by Matthew Perry
(last updated February 21, 2009)
What do you want from your bank? Some specialize in high interest rates for certain accounts or have free checking options; some can invest your money, and many provide loans. Is a bank really what you want, or would a credit union suit you better? To get the best bank for you, you'll need to evaluate all the options in terms of your preferences and the goals you have.
Even if you aren't necessarily interested in a feature right now, you may be someday; look into fringe programs (investing, accounts for young people, etc.) and facets as well as the basics (interest rate, loan options, and assorted fees), so you don't find out on the day you get that super strong hunch that playing the stock market through your bank will lose you fifty percent in commissions.
Also, decide if the number or location of branches is important for you. I belonged to a credit union in California for a number of years, but left it recently for a large national bank. My old credit union was good while I lived in California—it had high interest rates on my savings accounts, low interest rates for loans, investment options, and finance specialists—but once I left the state I had a hard time getting access to my money. There were no branches of that credit union outside California, and their restriction-filled and hard-to-use website made internet banking too much of a hassle.
Depending on your technological savvy, internet banking can be very important. The convenience of being able to transfer your money, view all your records, buy stocks and more from your home computer or laptop may mean that your bank's internet banking options are particularly important for you. When you evaluate your bank's internet banking, make sure to take into account things like the display, the setup, your accessibility to your information, and password protection. I now do virtually all of my banking online, so the user interface is very important for me, as is their customer service hotline, for when I need to clarify something with a real person.
Whether you plan to conduct your business online or in person, watch out for hidden fees. 'Hidden fees' became radio commercial catchwords for a time as banks rushed to assure their customers that they didn't have any, but don't let down your guard—before you agree to anything with your bank, read all the fine print. Make sure you understand everything you're agreeing to, and make sure the employees are willing to explain anything that looks fishy. And, as always, check with your friends to see if they've had any first-hand experience with the bank you're investigating.
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