7 smart moves to get great checking

Ink pen on check

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

If you have tens of thousands of dollars to invest, you can benefit from the high-yield or reward checking accounts some small banks are offering.

They're paying the best interest rates around if you're willing to follow the rules.

But most of us need a traditional checking account that just allows us to pay our bills and tap nearby ATMs for a little cash without draining our balance with lots of fees.

Make these smart moves and you can find a checking account that does just that:

Smart move 1. Avoid these fees.

Don't sign up for any checking account that imposes:

Monthly maintenance fees. These will eat your account balance alive. Whether they're $5, $6 or $7 a month -- typical service charges from large banks -- they add up. Think about it. A $6-a-month maintenance fee on your checking account socks you for $72 a year.

Per-check fees. There should be no charge and no limit on the number of checks you can write each month.

Starter check fee. Any bank that charges you for the blank starter checks that tide you over until your personalized checks come doesn't deserve your business.

Fees for paper statements. If getting a monthly statement in the mail is important to you, you shouldn't have to pay extra for it.

Check image fee. There should be no stealthy charges to display your check images online or in your paper statements.

Smart move 2. Don't sign up for an account with a 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. You want a checking account that imposes no monthly fees, even if your balance is $1.

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. It's now an average of $3.50 and increasing every year.

If you make two ATM transactions per week at that rate, that's $28 per month!

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.

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.

You can earn 3% or more with a high-yield or reward checking account -- a worthwhile return if you have $20,000 to invest.

But the best traditional checking accounts are paying interest rates of less than 1% right now. Usually a lot less, like 0.10%.

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.

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 money-maker for the bank.

Smart move 5. Don't opt in 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.

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

Don't succumb to the scare tactics banks use to push overdraft protection onto their customers. 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.

Smart move 6. Make sure transactions are fairly processed.

Banks and credit unions use several systems for processing checks and debit card transactions.

The worst way is to pay the day's biggest checks and debit card transactions first. If they overdraw your account, the bank can bounce all smaller transactions, charging an insufficient funds fee for each of them.

You want a bank that processes payments smallest to largest.

Look for a checking account agreement that says, "Items presented for payment on the same day will be paid in amount order, smallest to largest," not "We reserve the right to honor checks in any order we may choose."

An acceptable although less desirable alternative is a bank that processes transactions in chronological order.

Smart move 7. 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 account terms has that information for scores of banks in your area and 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 of who's offering the best deal before you leave the house.

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