As consumer outrage over bank fees reaches a fever pitch, financial institutions are rolling out new ad campaigns, sign-on bonuses and other marketing to entice you to make a bold leap -- and switch banks.
In a survey earlier this year, 64% of Americans told Bankrate.com that they would think about switching financial institutions if their checking account fees increase. And banks have given them plenty to chew on: Citibank announced earlier this month that starting in December, it would charge a $20 monthly fee to mid-level checking customers who have less than $15,000 in combined account balances with the bank. In late September, Bank of America revealed plans for a monthly $5 fee to make purchases via debit card, which will go into effect in January. "There's usually a departure between what people say and what they actually do, but the fee issue is front of mind for many consumers," says Greg McBride, a senior financial analyst for Bankrate.com.
Some of the offers are pretty enticing at first blush. Through Oct. 31, Citibank promises rewards points equivalent to as much as $400 in gift cards, while Chase has a $125 bonus on new accounts that expires Nov. 26. Even smaller banks have big offers -- new First Tennessee customers can grab up to $396 through Nov. 30, and Valley National Bank (with locations in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania) offers a $150 bonus.
But even free money has a price. For starters, that income is taxable, and will show up on a Form 1099 at tax time along with any other interest earned, says McBride. Introductory offers are usually rife with strings, too, requiring you to keep the account open for a minimum period and use features like direct deposit and bill pay. Only then will the bonus show up in your account. Given all that, even a big bonus doesn't offer much if the switch doesn't let you escape account fees. "People kind of rationalize paying a fee because I'm getting the $100 or $200 right now," he says. But that's buying you a few fee-free months, at best.
Consumers considering a switch are better off first making a list of banking features and options they use, and then hunting around for financial institutions that offer those same things free, or at least, for a lesser fee than you're paying now, says Kathleen Day, a spokeswoman for the Center for Responsible Lending. Be sure to cast a wide net, including smaller banks, credit unions, online-only outlets and affiliate deals like a bank or credit union associated with your employer. (A few resources: Bankrate.com, FindaBetterBank.com, and FindaCreditUnion.com.) "Most people are going to find the core things are pretty similar," says Jim Bruene, the publisher of Online Banking Report. But fewer banks might offer say, an iPad app for access or the ability to use your smartphone to scan in and remotely deposit checks. Factor in ease of access, if you're a frequent branch or ATM visitor, and interest rates, if you're moving ample cash.
Keep in mind that the cheapest solution for some customers might be staying put. Banks tend to be more lenient on fees the more services you use. "Something as simple as direct deposit can be enough to get the fee waived," says McBride. Or in the case of Citibank, which counts lines of credit toward that $15,000 combined balance minimum, opening up another credit card. You might also be able to stay put and open new accounts elsewhere. Online-only banks like PerkStreet and ING Direct include free debit cards, which sidesteps Bank of America's $5 debit fee for accountholders who aren't willing to switch more purchases to a prepaid card or credit card.