ATTENTION CONSUMERS: Not all free checking accounts have the word “free” in them. Yes, I agree it doesn’t make sense for a bank or credit union to offer a free checking account yet call it something other than free checking.
But, this is exactly what the two hottest online banks have done.
The free checking account at Ally Bank is called Ally Bank Interest Checking. And it’s free. In fact, it’s better than free as you’ll discover below.
The free checking account at ING Direct goes by the name of Electric Orange Checking. And, it, too, is a free checking account.
What this means is that you’ll have to work a bit harder when searching for a new bank that offers you free checking.
If you’re one of the many consumers whose bank has betrayed you by eliminating your free checking account, you are probably fed up to the point where you want to find a new bank. You want to fire your old, mega-bank and take your business elsewhere.
Well, join the club.
But just remember, today you’ll have to look beyond the account name to determine if it is, in fact, a true free checking account.
Of course, like most things in life, there are some shortcuts to help you in your search. Here are 7 shortcuts you may find useful:
First, stay away from the four big mega-banks of Citibank, Chase, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo. They were late comers to the free checking world and are now the first to abandon this account. Contrary to what they might tell you, they put their interests ahead of your interests. Of course, most of you know this by now.
Second, immediately consider becoming a customer of a smaller community bank or credit union in your neighborhood. These guys were the first to offer free checking in the early 1980s and most still offer it today. They tend to put your interests before their interests.
Third, decide whether or not you prefer to bank with an online bank or need a local bank or credit union with brick and mortar branches. If you prefer an online bank, your selection process is extremely easy. If you qualify to bank with USAA, you can add this bank to the Ally Bank and ING Direct choices. A quick Google search of “online only banks” will turn up a few more candidates for your consideration.
Fourth, if you prefer a brick and mortar branch in your neighborhood or near where you work, make a list of local community banks and credit unions in these areas and go online and check their website listings for checking accounts. Most bank and credit union websites present their menu of checking accounts in a comparison chart format. Remember, their free account may not be called free checking.
Fifth, ask your friends, co-workers, and family members if they have free checking and if so, where do they have their account. And don’t forget to ask about the service they receive.
Sixth, if you are a member of the website Angie’s List or a similar site, checkout what others are saying about free checking and the banks and credit unions in your area. Check out Yelp to see what people are saying about a particular bank or credit union in your area.
Seventh, make a free checking inquiry on the website www.bankrate.com. This is a great “go to” site for information on banking products.
While searching for the best bank or credit union free checking account, you may encounter one or more accounts with names like the four shown below. Rest assured, with very minor exceptions, all are free checking accounts.
Totally free checking
Free interest checking
Totally free checking is a name that continues to be used by a number of community banks and credit unions. This was the original name for free checking when it was first introduced in 1982. Most banks and credit unions have shortened it to free checking.
Free interest checking is often the name used when a bank or credit union enhances its free checking account by paying interest on the balance in the account. Other banks use names like VIP Interest Checking and 50+ Checking on some of their free checking accounts.
Rewards checking accounts are almost always free checking. You earn a higher rate of interest on the balance in the account as the bank or credit union includes the balances in all of your deposit accounts in your rewards account. In addition, to earn interest monthly you must meet the activity criteria for your rewards checking account. Generally this requires using your debit card a certain number of times each month. You can see a list of the highest yielding rewards checking accounts at http://www.depositaccounts.com/checking/reward-checking-accounts.html.
In addition, there are other free checking accounts that fall into two categories we call:
Unnamed free checking
Stealth free checking
As mentioned above, online banks like Ally Bank and ING Direct offer free checking but don’t use the word “Free” in the account name. There are other banks and credit unions that do the same thing. This means you must verify whether or not the checking account has no monthly service fee or minimum balance requirement. Generally, this is easy to do when viewing the checking account comparison charts presented on most bank and credit union websites.
Our latest category of free checking accounts is called “Stealth free checking.”
Based on the federal government’s definition of free checking, these stealth free checking accounts cannot legally use the word “free” in their name.
Because these accounts, like eBanking and MyAccess from Bank of America and Chase Total Checking from Chase Bank have a monthly service charge and may have a minimum balance requirement attached to them.
Yet, you can AVOID having to meet the minimum balance requirement and AVOID the monthly service fee simply by using your account each month as required by the bank.
For example, while Chase Total Checking has a $12 monthly service fee, it is easily avoidable by simply establishing a monthly direct deposit of $500 or more. A less desirable option is to avoid the fee by maintaining a $1,500 minimum daily balance. Consumers seeking free checking should avoid Chase Total Checking unless they are easily able to meet the simple direct deposit requirement.
Still, legally, these stealth checking accounts do not meet the government’s requirement for being called or labeled free checking.
They are only free if you meet the monthly activity requirements.
On the other hand, there is no reason to choose a stealth free checking account offered by one of the four big mega-banks when you can get a truly free checking account with no strings attached at many community banks and credit unions in your neighborhood.
Just remember, the free checking account is alive and well and readily available at most of the community banks and credit unions in your neighborhood. With a little research effort, you should be able to find a free checking account to replace the one you had at your neighborhood mega-bank branch.