Updated: Aug 25, 2021
Banks are a pretty common institution in our society. And as the monopolization of businesses has grown, so has the monopolization of banks. Small banks are not that common any more, or at least not as used as they once were. People tend to go to the big banks like Citibank or Bank of America. But which one is the best for you?
There are, of course, many ways to answer that question. Are you looking for a safe place to keep your money? Most people typically are. Are you looking for a bank that invests? Are you looking for a bank that can provide you good rates on a home or auto loan? Are you looking for a bank that pays you interest?
I cannot answer all of those questions for you, mainly because I don't know all those answers, and because that would be a much longer blog post than what I am envisioning. I can answer the first and the last though, and that is the focus of this post.
I went to the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA. As part of my move in process, my dad decided it was time I got a real bank account. I had had some accounts as a child in Randolph Savings Bank (which no longer exists), but never really had a debit card or a bank account to call my own. We drove down Richmond Road, at a whopping 25 mph, and stopped at Bank of America. We went inside and I opened my first account. I don't remember what my initial deposit was, but I do remember that my debit card had a picture of me on it and a Patriots background (GO PATS!).
That was in 2007, and I stayed with Bank of America until 2017. One of the longest relationships I've ever had.
Bank of America and I had our ups and downs. I remember the first time I over-drafted and had to pay the fee. I decided in that moment that I would never do that again. I started manually balancing my checkbook (as I had been taught to do by my father) and checking my manual calculations against what my online account was telling me. One time, I "over-drafted" again. The truth was, I had the money in the account, but the Bank messed up. It was an hour-long, headache-inducing phone call to fix that mix up and ensure they didn't charge me the fee.
I mentioned in a previous blog that I got my wallet stolen in 2014. I noticed immediately and called Bank of America to cancel my debit card and my checks (yes I still use checks). They only cancelled my debit card. Someone used one of my checks and that resulted in a fraud alert set on my account. Rather than just receive a new debit card, I had to cancel all my accounts and re-open them by physically going to a Bank of America location 2 or 3 times to resolve the issue. If they had cancelled my checks when I asked, it would have been a much smoother process.
I told you that I (obsessively) manually balance my checkbook. That was how, in 2017, I discovered that Bank of America had started charging me fees on my account going back three months. I called them and asked why they were charging me (I can't remember the reason) and asked them to refund me. They did, and I addressed whatever the reason was so no further charges happened. I was, however, very uncomfortable about the fact that they had charged me at all without informing me. I'm sure this has been the experience of many.
While I mentioned a lot of the issues I had with Bank of America, they weren't all bad. I stayed with them for 10 years after all. But some of that was due to the fact that I hadn't considered shopping around for other banks. And I doubt a lot of other people consider this either. Usually you go with what is in your area or with who your family banks with.
At some point between 2014 and 2017, someone, whose name I don't remember (thank you, though!!!), sent me an article about two banks that had received the best ratings in several categories. I don't remember all the categories, but the ones that stood out to me were in interest offered and customer service. The banks were Ally and Synchrony Bank. Shortly thereafter, I moved my emergency fund over to a Synchrony account and began to accrue some pretty decent interest.
It wasn't until my impending move to Spain that I decided to leave Bank of America and move over to Ally. The biggest reason for this was that Bank of America charges you fees if you don't a) have a certain amount in your account at all times or b) don't receive regular deposits into your account. Since I would be opening an account in Spain so that I could be paid, I knew I wouldn't meet those qualifications. I reached out to Ally bank, opened an account with them, and haven't looked back since.
There are some things to consider with Ally bank. The first time I applied for the account, I applied online and because some of the questions confirming my identity (cross streets near my house) were confusing, I was refused an account. I then called and applied by phone and have had no further problems with them. They are completely online, however, which means they have no brick and mortar locations. That has not been a problem for me, but it is something to think about.
As of last week, I transferred everything over to Ally bank. That includes my emergency fund (I left Synchrony not because anything was wrong with them, but simply for ease of access and having everything in one place), and my Traditional IRA that I have separate from the retirement plan my job offers me. Since I've been with Ally, the interest rate I am paid each month has gone up twice, and my longest wait time on the phone with them was 3 minutes.
That being said, I don't expect you to just take my word for it. Actually, I would not be happy with you if you did. You are supposed to be in control of your finances, and that means doing the research to figure out which bank is best for you. To help with this, I created two charts, one on Checking accounts, and the other on Savings accounts, comparing big name banks. This is, of course, not an exhaustive list.
I pulled this information directly from each bank's website. A couple of things to keep in mind:
This chart only focused on basic fees, so does not include fees related to ATM use or paying for checks etc.
The minimum balance refers to minimum opening balance.
All of the banks have the possibility to waive their monthly fees, but the ways in which to do so are often arduous and require a minimum continuous balance.
Interest rates are dependent on location. Many of the banks asked me for my zip code before providing me information about their accounts.
I only looked at Checking and Savings accounts, no IRAs, loans, CDs etc.
The amount of monthly fees you pay and the amount of interest you receive are often dependent on the type of account you open.
There are many banks that aren't reflected here including credit unions and banks that service active duty military or veterans. I tried to focus on mainstream banks that everyone has access to. Again, I encourage you to do your own research and answer some of the other questions I posed at the beginning of this post when deciding on a bank. The most important thing is to shop around! Most of us are used to shopping around or doing some research when making purchases, applying for a job, considering a company to service your house, or choosing a restaurant to eat at for dinner. We should do the same with where we put our money. If you've been with the same bank your whole life and can't find a convincing reason why that is the case, maybe it's time to look around and see what else is out there. Even if you decide not to switch, you will have done your due diligence. We have to be proactive about this financial fitness journey. Go out there and find the best bank for your hard-earned buck.