6 smart moves to land a cheap checking account

Portion of a check

A good checking account should be cheap and easy to use.

Most of us need a traditional checking account that just allows us to pay our bills, use a debit card and tap nearby ATMs for cash.

Yields are so low that the interest rate you'll earn shouldn't be a factor in selecting an account.

What you should look for is an account that gives you what you need for little or no charge.

Just follow these six smart moves, and you can find a useful account that won't take a big bite out of your wallet.

Smart move 1. Try to avoid these fees.

Free checking is far more difficult to find than it was just several years ago, as more than half of all non-interest accounts now charge a monthly fee.

While you can still find no-fee accounts, you might also find they come with more strings attached.

And when you do find fee-free checking, some of the small banks offering these accounts might lack some of the services of bigger institutions.

In a perfect world, you'd find an account that gives you everything you need at no cost.

Today, a more realistic goal is the almost-free account.

In any case, try to avoid these fees or at least minimize them:

Of course, banks are adding new fees every month, so check your statement and look out for others we haven't discovered.

Smart move 2. Don't sign up for an account with a high minimum balance requirement.

"Free checking" shouldn't be dependent on keeping $10,000, $1,000 or even $100 in your account or a combination of accounts.

Ideally, you want a checking account that imposes no monthly fees, even if your balance is $1.

Unfortunately, the big banks just don't offer this kind of checking account today. You'll have to find a community bank or credit union to avoid minimum balance requirements.

Smart move 3. Get free use of any ATM.

When you use a debit card at another bank's ATM, you can be charged a fee by the other bank and your bank. Those fees averaged more than $3.80 in 2011 and increase every year.

If you make two out-of-network ATM transactions per week at that rate, that's more than $30 a month just to access your money.

The most consumer-friendly checking accounts impose no fees for using another bank's ATM and reimburse you for the fees other banks impose on you.

In other words, you get to use pretty much any ATM for free. Most big banks don't offer this deal, but smaller institutions usually do.

The next-best deal is where your bank imposes no fees for using a so-called "foreign ATM," but won't reimburse you for the fees the owner of that machine might impose.

Smart move 4. Forget about earning interest.

Checking account interest rates are pitifully low these days -- less than 0.10% APY on average. So forget about yield when looking for a place to park your cash.

You'll be making nickels and dimes with rates like that. Literally.

A balance of $1,000 earning 0.10% will earn 8 cents a month, even if the interest is compounded daily.

You're better off investing your money elsewhere and keeping a bare minimum of living expenses in your checking account.

So be wary of bank customer service reps urging you to "move up" to an interest-bearing account. It probably comes with more fees and is a bigger moneymaker for the bank.

Smart move 5. Don't opt in for overdraft protection.

Banks used to automatically enroll checking account customers for overdraft protection.

That allowed them to unwittingly overdraw their account with debit cards, incurring a $30 fee for every purchase they made with insufficient funds.

The Federal Reserve finally stepped in and told banks that customers had to actually sign up for such programs and all of their fees.

Banks will use scare tactics to try to get you to sign up. They'll call you or send emails or letters in the mail.

Just say no.

In fact, tell your bank that you not only want to opt out of overdraft protection for debit card purchases, but for checks and automatic bill payments as well.

If you're not aware that your balance is running low, it's better to have a purchase declined and find out about it then.

With overdraft protection, you likely won't know for a day or two. In the meantime, you will get hit with a fee every time you use your card.

Smart move 6. Shop around for the best deal.

You don't have to run all over town to compare fees and minimum balance requirements.

Our extensive database of checking accounts has that information for scores of banks in your area as well as Internet banks.

Then call a local credit union.

These member-owned cooperatives usually have great checking accounts and are particularly helpful to low- and middle-income families or 20-somethings just starting out in life.

You'll have a good idea who's offering the best deal before you leave the house.

Finally, while small banks and credit unions typically offer better deals, many lack the Web banking capabilities of the big boys.

If you're one that constantly makes online transfers, wants automatic bill pay and the ability to download an Excel file of your purchases, you may not find that with a credit union.

So be sure to ask about their Web banking capabilities before signing up.

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