How not to pick a bank

Posted at 3:27 PM, Aug 10, 2016

Picking a bank is kind of like buying a car. In the same way that an impressive stereo system shouldn’t be a vehicle’s main selling point, a bank’s sign-up bonus shouldn’t have you rushing to give it your money.

A better strategy? Getting a well-rounded impression of whichever bank or credit union has caught your eye. That means making sure it offers good checking and savings accounts, low fees and tools you’ll actually use.

As enticing as the following deals and features may seem, none should be the primary reason you choose a bank.

Don’t chase special deals

Banks are always hungry for more customers, and some try harder than others to sate their appetite. Popular strategies include offering a high introductory savings rate — 3%! — or a one-time cash bonus — $200! — when you open a checking account.

It’s hard not to be wooed by short-term perks. But that great rate rarely lasts longer than a few months, meaning you don’t see much from it, and ultimately these one-offs shouldn’t carry as much weight as low fees, good rates and convenient services over the long run.

(That said, if you’re deciding between two banks that both look good overall, there’s nothing wrong with joining the one that offers a little something extra.)

Don’t be entranced by a flashy website

From flicking birds to catching Pokemon, we use our smartphones for all sorts of fun and games. But a growing number of consumers are actually using them for more productive purposes, like paying bills and monitoring their accounts. Knowing this, banks and credit unions are investing heavily in their mobile and online platforms.

While that’s a good thing, keep in mind that a sharp-looking website goes only so far. Other tech features matter much more. Is there an online chat service? Will you be able to deposit checks using your smartphone? Can you schedule automatic transfers between your savings and checking accounts?

Don’t be impressed by features you won’t use

Big banks — the ones that pay millions to slap their names on stadiums — have locations across the country. That’s often one of their biggest selling points. But maintaining as many as 5,000 branches is also a burden, and makes it difficult to offer good savings rates.

If you can’t remember the last time you stepped foot inside a bank, don’t let those branch numbers influence your decision. Although many customers still prefer in-person help, online tools have made it easier than ever to bank from your couch.

Focus on services that you know you’ll take advantage of. If, for example, you overdraft frequently, look for banks and credit unions that have lenient overdraft policies and low fees.

Don’t overvalue sponsorships or other partnerships

College students, take note: Your school may have an official banking partner, but that doesn’t mean their accounts are any better than those of other financial institutions.

Elsewhere, some banks team up with professional sports leagues to offer deals like custom debit cards with your favorite team’s logo. But, really, these kinds of perks don’t enrich your overall banking experience, so it’s best not to let them drive your decision.

We’ve all been there: going to the store to buy milk and coming home with eight other things we didn’t really need. Looking for a new bank tests consumers’ discipline in many of the same ways.

That’s what makes it so important to stick to what matters: low fees, strong rates and reliable customer service. Do that, and you probably won’t be in the market for a new bank any time soon.

Tony Armstrong is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: Twitter: @tonystrongarm.

The article How Not to Pick a Bank originally appeared on NerdWallet.