The best checking accounts for 2014

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Most of us hate our banks for gouging us for fee after fee, requiring minimums, and offering teaser rates that turn into nothing more than the same old BS accounts.

I’ve studied most of the checking accounts on the market and today, I’ll show you the best one I’ve found. In fact, it’s the one I use as my primary checking account.

Why is it important to choose the best checking account?

I talk a lot on this blog about building an automated personal finance infrastructure — a system that funnels your money to where it needs to go on a schedule, with minimal involvement from you. This way, the money left over after bills is yours to spend guilt-free. Chapter 5 of my book is all about how this system works and how to build your own.

Automating Your Money: How It Works

 

Of all the components in that system, none are more crucial than your checking account. As I wrote in the book:

“I think of my checking account like an e-mail inbox: all my money goes in my checking account, and then I regularly filter it out to appropriate accounts, like savings and investing, using automatic transfers.”

Your checking account is the center of it all, the nexus of your bulletproof personal finance system. Unfortunately, as I also point out in the book, checking accounts are the number one place where unnecessary fees are levied. That’s why I wrote this post today: to share my favorite checking account, the one I personally use.

BEST CHECKING ACCOUNT: Schwab Investor Checking

Most people think of Charles Schwab as an investment bank. But they also offer what I believe to be the best checking account available. Why?

  • Interest on your deposits
  • No fees
  • No minimums
  • No-fee overdraft protection
  • Free checks
  • Deposit checks via pre-paid envelopes or via iPhone app (snap photos of your check — no need to go into branch)
  • An ATM card
  • BEST BENEFIT: Unlimited reimbursement of any ATM usage

This last point is critical. How often do you go out with friends and have to withdraw money from out-of-network ATMs? How often do you find yourself at a liquor store at 3:30am, needing to withdraw $280, but you hesitate because of onerous ATM fees?

Me too.

Those fees can add up, and Schwab reimburses you for all of them. If you rack up $200 worth of ATM fees in a month, you’ll see a $200 deposit from Schwab before the month ends. This means you can use ANY ATM — corner stores, other banks, whatever — without having to look for some specific bank’s ATM.

When I saw this account, I wanted to marry it.

“But I don’t want to use an online bank.” Some people will balk at using Schwab because it’s an online bank. That’s fine, but I urge you to reconsider: It’s rare to find a checking account that (1) avoids screwing you at every turn, and (2) actually rewards you for using them.

Remember: the whole point of having an automated personal finance system is that your money gets taken care of automatically. Who wants to visit a bank branch for routine financial matters? Once this system is up and running, you wont have to.

You know by now that I’m all about big wins. The ATM-fee reimbursement for the rest of your life is enough of a benefit, but stack on the trust Schwab has built with me, and I’m a long-term customer.

Open a new checking account with Schwab

To get started with the Schwab Checking Account, click here. I have no relationship with Schwab except being a happy customer.

To learn how to fully automate your finances — including ultra-specific recommendations on accounts, investing, debt, negotiation, money & relationships, and buying a car/house — pick up a copy of my book, on sale for less than $10.

Tomorrow, I’ll write  about the best credit card.

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61 Comments

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  1. My credit union (limited membership; my employer is affiliated) offers a rewards checking account with very, very sweet terms. Specifically, for 12 debit purchases a month I get:

    -unlimited ATM fee refunds
    -2.3% interest. This has fallen from 4.9% in 2009.
    -really, really, really awesome staff. I bank mostly online but this still matters to me.

    They also do manual underwriting for lines of credit and offer 0% loans for CSA / farm shares.

    • Those terms are great. I just hate minimum requirements to use debit cards, since there’s basically no consumer-friendly reason to use them.

  2. My wife and I argue about every month about her spending. I think having separate accounts might work, but she is against that. She is a stay-at-home mom, so all the income comes from me. It just seems like she doesn’t grasp the concept that there is only so much money per month and if we spend it we need to stop, so she just uses credit cards. She was raised where whenever she needed money, it was there. It’s just a struggle to get her on-board with the concept that we should stop frivolous spending and focus on the $20k credit card debt.

