Hate your bank? Try this free checking account

Hnd putting a card in an atm

Tired of your bank, with its fees, data-poor statements and confusing product offerings? A company in Portland, Ore., has an alternative for you.

Simple is an online financial startup company that offers consumers free checking accounts (www.simple.com).

In fact, it pledges that it will never charge a fee for any service (except in a couple of rare circumstances, such as international wire transfers, which it bills at cost).

That's its first big selling point.

The second big selling point is that the company offers detailed breakdowns of customers' transactions and spending habits.

You can search your accounts in plain English, asking the system to "show me how much money I spent on gifts in December," for instance.

How Simple Compares With Big Banks

Institution Basic Checking Fee How to Avoid Fee
Simple $0 n/a
Bank of America eBanking $8.95 Electronic or ATM deposits and withdrawals only; online paperless statements.
Chase Total Checking $12 Monthly direct deposits of at least $500, a $1,500 minimum daily balance or average daily balance of $5,000.
Citibank Basic Checking $10 Make a direct deposit and a bill payment each month or maintain $1,500 in combined balances.
Wells Fargo Value Checking $7 Monthly direct deposits of at least $500 or a $1,500 minimum daily balance.

See transactions plotted on a map or find out how much you spent in a particular state or country — just how expensive was your trip to this year's family reunion?

With that information in hand, you can easily find out if you've been spending too much on dining out, buying books (my weakness) or any other nonessential activity, then dial back your spending if you think you should.

I can find out much of that information now, but to do it I have to enter my receipts into Quicken, a soul-sucking enterprise that both my husband and I avoid if we can.

Or I can jot down all my purchases for a week on a piece of paper, which works but is very easy to forget or misplace and doesn't offer the automatic categorization of Simple's system.

How Simple works

Simple offers many standard banking services, including direct deposit and money transfers. Customers get a Visa debit card and can use the Allpoint ATM network to withdraw cash without a fee, though they can't make cash deposits.

If there's not enough money in your account to cover a debit card purchase, the card will be declined. Embarrassing, perhaps, but you'll never pay an overdraft fee.

The startup doesn't offer physical bank branches, paper checkbooks, joint accounts or business checking accounts. Users pay bills through electronic fund transfer or by telling Simple to send a paper check.

The brainchild of an Australian software engineer, Simple isn't really a bank. It has deals with Bancorp and CBW Bank, both of which are federally insured banks, to hold its customers money. (Banks pay their standard interest rates on Simple user accounts, which is to say that you'll get practically nothing, but that's what you'd get at any other bank these days, too.)

Simple makes its money through interchange fees — the money a bank earns every time a customer swipes its debit card — and by earning interest on the money it carries.

Not just a bank account

In addition to its no-fee promise and analytical capabilities, Simple offers user apps that are both convenient and cool. The company lets customers add money by taking a photo of a check they want to deposit.

Simple's note-taking app lets users attach notes about the circumstances of a purchase — "I didn't pack enough warm clothes" next to a bill for a sweatshirt on vacation, for instance.

Another app lets users attach a photo or document to a transaction. A photo of the happy crew is a nice way to remember that you spent $50 on your share of a birthday dinner.

Mostly those are just cool features, though they don’t cost users anything and may offer another way to see where the money goes.

Another feature, which pairs transactions with links to recent online purchases and vendor customer service numbers, could prove handy when a customer needs to return a purchase but can't find the receipt or even remember where the item came from in the first place.

The firm's website touts its customer service, a system that apparently involves humans. That by itself would be a refreshing change from the robo-systems that purport to answer questions at most banks.

Simple started slowly gathering customers last year and now has about 20,000, which isn't an especially big number in the banking world. You need an invitation to join, but it's easy enough to request one on the company's website.

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