Hate Your Bank? 3 Steps to Ditch ‘Em

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There are still places you can get free checking with lower fees. And switching doesn't have to be a hassle.

When the relationship started, you were happy enough. But over the years, everything’s soured. Exchanges that used to be pleasant now turn into battles. If it were easy, you’d walk away. But the hassle and expense of moving on are mind-numbing. So you grit your teeth and try to endure just one more day.

It’s not your spouse I’m talking about: it’s your bank. There was a time when “free” defined your relationship. But these days “fee” is more like it. Fees for checking. Fees for your credit card; for the overdraft “protection” you never asked for that costs you 35 bucks when you overdraw your account by 50 cents. Fees to talk to a teller. ATM fees. It’s making you nuts. You want out, but it’s not easy. Your paycheck is deposited there. A slew of payments are paid automatically from your checking account, from your gym membership to your mortgage. And even if you do find the time to deal with the hassle, will the grass really be greener elsewhere?

In a word, yes. There are still places where you can get free checking and where fees are lower. And you can switch without a lot of hassle. Here’s what to do.

Find your new bank

First, find a new bank. You’ll probably find small local banks will offer better deals than the monster ones. Or better yet, don’t use a bank at all. Use a credit union instead. Credit unions are non-profit and community-based, which translates into as close to the good old days as you’re likely to find. When compared to giant banks, most credit unions pay higher interest on savings and charge less for loans. Their fees and interest rates on credit cards are often lower. Many still offer free checking. And if you’re worried about convenience, don’t. If the credit union you pick is a member of a shared branch network, you can access it at any other credit union, even ones in Europe. In fact, you might even be able to fully access your account from full-service kiosks at the nearest 7-11. Imagine it: making a loan payment or a deposit while eating a 99 cent chili dog: banking nirvana.

If you’re not eligible for a credit union through your job, no worries. Just go to the Credit Union Association’s Credit Union Locator, put in your zip code and you’ll get a list of the credit unions closest to your house. Look for “community” as the type: that means you’re probably eligible to join by virtue or where you live as opposed to belonging to some profession or group. Then compare their rates and fees to those you’re paying now. Like what you see? Then find out if they’re a member of a shared branch network by going to CUServiceCenter.com. If they are, that means you can go to any other shared branch credit union or ATM in the world to conduct business just like you would your own. (Imagine banks doing that?)

Start easing away from your old one

Now that you’re ready to start a new relationship, it’s time to start easing out of the old one. Ask your new bank or credit union if they offer a “switch kit.” That’s just a collection of the paperwork you’ll need (which might be online) to re-direct your direct deposit and inform whoever is automatically taking money out of your old account to start taking it from your new one. (Btw, representative of the credit union I used in my news story said they routinely offer to personally assist new members by filling out paperwork for them. What’s that called? Oh yes, I remember now: customer service!)

But don’t just cash out and close down

OK, you’ve opened a new, better account and filled out the forms to switch all the automatic stuff over. Ready to close your old account? Not quite yet. Leave the old account open for a while just to make sure all your checks have cleared and all your automatic deposits and withdrawals have switched. Go online daily for a couple of weeks and check both accounts to make sure everything’s kosher. Relax… there’s no rush.

Ta da!

And that’s all there is to it. Not the simplest thing in the world, perhaps, but not as hard as you were afraid it might be. And didn’t it feel great when you stopped complaining about that bad banking relationship and actually did something about it? Oh yes.

Stacy Johnson

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