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How to Pick a Bank (a decent one) in the USA

how to pick a bank
By Melissa Bondar

Many moons ago, at my college orientation, I opened my first bank account with First Union bank. I made this decision after much careful research. J/K. They had a booth at orientation and an ATM on campus. Done and done.

Times were simpler at the turn of the millennium. These days there are so many banking options it can feel completely overwhelming.

The First Union bank turned out to be just fine. It was eventually bought by Wachovia and then it was bought by Wells Fargo. Wells Fargo was considerably less fine. I’m not fully convinced they aren’t the devil.

After general lackluster customer service, my hatred of Wells Fargo boiled over when I went to grad school abroad and had endless issues transferring money and making payments despite going into my local branch before leaving America and confirming they would be able to do everything I needed while I lived overseas.

The first thing I did after moving back home after graduation was close that bank account.

Over the years I’ve opened different bank accounts for different reasons.

My next bank account was with Ally, when online banking was still so new that my parents were not happy with my choice when I told them about it, because Ally had one of the highest interest rates for a checking account way back when.

I went through a phase when I was trying to churn credit cards through bank accounts, so I opened accounts with PNC, Santander, and First Niagara/Keybank.

First Niagara was a nightmare every step of the way – from the hoops you have to jump through to avoid fees, almost everything had to be done in person at a branch, customer service, to closing the account. Ugh. Stay away. The thing is, just reading the reviews from others told me that too and I stupidly ignored them.

Don’t ignore a bunch of bad reviews online.

Santander and PNC were actually both quite good banks, with good online accessibility, a good number of physical branches where I live, great customer service, and easy to close.

Honestly, if I weren’t so happy with my current bank setup of Ally and TD Bank, I would’ve happily stayed with PNC.

I branched out and added TD Bank a few years ago when I needed a cashier’s check for an apartment lease. I picked TD Bank because it was easily accessible and, as silly as this seems, they used to have those coin machines and I always have so many coins.

The coin machines are now gone, (WTF, TD Bank?!?) but I have overall been quite happy with the service there. They also exchange currency with a low fee, which is really useful for me at the moment, and since I’m paid by a Canadian company, I don’t have any issues with the wire transfers into TD Bank since it is a Toronto (that’s what the T stands for) based bank.

I had initially tried to get paid into my Ally account and had a lot of issues with the first paycheck from this company. Since switching to TD Bank, no issues.

All of this experience with different banks has taught me the following tips:

  1. Interest rates are often best with online banks (probably cause they have less expenses). But you may want a bank with a physical location sometimes.
  2. If you do things internationally, you need to ask questions about if the bank can really accommodate what you need before opening an account with them.
  3. Sometimes a slightly lower interest rate is better with a lot of perks, assuming you will actually use the perks.
  4. Read reviews before opening an account with any bank – if the majority of them seem like disgruntled customers, there’s probably a reason.


Published in Collaboration with brokeGIRLrich

brokegirlrich TheatreArtLife

Also on by Melissa Bondar:

On Tour: What’s Worth the Splurge (and What’s Not)

Stage Managers: Investing In Yourself

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