    Where in your diagram does spending money go? And by spending – I’m including household spending as well – groceries, etc. as well as eating out and personal spending.

    • Read my book to find the details of how the automation system works.

      And you’ll find Chapter 9 especially interesting. One of the topics is relationships and money, including specific scripts to use with your partner so you can work together on managing money.

  3. On link to sign-up for the Schwab account it says near the bottom: “Brokerage Products: Not FDIC Insured • No Bank Guarantee • May Lose Value”.

    It seems to me that their checking accounts are not FDIC insured.

    • Introducing the Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking account:

      Earn 0.25% variable APY— that’s 2 times the national average.1
      No ATM fees. We reimburse any ATM fee you are charged— worldwide.2
      Enjoy free standard checks, free online bill pay and a Visa® Platinum Check Card.
      Get full-featured FDIC-insured checking for up to $250,000.3

    • Brokerage products are not insured by the FDIC—that means the investment accounts and investment products you receive through Schwab, whereas the *checking* account is. And if what David says is true, FDIC insurance for up to 250K is much more than the standard 100K through most banks I believe(?) Although, who are we kidding at the end of the day, do you really think you can rely on the US government to protect your money when the big banks go down? Doesn’t matter where you store it, they’ve proven they are not able to fulfill those promises already, so you may as well just keep it wherever you get the best terms ;)

      Thanks for a killer writeup Ramit. I love my Schwab account.

  4. I decided to go with the Fidelity option: mysmart cash account. Almost all of the same features except it is on the Fidelity platform which, from experience in the investment business, is rock solid.

  5. I opened the Schwab Investor Checking on your advice around 2 years ago, Ramit, and I love it! Another thing you might mention about the “no fees” is that it’s REALLY no fees–I was surprised to learn that there are no foreign transaction fees when you use the debit card abroad. I took advantage of this to save some money when I went on a trip to the Netherlands last year. I put the hotel charge on my Schwab debit card (with a Visa logo, so you can mostly use it like a credit card) to avoid paying a 3% fee.

    • “there are no foreign transaction fees when you use the debit card abroad”

      Can’t thank you enough for this tip. I opened an account there today (already had a Schwab Roth) and customer service called me to see if I had any questions (can you imagine that?). They confirmed that there are no foreign fees (my credit card charges 3% and my credit union debit card 1%).

  6. Ramit, as always, I really appreciate the wealth of knowledge you so freely share. I also think your book is great!

    I wanted to ask if you have recommendations for small business checking/saving/credit cards, or if you just recommend using the same products you’re mentioning in this series?

    Thanks.

  7. Al Pittampalli Link to this comment

    The ATM reimbursement benefit is huge. Thanks for the tip, Ramit.

  8. I think you missed the most important feature of the schwab investor checking! Well most important if you travel internationally. There is 0% fee for taking money out in foreign currencies. Most charge 1-4% to take cash out in a foreign currency. This one doesn’t! PERFECT card for travel!

  9. I am embarrassed to be asking these question, but here it goes:

    When I write a check, sometimes people take forever to cash it. And I see the online balance in my account and *think* I have that much $$, but really I don’t and end up over-drafting. Hello $35 fee. So the representative at BofA did this thing where he set me up with 2 checking accounts which are linked to each other. One is for my debit card / direct deposit, the other for my checks. When I write a check, I have to go online, and transfer money to the account with the checks, and then I know that money is “out of my account”.

    Honestly I hate BofA with a passion, for numerous reasons but the set-up has worked. I keep thinking there has to be a better way than this, right?

    Also, how does overdraft protection work with CSchwab if there is no savings account linked to the checking that guarantees you have enough $$ to write that check?

    • If you can arrange it where you mail a check, like we do sometimes when I hire someone to work on the house, ING Direct allows for you to make a payment from their website and they mail it, the amount is then shown subtracted from your account. On the bottom is this notice: “If this paper check isn’t cashed within 90 days from the date it was sent, the funds will automatically be deposited back into your account.”

