I got my first checking account at the age of 13 (with my parents’ help, of course). It was fun for newly-teenage me: I now had a place to put all of my babysitting earnings, complete with a personalized checkbook that I used as often as I could find an excuse. Back then, writing checks and keeping an account ledger were exciting.
These days, I don’t find my bank account quite as thrilling, and writing checks has become more of a painful part of adulthood than fun. Even still, there are a few ways that a checking account can be more painful than usual, if you’re not careful.
Here are 10 of the most common checking account mistakes that people make, and how you can avoid them at all costs.
1. Being Too Loyal
When I got that first account at 13, it was at the same bank my parents used. I didn’t know better and for many years into adulthood, figured that all banks were the same.
What I didn’t realize, until I got married and switched to a credit union, was that banks are not created equal. Checking accounts come with a variety of features and expenses, savings accounts offer various rates of return, and the other financial products that you might one day need–a mortgage or personal loan, for instance–may not be the most enticing at the place you already bank.
Whether you’ve been with the same bank for 10 years, feel like you’re not getting enough from your bank, or need something like an auto loan, feel free to shop around! Who knows: you might learn that there’s a much more lucrative world waiting for you just down the block.
2. Insisting on a Brick-and-Mortar Branch
In that same breath: if you haven’t at least considered an online checking account, you might be missing out. The idea can be a little uncomfortable–especially if you’re using the same bank as your parents or picked the branch with a drive-thru closest to your office–but online banks offer some of the most feature-rich accounts on the market today.
Online banks are exactly what they sound like. They don’t typically have branches that you can walk into (with the exception of those like Capital One 360, allowing you to utilize many of their Capital One Bank locations), which can make it harder to deposit checks or ask questions face-to-face. However, with a slew of tech features and enticing account offerings, they more than make up for what they lack.
Online banks are usually free, meaning that you don’t have to worry about monthly maintenance fees. They typically offer a smartphone app–often with mobile check deposit–so you can still manage your money on the go. Plus, most of them also offer higher-than-average savings account rates, making it a great place to do all of your banking.
If you’re only sticking with your brick-and-mortar bank because it’s all you know, or because you’re simply uncomfortable with a branchless bank, you should definitely keep an open mind. Online banks are not only just as convenient in many cases, but they can also save you a lot of money.
3. Paying a Monthly Fee
Free checking accounts are incredibly easy to come by these days. For example, most online banks are free these days (as we talked about in #2), but many brick-and-mortar banks also offer free checking account options. If you’re paying a monthly fee just for the convenience of using a certain bank, you’re overpaying.
Some banks have “free” checking accounts, but to avoid the monthly fee you either need to keep a specific minimum balance, receive direct deposits into the account, or use a debit card a certain number of times. That’s fine if you want to stick with an account like that–just make sure that you’re meeting the requirements to avoid a monthly fee.
No one should be paying a monthly fee just to allow a bank to hold their money.
NBKC Bank offers an online checking account with zero fees. No account maintenance fees, no overdraft fees and no non-sufficient funds fees. Checks are free and NBKC Bank makes it a point to say the only two fees they’ll ever charge you are for domestic wires going out ($5) and international wires coming in or going out ($45). No ATM fees at any of their 32,000 ATM’s and they’ll refund you up to $12 per month for fees charged from other ATM’s.
And … not only does this online checking account offer a zero fee opportunity, but it also dishes out a 1.01% APY return on all balances. That means you’ll actually MAKE money.
4. Paying ATM Fees
No matter which bank you use, there are ways to avoid ATM fees. Some banks have a large network of ATMs to choose from, so you can almost always find one nearby that will allow you to withdraw cash fee-free. Others, like online banks, may have a smaller network of ATMs, but instead offer a ATM fee refund each month. The latter is my personal favorite as it’s the least limiting, but there are always ways around an ATM fee.
Figure out which option your checking account offers and utilize it. If you simply can’t get to an ATM that’s in-network, you can still avoid the high fees involved with grabbing cash. You can always pay for a purchase with your debit card and choose cash back, which is my go-to. There are also money-sending apps, such as Zelle and Venmo, if you need to pay someone back but don’t have the greenbacks available to do so.
5. Keeping Too Little In the Account
If you want to see just how expensive your checking account can be, let it get overdrawn. Once your balance dips below $0, every single transaction that comes through is subject to the (often sky-high) overdraft fee. This means that a $1.50 gas station purchase could easily wind up costing you $36.50, if you weren’t tracking your balance.
