These banks are further categorized into the following segments:
• Commercial Banks
• Savings & Loans (S&C)
• Credit Unions
• Mutual Funds and Brokerage Firms
• Virtual (Online) Banks
Commercial Banks serve both individuals and businesses. They typically have multiple, well-located branches throughout a region, and offer broad range of services. Deposits are FDIC-insured up to $100,000 per type of depositor’s account. The only con is that fees at these banks can be the highest.
Savings and Loans Banks (S&L)
S&L banks tend to have lower fees than commercial banks. In some cases, service can be better due to the lower number of clients at the especially smaller banks. Most are FDIC-insured. The only con would be that they sometimes require you inform them of a withdrawal you intend to make. They often have fewer branches; therefore you can rack up lots of ATM fees for using non-partner banks.
Credit Unions typically have the lowest fees and loan rates because they are non-profit. Earnings are paid out to members at the end of the year. The main con is that as few as 1 or 2 percent happen to be federally insured. Like S&L’s, they often have fewer branches; therefore you can rack up lots of ATM fees for using non-partner banks.
Mutual Fund and Brokerage Firms
Mutual Fund and Brokerage Firms often offer very limited banking services with low-cost or free checking linked to some interest-paying money market funds. The most notable con is that they often require larger minimum balances and they are not FDIC-insured, but have private insurance.
Virtual (Online) Banks
Virtual Banks are all online, thus there are no branches. In many cases, they don’t even send paper statements. Clients are emailed their monthly statements to view or print from online. They are FDIC-insured. They have started to lose some of their appeal as many commercial banks and even credit unions offer 100 percent online banking. The primary con here is that there are a limited number of ATM machines. Thus, if clients can’t find partner ATMs they can pay lots of money annually in ATM fees.
A checking account is a service provided by most banks which allows individuals and businesses to deposit money and withdraw funds from an FDIC-insured account. The terms and conditions of a checking account may vary from bank to bank, but, in general, a checking account holder can use personal or business checks in place of cash to pay debts. Most checking accounts allow customers to withdraw their money using an ATM machine.
Almost all banks offer some form of checking account service to their customers. Some may require a minimal initial deposit before establishing a new account, along with proof of identification, and a physical address. Students or other lower-income applicants may opt for a low-featured checking account, which does not charge fees for the use of personal checks and other limited services. Other applicants who open traditional checking accounts may benefit from interest payments by maintaining a high minimum balance each month.
A typical checking account will handle deposits and withdrawals. The account holder has a supply of official checks which contain all of the essential routing and accounting information. When a check is written, the account holder’s account is debited for the amount of the check. The account holder is ultimately responsible for keeping track of their available funds, even though the bank will issue monthly statements.
When a Check Bounces
Checks must represent an actual amount of money in the checking account. If a check is written for an amount higher than the available balance and the bank pays that check, then the account holder that wrote that check will face an overdraft fee and potentially legal action. Further, the recipient of the bad check may also incur fees if the check bounces. Then the writer of the bad check may owe fees to both his bank and the recipient’s bank.
The recipient of the bad check can demand immediate cash payment for the original debt as well as a substantial fee for the returned check. Some banks will protect checking account holders by making the proper payments and notifying the check writer that an overdraft has taken place. Most often the bank will recoup their losses through substantial service charges, so it pays to avoid writing checks when the balance is unknown.
We have discussed the importance of saving back in the section on saving. In this section we will discuss some savings account vehicles.
In the world of Savings Accounts, there are three primary vehicles: Standard Savings Accounts, Certificates of Deposit, and Money Market Accounts.
Standard Savings Accounts
Standard Savings Accounts often allow you to withdraw your money whenever you want without penalties. Though the interest rate is low (rarely above 3%), it is less risky and steadily grows.
Certificates of deposit (CDs)
CDs typically pay a higher interest rate than regular savings accounts. However, you have less flexibility to withdraw whenever you want to. If you withdraw too soon, you could be penalized and lose some or all of the interest earned.
Money market accounts (MMAs)
MMAs also pay a higher interest rate than regular savings accounts. Unlike CDs, however, you are usually allowed to write a limited number of checks or even make a transfer during each month assuming you do not go below your required minimum balance. If you do go below your minimum, you could be assessed fees or lose any interest earned, or both.
A debit card (often referred to as a check card) resembles a credit card and provides an alternative payment method to cash when making purchases. The card is an International Organization Standard (ISO) 7810 card which is similar to a credit card; however, its functionality is more similar to writing a check as the funds are withdrawn directly from either the cardholder’s bank account or from the remaining balance on a gift card.
Depending on the store or merchant, the customer may swipe or insert their card into a credit card terminal, or they may hand it to the merchant who will do so. The transaction is authorized and processed and the customer verifies the transaction either by entering a PIN or by signing a sales receipt.
The use of debit cards has become widespread in many countries and has overtaken the check and traditional cash transactions. It is very important to be mindful of what is spent by maintaining your check register.
For both individual and business customers, the primary objective when selecting a bank is to save money. Therefore, knowing exactly what a bank is going to charge to up front can better help you select the account that works best for you. During this process, it is important to pay close attention to the fine print which often reveals hidden charges and fees. For example, if you opt for a free checking account at a smaller bank with limited ATMs, you may actually pay more in ATM fees throughout the month than you would have on monthly fees with a checking account at a larger bank with many local ATMs.
You should pay close attention to the fees that will affect you most. At most banks, the fees that will affect most customers include:
• ATM fees
• Debit card fees
• Stop payment fees
• Check printing feeds
• Overdraft fees
• Bounced Check Fees
• Monthly Checking Account Fees
• Check writing fees
• Balance inquiry fees
• Wire transfer fees
Choosing the right bank is an important financial decision. Be sure that you fully understand all of your banking options, products and services, and ultimately what your costs will be before you open an account.