As consumers grow increasingly frustrated by the checking account options offered by traditional banks, more are seeking out the best online checking accounts for better interest rates and service. Large banks like Wells Fargo and Bank of America are continuing to add fees, such as debit card fees, and are not concerned with scaring the less profitable customers away. This is part of a larger plan to increase profitability, which includes firing the customers who don’t have large balances and sending them to online banks, small banks, and credit unions. If these customers remain unprofitable at their new institutions, those organizations may be forced to enact fees, as well.
Regardless of the larger situation, including industry-directed changes and regulations, the best thing a customer can do is find the best checking account that meets his or her needs at that particular time, with the information that is currently available. Here are my picks for stable, convenient online checking accounts.
Ally Bank. Ally Bank (formerly GMAC Bank) offers a checking account with no monthly fees and no minimum balance. The no-fee, no-minimum accounts are becoming increasingly rare, and even those banks that have held out with these accounts, very few offer interest on the accounts, as Ally Bank does.
PerkStreet. PerkStreet takes a unique approach to checking, offering cash back for using an associated debit card. Cash back in a world where other banks are charging to use their debit card is a novel idea. Customers with a PerkStreet account now earn 1% cash back on all non-PIN debit purchases, 2% cash back on online purchases at: Amazon.com®, iTunes®, Target.com, Apple.com, Walmart.com and Bestbuy.com.* The online purchase bonus perks are limited to $2,500 in spend every calendar year. Customers can earn 2% cash back in-store, with a current account balance of $5,000 or more at: Walmart, Target®, Best Buy® & Apple® stores.* Note the offline purchase bonus perks are limited to $2,500 in spend every calendar year. Earn 2% unlimited cash back when you and a friend use your cards together at the same restaurant, bar or coffee shop, however, these transactions must occur within 60 minutes of each other to qualify.
Customers can also earn 5% cash back on special categories and merchants that PerkStreet announces every month via Twitter (@perkstreet), their Facebook page or other company communications.* PowerPerks bonus perks are limited to $5,000 in spend every calendar year.
Perkstreet’s checking account is a finalist in its category for the 2nd Annual Plutus Awards.
ING Direct. The ING Direct “Electric Orange” online checking account has been my primary online checking account for almost as long as the account has been offered by the bank. To catch up with other online offerings, ING Direct recently began offering paper checks. Like Ally, this account charges no fees, requires no minimum balance, and offers interest to account holders. Rather than overdraft coverage from a linked savings account, the Electric Orange account takes advantage of a line of credit offered to approved customers.
FNBO Direct. FNBO Direct offers a savings account with a competitive interest rate, and the Online BillPay Account is a competitive offer as well. FNBO offers a high interest rate on their BillPay Account and integrates PopMoney, a system that allows you to easily transfer money to and from your friends (or anyone else who uses PopMoney).
I’ve had an FNBO Direct savings account for a long time, and it has consistently offered high rates.
USAA. USAA is taking advantage of banks charging $5 debit card fees, heavily advertising that their debit card is free to use. The USAA checking account is certainly a favorite among experts, earning its place as a finalist at the 2nd Annual Plutus Awards. USAA was also named one of CNN Money’s least evil banks.
The bank serves primarily members of the military, but membership is open to the public. The checking account has no fees and does not charge for up to the first 10 AM withdrawals each month. USAA also reimburses customers for up to $15 in ATM transactions each month, making any convenient location an “in-network” ATM. USAA also offers remote deposit, a convenient way to deposit checks into the account by scanning or taking a photograph of both sides of the check.
With the largest banks finding ways to eliminate the least profitable customers through the addition of fees, as of today, there are still plenty of options available for people who are interested in sticking with an institution that generates revenue in another manner. If the above options don’t work for you, there are credit unions that would be happy for an influx of customers. Every financial institution is a business, however, and if new customers end up being unprofitable in the future, free checking will become extinct.
Updated January 18, 2013 and originally published October 10, 2011. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @flexo on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.