Check Again: A Look at Current Checking Account Options

After finishing a harrowing first year of graduate school, I finally have time to pick up Money Under Your Futon again. Kathy and I both had crazy (academic) years, but we are glad to be back here, learning and writing about personal finance tips for people with entry-level jobs (or stipends) who want to live the good life.

Kathy posted her “I am back” post a few weeks ago, in response to some of the craze going on over TLC’s Extreme Couponing show. As for myself, this is my “welcome back” post.

I reviewed some checking accounts a long while back and, given all of the regulatory changes in the banking system over the last year or two, I think it is time for an update. Here is a summary of the most basic checking accounts offered by some of the largest brick-and-mortar banks. While banks warned that the recent and ongoing regulatory changes might translate into the end of free checking accounts, not all of them have actually banished free checking yet. Some, such as Chase, HSBC, and Wells Fargo, have certainly delivered on the warning, putting stringent requirements on customers, who otherwise must pay up a monthly fee for their accounts. Other banks, however, have come out on top. PNC’s Free Checking does not have any monthly fees at all, while Bank of America makes it fairly easy to avoid its maintenance fee.

  • Bank of America’s eBanking account: this account is great for young, internet-savvy customers with uncomplicated finances. There is no monthly fee nor minimum balance as long as you don’t use a teller for any of your transactions. And BofA has one of the best ATMs that I know of, since the machines actually count your cash and scan your checks when you make a deposit, and the amount posts to your account immediately. If the range of your checking needs is usually limited to withdrawals and deposits, this is a great option for you. And when you do need a teller, the monthly fee is $8.95.
  • Chase Total Checking and Chase’s College Checking: the Chase Total Checking account has a monthly fee of $10 which is waived only with (a) a direct deposit for $500 or more, (b) a minimum daily balance of $1,500, or (c) an average daily balance of $5000 or more in all of your Chase deposit and investment accounts. Personally, I think this is a pretty bad deal given other options. Even if you can satisfy the requirements now, consider the worst case scenario – you don’t want to lose your job, have to deplete your account, and then also get hit with a fee. If you’re in college or grad school though, you can avoid that through the College Checking account. With this account, the $6 monthly fee is waived for 5 years while you’re in school, though after graduation you’ll need to set up a monthly direct deposit to continue the fee waiver.
  • Citibank’s Basic Checking account: there’s no minimum balance for this account, but you have to jump some hoops to avoid the $8 monthly fee. The fee is waived for every month you have 5 transactions in the account, including direct deposit, ATM withdrawals, debit card payments, and automatic payments. This may seem like an easy set of hoops to jump, since any 5 transactions in a month count, be it 5 ATM withdrawals, 2 direct deposit and 3 debit card payments, or any other combination of transactions. However, keep in mind that while on a day-to-day basis it may be easy to satisfy this requirement, it might not be the case when you go on vacation. If you travel abroad and don’t use ATMs or your debit card in a given month, you may easily come back to find a fee on your account. But perhaps $8 isn’t all that bad.
  • HSBC’s Choice Checking and Basic Banking: HSBC’s Choice Checking is a less strict version of the Chase Total Checking, also with a slightly lower fee. The $8 monthly fee can be avoided with (a) a monthly direct deposit, (b) at least $1500 in personal deposit or investment balances, or (c) at least $5000 in broader total monthly balances, which includes personal deposits, investments, and certain credit balances. On the other hand, if you don’t want to bother with the requirements or can’t meet them, HSBC also offers a Basic Banking account. With this account, you are always charged a $3 monthly fee, but at least there are (almost) no other surprises. That is, as long as you write less than 8 checks per month. If you go over that, there’s another $0.35 fee per check you write.
  • PNC’s Free Checking: this is a truly free checking account, with no minimum balance or transaction requirements. Although PNC does not have as many ATMs as other big banks, it makes up for that by reimbursing ATM fees when you use a non-PNC ATMs as long as you maintain a balance of at least $2000. As I see it, this is a great deal. If you’re going to meet a minimum daily balance, instead of just doing that to avoid a monthly fee, you might as well get something out of it. Here, PNC rewards you by making every convenient ATM a free one too.
  • U.S. Bank’s Easy Checking and Student Checking: there are two ways to avoid the $6.95 monthly fee on the Easy Checking account: (a) having direct deposits with a combined value of at least $500, or (b) maintaining an average daily balance of $1500 in the account. This is a pretty standard, middle-of-the-road account nowadays, with average requirements and an average fee as well. You could do better – but you could certainly also do worse. If you are a college or grad student, though, you may also want to look into U.S. Bank’s Student Checking account. There is no minimum balance or transaction requirement for this account, and you get reimbursed for up to 4 ATM fees a month when using a non-U.S. Bank ATM.
  • Wells Fargo Value Checking: to avoid the $5 monthly fee on this account, you must either (a) have a direct deposit of at least $250 a month, or (b) maintain an average daily balance of at least $1500. While I think one should avoid any account that requires direct deposit or minimum balances since these are the first to go when your finances go under, this checking account does have the one of the lowest monthly fees out of those reviewed here. So if you find you are going to be inevitably hit with a fee, then this might be a good option for you.

When I reviewed checking account options 2 years ago, I had PNC’S Free Checking in a close second place after a Bank of America account. This time, it’s a tie, and the breaker really depends on convenience. If BofA ATMs are convenient for you and you can’t remember the last time you actually stepped into a bank, you can’t go wrong with the eBanking account. On the other hand, if you have a PNC ATM close by or are planning to maintain a balance over $2000, PNC’s truly Free Checking is a great option – not having to ever worry about ATM fees certainly pushes it ahead.

And if you don’t have BofA or PNC ATMs nearby and cannot maintain a balance of at least $2000, think carefully before just choosing the bank closest to you. If you are just starting out and your job isn’t stable – and most aren’t nowadays – it is best to avoid accounts that have minimum balances or direct deposit requirements. The last thing you need is a bank working against you, using fees to chip away the balance you do have. Check your local banks and credit unions as well. As this review shows, despite all warnings, there are still free or almost free checking accounts out there.

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