It’s best to try to keep a buffer of at least $100 in your account. That way, if a merchant accidentally runs your card twice, or you forget about a recurring payment, you won’t wind up in the red. You should also be checking your account daily and watching the balance, as well as tracking your transactions as you go. If your account starts getting too low, be sure to transfer from savings or make a deposit before you go into the hole.
6. Keeping Too Much In the Account
It’s a bad idea to keep too little in your checking account, but that doesn’t mean you should keep all of your money in there. In fact, keeping too much of your money in a checking account can be just as expensive in the end!
Checking accounts aren’t known for their interest rates. That is, after all, what savings accounts were designed for: to save and collect interest. If you’re keeping significantly more money in a checking account than you actually need each month, then you are missing out on potential interest earnings that could net you quite a bit of money each year.
Instead, put just enough in your checking account to cover your monthly bills and spending, and watch the balance as you go. Put the rest in a high-yield savings account, where it will earn maximum interest, and then transfer some into checking if you spend more than expected.
7. Not Watching Transactions
Your checking account isn’t a rotisserie oven: you can’t just set it and forget it! There are many reasons to continually watch your transactions as they roll in, no matter how well-planned your finances may be.
If you’re not watching your transactions on a regular basis, you could easily miss fraudulent or duplicated charges. Bank account fraud is a little trickier than credit card fraud, too, and you could wind up sitting around without those stolen funds while the bank irons out the issue (as opposed to credit cards, which will just refund your account for the charges while they sort everything out).
Don’t just assume that because your debit card is in-hand and requires a PIN, that you’re safe. No account is immune to fraud or errors, but the sooner you catch them, the easier they are to resolve.
8. Not Watching Your Balance
No matter whether you plan your finances to the penny each month, there could still be surprises. That’s why it’s always important to keep an eye on your balance throughout the month.
You could also easily forget about a transaction you made or a recurring payment, which may drop your account below $0. If you weren’t paying attention and this happens, you might wind up with hundreds of dollars in overdraft fees… all of which could have been avoided with a quick transfer of funds.
Moral of the story: always keep an eye on your balance. Mobile apps and text alerts make this incredibly easy, so there’s no excuse to lose track of where your checking account stands.
9. Failing to Really Understand Overdraft Protection
If your checking account offers overdraft protection (and most do), it can be both a blessing and a curse. It’s important, though, to understand exactly what that coverage entails, whether or not you ever plan to use the feature.
If you don’t enroll in overdraft protection, any charge that would bump your account to anything below $0 is declined. This means checks, debit card transactions, or check card purchases are all declined or returned.
If you do enroll in overdraft protection, your checking account will cover checks or debit card transactions that come in even if your account dips to a negative balance. This can be helpful if you want to avoid things like a returned check charge, or even just a denied card at the grocery store checkout. However, it comes at a price.
Each transaction that comes through once you cross below that $0 threshold is subject to an overdraft fee. Some banks have a courtesy period, where you can deposit cash within a business day and avoid all fees. Most, though, are happy to charge anywhere from $20-35 per transaction that comes through.
If you have a large charge that drops your account to $0, and then have three very small charges come through–let’s say they’re only for $2, $4.10, and $6.40–you can expect most banks to sock you with three hefty overdraft fees. That $12.50 in charges could easily cost you $105 in fees alone at many chain banks.
Enrolling in overdraft protection can spare you returned check fees or simply the embarrassment of having your card declined. But if you aren’t careful, it can be a very expensive feature to have.
10. (Unsafely) Shopping Online
Almost everyone shops online. It’s convenient, it’s often cheaper, and we just don’t have the time to walk the malls anymore. But shopping online with your checking account can be an unsafe idea.
Some merchants will allow you to make ACH payments directly from your checking account, which is similar to using a digital check. If the merchant doesn’t have a secure site, though, your banking information could easily be intercepted or stolen and your account drained.
Even Visa- and Mastercard-branded debit cards aren’t immune. Merchants have their systems hacked every single day, with customers’ most personal information stolen in the process. If you use a credit card, you have built-in protections and can easily combat fraud. If you’re using a debit card instead, your funds are more at-risk.
I personally recommend using a credit card every time you shop online. However, if you’re going to use your checking account’s debit card, be sure that the site you’re shopping on has an up-to-date security certificate and can be trusted.
Checking accounts aren’t the most glamorous financial products around, but they’re necessary for almost everyone. By avoiding these 10 common missteps, you can ensure that your checking account runs as smoothly (and affordably) as possible.