  10. I have the Fidelity account as well, along with their 2% cash back American express card and 1.5% cash back Visa card. I have also set it up so that the credit cards are automatically paid of in full every month. Never a missed payment and never any finance and late fees.

  11. @Ramit: yes, this is the problem with those rewards accounts (all through BancVue, I think). it’s hard for me because I’m very frugal. but if you can make the requirements easily it can be a fun game.

  12. MostlyHarmless Link to this comment

    @Ramit,

    I looked into the Charles Schwab account a while ago. It is a great service, BUT with one major problem: The account seems to be for US Citizens only. (Obviously not a problem for most people).

    What about someone like me who is not a US Citizen yet? What would you suggest? (I tried calling them, they were like “sorry, not a citizen, can’t really help”.)

    • This isn’t my experience. I’m a US resident but not a US citizen – you can’t sign up online and need to mail the application in but as long as you give them the ID they ask for you should be fine.

      I called them up ahead of time to ask what ID they needed. They wanted some form of US state identification. I didn’t have one so I sent a Canadian driver’s license instead. It’s taking longer than I thought to get the account set up… I sent in the application ~2 weeks ago and the brokerage account is active but there’s still some extra checking they need to do on the, uh, checking account. It’s supposed to clear up any day now though.

    • MostlyHarmless Link to this comment

      Ah, therein lies the problem. I should have mentioned, I’m technically not a US Resident either. I’m here on an H1B visa.

  13. Does anyone use PNC’s Virtual Wallet? I’ve seen people rave about it. Ramit, I’d love to hear your take on it. It allows you to create buckets of savings, categorizes where/what you’ve spent your money on, what is pending but hasn’t gone through yet, along with a whole bunch of other stuff.

  14. I’ve been looking for a new checking account, this is perfect!

  15. Thanks for the great tip! As always…looking forward to more concepts and ideals from reading Ramit’s work.

  16. Ramit – You are what Uncle Jessie did to parenting on Full House. You make saving cool.

  17. Ramit, glad you’re bringing this up. I must have a read a post fo yours back in 2007/2008 and immediately opened up a Schwab checking out. I can’t even begin to imagine how much ATM fees I’ve saved since making the switch, especially since I spent 6 mo. overseas and ALL of my international ATM fees were re-imbursed! And they were really fair with exchange rates – just an amazing experience from the beginning. Weird to say that about a bank :-)

  18. Does Schwab Investor Checking allow direct downloads into Quicken and online Bill Pay? As much as I may loathe BoA for some of their business practices (I personally have never had an issue with them) and have come to depend on those two features.

    • I switched to Scwab about a month ago after reading Ramit’s book. I just checked online and the answer is yes to both of your questions.

  19. I see that Schwab also lets you deposit checks from your android phone. Does anyone know what the limit for these picture deposits? I know some banks max you at $1,000.

    • I am interested in knowing this too. Most other banks and checking accounts that offer this restrict it to 1000$ a day and 3000$ a month or something similar, would like to know if Schwab is more generous.

    • The limit on mobile deposits is $10,000 per check.

  20. Schwab looks like a great system for personal accounts, what is the best business bank account? Most of the big banks charge massive fees on all their business banking accounts and it would really be nice to have a stable alternative.

  21. Are you also reimbursed for foreign ATM fees? I’d love to have a checking account that I could use abroad without incurring fees.

    • @Fred – I’ve traveled to Japan and Thailand several times since I opened my Schwab account in 2007, and every time I call to ask about exchange rates. Without fail, every time they assure me that there are no added exchange fees, any foreign ATM fees are reimbursed, and that the exchange rate used is whatever the industry rate is at the time of the exchange (i.e. no special, consumer-raping set rate like some exchanges do). Any time I hear about my friends traveling or going abroad, I urge them to open a Schwab account.

  22. [...] Yesterday: The best checking account [...]

