What Features Make Up The Ultimate Checking Account?

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If you’re comparing checking accounts, what are the features that one should consider? It’s not all about the interest rate. In no particular order, I would want:

Low minimum balance requirement – This helps include more people, and there is less stress about low-balance or maintenance fees.

Consistently high interest rate – I would think that a history of competitive rates and also the ability to keep those rates high yet still be profitable is important. I would guess that this means either restricting the accounts to people comfortable with the internet and thus less likely to need too much hand-holding or human interaction, or having a strong mortgage division.

Easy to make withdrawals – This could mean a large ATM branch network or automatic ATM fee rebates. Free wire transfers and money orders would also be a plus.

Easy to make deposits – Depending on your preference and how often you need checks, here you would need either local ATMs, postage-paid deposit envelopes, or even the new system at a few banks where you can simply scan in your check deposits from home.

Easy to transfer money between banks – This means being able to initiate transfers to other bank accounts through your account with only the routing number and account number. Also, this means being able to access your account by third parties in the same way. On the other hand, maybe some people like this to be restricted for security reasons?

Online interface – Being able to see your account balances clearly at a glance, dependable online BillPay, and a good balance between security and accessibility. Don’t require my passwords to be 18 characters long and a retina scan to log in.

Customer Service – Even though I don’t call in very often, being able to reach a knowledgeable and helpful human when needed in is very important to me. A good online messaging systems is also good for creating a paper trail.

The Rest – Some other things that come to mind are free checks, low or no overdraft fees, overdraft protection, free notary services, extended branch hours, drive-up ATMs, Quicken or MS Money synchronization, return of canceled checks, and free candy at the teller windows 🙂

I feel like I’m still missing something…

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  1. How about Online Bil Pay facility thats connected straight to your checking account ? Thats an important one for me.

  2. Looks like you’ve got it all covered, J. For 5 years I had only one checking, at an online bank. The account had no minimum balance, a decent interest rate during the early years, postage-paid envelopes, decent customer service, and CheckFree. The bank didn’t charge for ATM use but didn’t rebate ATM owners’ fees.

    I had an emergency last year and had to get cash from an ATM. That’s rare for me. The ATM charged me $2.50. I contacted customer service to ask for a refund and was successful on the second try.

    That’s when I decided to shop around. I moved my primary checking a few months ago and will soon close the old account. Now my primary checking is with an online bank that pays higher interest, and unlike my old bank, gives unlimited ATM fee rebates. My old bank has an ATM deposit network (which is great for depositing cash gifts) but my new one doesn’t. That’s a small sacrifice for unlimited ATM fee rebates.

  3. Other than “Easy to make deposits” it sounds like a plug for ING Electric Orange Checking. 🙂

  4. Believe it or not, the credit unions and local banks here in Boulder, CO CHARGE for online bill-pay! So I suggest adding to your list “Free” in front of the online services.

  5. Bill Bailey says

    I think you are forgetting a big one. When doing online billpay to individuals, some banks take the money out when the check is mailed, keeping it interest free. Others keep it in yout account until the other party cashes the check.

    Wachovia keeps your money in your account. ING Direct’s Electric Orange takes it out the day they mail your check. I had a situation where the recipient accidentally ripped the check opening it and had to void it. I had to either pay $25 for a stop payment or wait 90 days for them to credit the money back to my account. Now granted, ING Direct pays a great rate. But it may not be worth the hassle.

  6. Bill Bailey says

    One other big one, for me. In online billpay, I prefer an interface where I can input the date the bill is due, rather than having to do the math and subtract 5 business days from the due date. Makes my life a little simpler.

  7. WF does still charge $6.95/mo. unless you have $5,000 in ‘qualifying’ accounts.

    Jonathan – the captcha for this comment was ‘frugal.’ Tell me you make your own or is that just happenstance? Either way, weirdly funny.

  8. Wells Fargo used to charge for Bill Pay. Not sure if they stlll do. One of the reasons I moved to BofA.

    My ideal checking is all you have listed PLUS funds are swept into checking as needed to pay bills from savings or some other high yield account. Merrill Lynch has sweep accounts but I have no idea the fees, rates, etc.

  9. You forgot one…..

    How about free massages? 😉 It’s pretty easy to throw your back out carrying money (or all that plastic for that matter, it weighs more!) around all the time… 😉

    Being able to transfer by debit card would ROCK though (limit the number of time per month or add the same % fee vendors pay)!!!!

    My credit union merged and merged, until it’s now just about as ugly-greedy as any other B&M bank. They sent me a notice that they’re going to add more fees to things that used to be free. I remember when I had FREE overdraft protection from Savings (up to 3? times a month?) and the coin counter is free (for members) until May 1.

