5 Ways to Become a Checking Account Genius

  • Know your options

    In today's world, every checking account comes with a string of features -- online bill payment, overdraft protection, automatic withdrawals, direct deposit and e-alerts, to name a few.

    To evaluate the options available, start by looking at the fees to make sure they are reasonable -- or better yet, nonexistent, says Travis Parman, spokesman for Ally Bank based in Detroit.

    Then move on to other factors, such as customer service. "Increasingly, people have hectic schedules and need to bank any time of the day," says Parman. Some financial institutions offer 24/7 e-chat assistance, e-mail communication options and phone services.

    And don't overlook the online banking option. Online financial institutions save money on overhead, and those savings often get passed on to the customer, Parman says.

  • Get smart about fees

    As noted in Bankrate's 2010 Checking Study, free checking accounts are on the decline.

    Fortunately, getting a free checking account is not impossible. You may need to simply sit down with a banker and ask, "How can I get this account for free?" says Denise Winston, founder of Money Start Here, a financial education company in Bakersfield, Calif.

    Signing up for features such as direct deposit or an automatic savings plan can often get you that free checking account.

    Once you have an account, be wary of overdraft fees. "Not only do they tend to be the larger single fee, but they're the ones that can be tapped multiple times without (you) even realizing it," says Daniel Penrod, senior industry analyst for the California Credit Union League in Ontario, Calif.

    To avoid late charges, sign up for e-mail or text alerts that notify you when your balance is low, or sign up for overdraft protection.

    Learn more about the fees to watch for at Bankrate's report on checking trends.

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    Bankrate.com is the Web's leading aggregator of information on financial products including mortgages, credit cards, new and used automobile loans, money market accounts, certificates of deposit, checking and ATM fees, home equity loans and online banking fees. Visit Bankrate.com to get the tools and information that can help you make the best financial decisions.