  23. How does this Schwab account differ from Ally? Thanks!

  24. Ramit- Any suggestions for a business banking account?

  25. [...] Tuesday: The best checking account [...]

  26. I’m very intrigued, but currently have Ally as well. Although it seems the same, one big difference i see is the deposit by phone feature with Schwaab. This might make me want to change over. I currently have a local BofA account just for depositing checks.

  27. I found BB&T a good option for my business account.

  28. @Andrew – you said “can” open a brokerage account. The FAQ says “need”: Do I need to open a Schwab One brokerage account with my Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking account?
    Yes. The Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking account is only available when linked to a Schwab One brokerage account. The two accounts may be opened at the same time.

    It might have been good to know this in the main post! It’s not a “no-catch” account…. There’s “no obligation” to use the brokerage account, but it’s not clear what the impact is of opening said account.

    • @Lisa – I am referring to using the brokerage account as a business checking.

      Apparently, the Schwab One Brokerage Account (for Organizations) is registered to your EIN (Tax ID) and business name (DBA, LLC, Corporate), and has checking features, all for no fee.

      It’s my understanding that if you open the investor checking as well, that you get remote check deposit (via smartphone), of up to $1k per day or $10k per day, with the same limit applying per check.

      I haven’t opened these accounts yet, but once I go over some things with my accountant and open the accounts, I’ll post back here to answer any questions about using it. I got the idea from a very old post here:
      http://forum.freelanceswitch.com/topic.php?id=2017

  29. @Andrew thanks for the clarification. That being said, both the personal version and the business version (of checking accounts) require the paired brokerage accounts.

  30. @MostlyHarmless,
    It shouldn’t be a problem. I never needed to show Schwab my passport when I opened my account, just my driver’s license.

  31. schwab is def a good one, i also like ING and USAA (only veterans and family can qualify). ease of use, no fees and most importantly customer service are my three biggest criteria! a decent interest rate can’t hurt either

    Ally is a up and comer – keep an eye out

    • anyone can join USAA now, its not limited. they changed the policy a few years ago

  32. Hi Ramit!
    This question has been asked, but not answered, before.
    I am living in Europe, so I can’t use the Schwabs account. Are there similar accounts like this one for Europeans?

  33. Ramit,

    If you’re starting over, and the credit is not great, they do a hard hit on the report, do you know if they pull it for ID (USA Patriot) or for getting the account? With my credit I probably wouldn’t be approved.

  34. I heard Ally was good… what are your thoughts?

  35. The USAA credit card has all the same features and has run lots of consumer rewards. They also have a best price in auto insurance. You no longer have to be part of the military to join. I HATE almost every major corporation and I generally hate all banks but I can not say enough good things about USAA, LOVE THEM

  36. Hi I just came across your webpage yesterday. Really liking your stuff so far. Going to buy your book.
    Just two questions.

    It states on the scwab webpage that only US residents can create accounts. Do you know of a similar bank that I can use up here in Canada?

    Can the concepts in your book be applied in Canada?

  37. [...] acquisition will mean for ING Direct. As you know, when I recommended my favorite savings account, checking account, and credit card, I named ING Direct as the savings account that I love and [...]

  38. Great tip! I just signed up for an account … I recently moved and kept my old checking account in my old town (over 1000 miles away). I don’t write checks and rarely need to deposit them, so this is perfect!! Love that I can deposit using my iPhone! Awesome!!!

  39. [...] This is an excerpt from Ramit Sethi’s post: My favorite checking account [...]

  40. Hi Ramit,

    I have a question regarding the closing of a checking account. I use CIBC and am frustrated with paying the $3.9 monthly service fee plus additional atm fees and therefore plan to change to an account (such as ING). That said, I wonder what will happen to the rest of my accounts held at the bank. Have you come across the situation where people wish to switch only their checking accounts to ING and keep the credit + investing accounts untouched at the original bank? Can I pay off my credit card using the ING account? Thanks so much, Jon