Friday, June 08, 2007

Auditioning new banks, part 1

Why is NYC banking so especially heinous?

When I went looking for a local bank back in 2001, I really couldn't find anything without a monthly fee for dipping below a set minimum. Things aren't quite that dire now -- 'free' checking is catching on, and I have a few local options -- but it's also pretty clear that banks operate here differently than they do in other places, even when they're national chains.

For example, check out Citibank's EZ checking. One of its features is "Five free uses of non-Citibank ATMs." But there's a little asterisks next to that, and the fine print notes, "Applies in all markets but CA, NV and the NYC area where it's $1.50 per withdrawal."

Why? Why is NYC different? Is it simply that the competitive landscape here lets banks get away with higher fees, or is there something strange in our local banking regulations?

(And yes, as the financial reporter, I should be the one answering that question. I'll get on it, but figured I would first throw it out there and see if anyone has any insight.)

I haven't picked a new bank account yet. I've been swamped this week and have only now started doing a serious comparison. (For those who missed it, see last week's post about how my beloved NetBank is going away.)

I've gotten a lot of suggestions in the comments. To keep things straight, and potentially help others in a similar situation, I'm going to list out the banks I've considered -- and why I've crossed them off the list.

First, a recap of what I'm looking for.

Things I consider non-negotiable

  • No minimum balance required to avoid monthly fees
  • Good online account management tools
  • No-fee online bill pay
  • No fees for writing paper checks
  • NO FEES FOR USING OUTSIDE ATMs. This is something of a financial moral issue for me. I wish the charges were lower, but I don't get irate about ATM operators charging fees for non-customers using their ATMs. They're proving me a service; I'm willing to pay for it. I get furious, though, about banks charging their own customers fees for using ATMs other than theirs. That's just coercive, punitive and monopolistic.

    This is not a financially rational position for me to be a hardliner about. I probably spend $10-$15 in an average month on upfront ATM fees -- the $1.50-$2 per-transaction I get charged by the ATM operators for using their machines. (I pay nothing on the back-end. NetBank doesn't charge for using ATMs outside its network.) I could spend less by getting a bank with good ATM coverage and using its ATMs religiously.

    But. I have this fiscally irrational objection to paying routine monthly fees, or paying my bank for using another bank's ATM. In exchange for avoiding those fees, I'm willing to pay more actual cash money in upfront ATM usage fees.

    I don't pretend this is sane. However. It's something I am surprised to find myself caring about very strongly, so I'm sticking to my guns on it.

Things I would really like

  • Overdraft line of credit. With NetBank, I have an overdraft credit line. If I overdraft, it transfers money from the credit line. There is no NSF charge or overdraft fee -- all I pay is interest on the funds that get transferred over. This is awesome. I try not to bounce checks, of course, but it's a very nice protection to have.
  • Good options for a money market account with the same bank. I want to open one this year, once I, er, amass some savings. For that, I will care about interest rates.

Things I don't care about

  • Interest. 0% is fine by me.
  • ATM network coverage. It would be nifty to have ATMs around where I can get money with no fees whatsoever. However, that hasn't been the case for me for the past decade. I'm used to the pain of upfront fees and willing to continue paying them.

This is getting hugely long, so I'll continue it in the next post.