Up until a few years ago, if you went to a bank to open a checking account, you were presented with exactly one choice. Today, banks offer over a half dozen different kinds each. If you count all the checking account plans that each bank in your neighborhood offers, you could have some laborious homework to do sorting through their features. You’ll find some products that come with a monthly maintenance fee but give you all the checks that you want, another that is free but that limits you to just a couple of checks, others that give you free overdraft protection but charge you for use of their ATMs and so on.

Selecting a Bank Takes Elbow Grease

As much sense as it makes to do your homework looking for the right feature set, it makes even more sense to look for a great, trustworthy bank. Banks come in three basic categories — national banks, regional banks and Internet banks. Each comes with its own strengths.

Fee versus Free

Big banks tend to be first to invest in the latest retail customer banking technologies. The also tend to offer bill payment and other basic services for free. While the huge Bank of America tried to charge $5 on every debit card purchase a while ago, they give away Internet bill pay facilities for free. Charles Schwab Bank, on the other hand, charges for it.

In general, though, according to the Federal Reserve’s 2003 Annual Report to the Congress on Retail Fees and Depository Institutions, smaller regional banks (such as Home State Bank) tend to be flexible, and to reliably offer lower fee levels.

The Minimum Balance Policy 

Not only can a minimum balance level be hard to maintain if you live paycheck to paycheck, it’s so much money wasted. Bank accounts offer practically no interest. It can be a tremendous relief to bank with a retail banker that doesn’t expect you to keep hundreds in your account. Many smaller banks and Internet banks hold liberal policies in this area.

ATM Partnerships 

Some banks force you to use their own limited ATM network. Others have partnerships with gas stations, retailers, restaurants and other locations to offer a wide network of no-fee ATM services. Little things like these can turn out to be very convenient over a lifetime of banking.

Check Out their Customer Service

Small regional banks tend to score better for customer service and large national ones. A quick check of online customer service reviews can help.

Look at the Range of Services Offered 

For families with children that may need a home loan at some point, a college loan or a car loan, a full-service bank that offers every kind of credit product can make a lot of sense. When you have a long-term relationship with the bank, they tend to offer you better terms.

Finally, some banks offer innovative account features that make a lot of sense for families. Subaccounts are one such feature. In such an account, you can sign up for one account, but then subdivided into multiple little sections for different kinds of saving goals. This is a very convenient feature. If this is the feature that does it for you, this is what you should look for in a bank.