In an era when banks charge for everything from wire transfers to checking accounts, the offer seems too good to be true: a program with no fees, better rates on loans and deposits, and a "direct phone line to a team of specialists" for help with almost any money-related matter. The only catch: You have to maintain a minimum of $50,000 to qualify.
The offer -- called Platinum Privileges -- is from Bank of America, but it's far from the only new package of perks banks are rolling out for their highest income customers now. Citibank promises a $500 savings on home-closing costs as part of its Citigold offering. HSBC's suite of Premier service extras includes a waiver of pesky international money-transfer fees. And most premium options provide better access to customer-service reps. "This is the banking equivalent of frequent fliers who get first-class upgrades and priority seating," says Greg McBride, Bankrate.com senior financial analyst.
But just as frequent fliers must log serious mileage to earn an upgrade, banking customers also "pay" for perks. In this case, that means submitting to the new industry standard for account minimums, which can get as high as $100,000. What's more, the extras aren't always that significant. Put $100,000 in KeyBank's Key Privilege Select Checking account and your freebies include a safe-deposit box -- provided it's the small size. (A KeyBank spokesperson says the box is "part of a broader suite of rewards.")
* Perk: No-fee global money transfers
* Minimum: $100,000
Bank of America
* Perk: Dedicated telephone help line
* Minimum: $50,000
* Perk: Free safe-deposit box
* Minimum: $100,000
Critics charge that because the recent financial reforms made it tougher for banks to profit from lower-tier customers, they're looking to squeeze more from those on the high end. In other words, that red carpet may be a red herring. "They're not doing it to provide better service; they're doing it to realign their cost structures," says Dick Bove, banking analyst with Rochdale Securities. (Banks dispute the notion that they don't have wealthier customers' interests at heart: "We're trying to show our clients that the more of a relationship they have with the bank, the more they can expect in return," says Dean Athanasia, a Bank of America executive.)
If your bottom line is, well, the bottom line, experts suggest comparing a year's worth of perks to the gains of parking the money in a vehicle offering higher interest rates (say, an online savings account) without the large minimums. Still, experts admit it's hard to put a value on the service aspect of premium accounts. Bankrate.com's McBride puts it this way: "You'll save money if you self-park, but everyone appreciates the convenience of the valet."