    I understand that coins are a nuisance in today’s high-tech world, but you need some quick and easy way to deposit it. Do they want my money(/business) or not? It’s already inconvenient to find an ATM (a free one, at least) near work these days. If ING added paper checks (for the rare occasions I still need them), I’d be all over it. My CU’s rates are already abysmal. My wife’s bank is just as bad on most counts (more network ATMs) and deposits take longer to post (even with Check 21). I think they’re doing that Richard Pryor Superman micro-interest thing on our money for the day or so it takes to post to our accounts. I guess that was more the 1/10th of cents, but still…. as my nephew would say….”Not Nice!”

  10. Which banks offer deposit scanning at home and how long does it usually take? This would be sweet, no need to go to the bank ever again! 🙂

  11. For me, for the longest time, the most important was easy to make deposits – and then I got direct deposit again, so that doesn’t matter so much. Still, I lived with an online only / mail-in only deposit for a while, and I doubt I’ll go back to having my only account be mail-in.

    Right now the only thing that really keeps me on BOA is that their billpay is quite good. I have an account with WaMu right now, but the billpay looks like such a step backwards that I’ve not made the switch.

    I don’t care about tellers so much – I only went to one once in the past 4 years (to sign up for my BOA account).

    Interest rate doesn’t matter so much to me. I keep the bulk in savings.

    Online interface IS key.

  12. Ok, super lazy question here. All of these factors are great and all, but which checking accounts satisfy these criteria? That is to say what checking accounts do people reccomend?

  13. USAA Federal Savings Bank does all of this and more! Depositing checks via my scanner is da bomb! The money shows up immediately! The only drawback is that USAA is only available to US military personnel and their families.

  14. Nice work, Jonathan. Well thought out piece. Still, I second Alex’s query. Who and where are those banking paragons so many need so badly? Happy gaming at Vegas!

  15. I don’t think there is one checking account that can satisfy every single criteria. I think people need a “checking account” for writing checks and bill payment, then a separate “ATM account” for ATM withdrawals and deposits. That would be able to maximize everything.

  16. Joshua Jackson says


    I think most people would rather consolidate then split out into more accounts. Look at this previous article https://www.mymoneyblog.com/archives/2007/04/my-current-bank-account-setup-to-maximize-interest.html Where the accounts are consolidated instead of split up. It happens that the atm is easy to access as well but, still its consolidating for general funds instead of having to be like..oh I have to go to this bank..and transfer money around..and that’d just be a big pain in the arse =)

  17. Currently I am using Capital one High yield money market account. It has limited check writing ability – enough to pay rent and credit cards. For cash, I am using Discover credit card’s cash over feature. For emergency purposes I am keeping a conventional credit union checking+ savings w/ unlimited check writing and bill pay. I am tempted by ING’s electric orange checking – simply for the ease of interest paying ATM access. I wish they paid 5.4% regardless on balance and check writing ability. That would be a dream and probably thats why it is!

  18. I say the ultimate checking account is a free checking account that includes bill pay. In Hawaii, the only “bank” that offers this is actually a credit union. Of course, with it being free, the account does not earn interest — I think it’s a great comprimise. I transfer funds between my checking account at the credit union and ShareBuilder, which sweeps it into a money market fund earning roughly 4.5%. Customer service is a plus too, but I see this part lacking in many banks that I deal with (at least in Hawaii). Yep, a checking account that does not charge any fees is an ideal/ultimate checking account for me. 🙂

  19. Dima,
    USAA offers Deposit@home where you scan the check and it is deposited immediately, with most being available immediately. very cool. they also give you pre-paid envelopes. downsides are: that you have to have a loan or credit card in addition to checking account to enable the feature; max is $5k per day; no mac support yet; goofy with firefox; can’t do foreign checks, money orders, traveler checks (but you have the free envelopes for those anyways).

    another is zero to low foreign transaction fee; cash back for POS on debit cards;

  20. Nathan Finch says

    ING Electric Orange is it for me. I don’t remember the last time I had to deposit a check. No paper checks is really only annoying for paying rent (mostly because my landlord is right downstairs), but I can transfer money directly into his account if he’d like me to, so maybe it’s even better.

    Checks are SO 1985. I was afraid of moving to an account without checks, but I realized how little I needed them. You can make the jump too. Sure, you say you don’t need 4% interest on your checking account because you keep all your money in savings and move it as needed, but come on…. everyone uses debit cards these days, and sometimes you don’t want to use a credit card and pay it off at the end of the month (and sometimes you can’t).

  21. In some cases, people with online accounts can make deposits at another bank’s ATM. I tried it after I ran out of my bank’s postage-paid envelopes. My bank credits me with the deposit at the moment I make it, even on a weekend (for earning interest; there is a one business day delay for withdrawal availability)

  22. I going to recommend accounts that have balance requires. Personally Most of the free checking accounts suck.

    Pretty much ever bank offers this type of account. The only difference is the min to waive the monthly service fee between banks. I will list the min at each bank too.

    BOA Money Manger Account pays Aprox 4.50% in treasury Sweep account combine that with any of the affinity money market accounts like AAA paying 5.39% for balances of $50K + and you got a great combo that can not be beat. Depending on the state you live the balance requirement can be as little as $10K or as much as $100K and anything you keep in you MMA counts towards the balance requirements of Money Manger Account.

    US Bank offers the same account called “Asset Manager Account” requires $10K min balance. USAA offers same account called “Asset Manager Account” requires $5K min. Wachovia offers the same account called “Command Asset Portfolio” requires $10K. Then Fidelity offers same type of account has no min balance requirement. Problem with Fidelity is they dont rebate Atms nor can you get cash except from an ATM. There ATM are inside the branch and can only be accessed via business hours and you can not deposit cash at all.

  23. >> WF does still charge $6.95/mo. unless you have $5,000 in ?qualifying? accounts.

    Another way to get free bill pay is to open a Custom Management Package(checking, savings, check card) if you don’t already have these accounts. The only requirement is to set up a monthly recurring transfer of $25 from your checking to your savings. Both accounts will be free and no minimum requirements.

    If you keep a higher balance, open a Complete Advantage Package. Same as Custom Management Package, except the automatic recurring transfer will be $75. But, it is a better deals because you get free cashier’s checks, money orders, temporary checks, traveler cheques, and maybe personal checks (my banker waivered the fee).

    The good thing about WF online is 1. spending report: break down where your money went by categories 2. bank accounts and credit card on one page, unlike Citibank that requires separate set of username and password.

  24. So which checking accounts are closest to this checking nirvana thought up in the article?

    I’m currently using a local credit union, which I have been using since I was 18 (mostly out of laziness and familiarity) but when I go to grad school its going to be hell trying to avoid monthly fees since I will be using my checking account sparingly and likely without a full time job that offers direct deposit to keep that rate going. Plus my current bill pay service is a bit substandard for my taste and I was hoping to find something thats a major features upgrade to my current CU checking account.

  25. I use my Fidelity account as my primary checking account because they pay a consistent 5%, give you free checks, refund up to 5 ATM transactions per month, and don’t charge you anything over the 1% for V/MC for overseas withdrawls.

    I use paytrust for my bill paying since they handle all paper bills and archiving and all that jazz.

    I also have a bofa checking account that I use purely for cash withdrawl convenience since their atms are just about everywhere. The is also a “bridge” account to emigrant direct and paypal. For some reason emigrant direct doesn’t want to talk to fidelity, so I transfer part of my fidelity-deposited paycheck to bofa and then on to emigrant direct. It’s a hassle, I know, but hey it’s already setup that way and I’m used to it.

  26. Some Online Bill-Pay features I really enjoy at my local bank (First Midwest Bank, even though it sources out the online banking to another company) are (1) they guarrentee the delivery of the payments, otherwise, they will pick the late fees; (2) the intelligent calendar that shows the delivery date of the payment if the sent date is chosen – it skips all the weekend days and holidays; (3) the email notification sent out from the bank every time a payment is withdrawn.

    I also have another checking account at another local bank which does not offer the same online bill-pay features as First Midwest does. I am planning to move it somewhere else, and have been investigating ING Electric Orange for the past two days. The drawback of ING Electric Orange is no local access for paper check deposit – I have quite a few checks from my rental properties every month.

  27. I suppose this is really a customer service or interface, but you need to be able to do basic things, like change your address and order checks.

    When Everbank took 2 weeks to change my address and cancelled my $30 (!) check order without telling me because they couldn’t get my address changed in time (a week’s notice), I dumped them. I write physical checks for the rent. Wamu changed my address via friendly teller instantly, and I had my free checks in 5 days, just in time for the rent.

  28. My thoughts

    WaMu free checking is good. But their Bill Pay is terrible compared to BofA. WaMu requires the full address of the payee as opposed to BofA and DCU, which only require the zip code. This could cause room for typing errors.

    WaMu’s credit card website isn’t integrated with their Banking website, which is bad.

    BofA has direct deposit requirements for free checking, which is not good.
    DCU has postage paid envelopes, which is good.

  29. Bankerman says

    Guys, who doesn’t have direct deposit anymore? What are you a day laborer outside of home depot?

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