2016 Checking Account Cost Comparison Report
With certain checking accounts charging close to 50 different fees, it’s nearly impossible to keep track of the growing structural complexity of this supposedly basic banking tool. As a result, the cost of everyday checking can vary by hundreds of dollars per year based on what account you have and the way in which you use it.
In order to more accurately assess the extent of the problem, WalletHub compared the annual cost of each traditional checking account offered by 35 of the largest consumer-facing U.S. banks and credit unions, using five theoretical consumer profiles as our test cases. This report, together with WalletHub’s corresponding Checking Account Transparency Report, will therefore help give consumers a holistic view of both the good and the bad aspects of the checking market.
The consumer profiles used in this Cost Comparison Report were designed to represent a wide range of banking styles and provide an effective basis of comparison between institutions. You can find a breakdown of each profile’s general characteristics below. Additional detail is provided in the Methodology section.
International & on the Move
|Uses Direct Deposit|
|Uses ATMs outside ownbank|
|Uses online banking tools|
|Account falls below $0|
|Best Checking Account||Navy Federal Credit Union Flagship Checking||Alliant Credit Union High-Rate Checking Account||Charles Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking||Charles Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking||First Niagra PinnaclePlus*|
- Your checking account could cost as much as $810 per year if you choose wrong and do not adjust your banking habits based on the account’s price structure.
- Complex overdraft policy differences make it nearly impossible for customers to identify the most affordable account based on their particular usage habits. People who find themselves repeatedly overdrawing their accounts should consider alternative checking accounts, which either do not allow account overdrafts or charge relatively low overdraft fees. Cash Strapped consumers can save the most: $436 per year, on average. The one major tradeoff is that you might have to give up your paper checkbook.
Cost Difference Between Most & Least Affordable Accounts
- The less money you have, the more a checking account will cost you. The average Cash Strapped consumer would incur roughly $522 in fees each year. Overdraft and insufficient funds fees add up quickly when times are tight, and it’s difficult to meet the direct deposit or minimum balance thresholds that many financial institutions require in order for customers to avoid monthly fees.
Average Annual Account Costs By Consumer Profile
- All consumers can save on everyday banking by gravitating to checking accounts from credit unions and online-only banks, with Cash Strapped consumers eligible to save the most money on average: up to $423 per year.
Scenario Cost by Type of Account
- Checking accounts are far from one-size-fits all, as the most affordable offer for a given consumer need isn’t likely to be the cheapest for the other use cases.
 The average Pearson correlation coefficient of the rankings of all scenarios was 0.24.
Most & Least Affordable Accounts
|Average Annual Checking Account Costs||Most Affordable Checking Account||Most Expensive Checking Account|
|Old School||$16.91||Navy Federal Credit Union Flagship Checking||-$17.50||Key Express Checking Account||$55.98|
|Young||$31.59||Alliant Credit Union High-Rate Checking Account||-$0.32||First Republic Classic Checking||$300.00|
|Cash Strapped||$522.62||Charles Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking||$00.00||First Niagara Pinnacle Plus Checking Account*||$810.71|
|Everyday Joe||$141.57||Charles Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking||$00.00||First Republic Classic Checking||$395.28|
|International||$314.11||First Niagra PinnaclePlus*||$43.50||Fifth Third Bank Enhanced Checking||$572.66|
*Given First Niagara’s recent acquisition by KeyBank, this offer may not be available for much longer.
Note: Negative numbers indicate the user would make money by having the account.
Most & Least Affordable Financial Institutions
|Overall Rank*||Bank||Old School Rank||Young Rank||Cash Strapped Rank||Everyday Joe Rank||International Rank|
|1||Charles Schwab bank||N/A||4||1||1||N/A|
|4||Navy Federal Credit Union||1||4||5||7||2|
|T - 7||USAA||6||4||2||4||14|
|T - 7||Discover Bank||N/A||4||N/A||8||N/A|
|9||Pentagon Federal Credit Union||2||14||2||12||6|
|10||State Employees Credit Union||11||15||N/A||2||4|
|12||Alliant Credit Union||27||1||8||9||15|
|T - 21||First Republic||13||35||11||34||5|
|T - 21||Regions||14||19||16||28||21|
|24||Bank of America||17||19||N/A||22||22|
|T - 26||M&T Bank||26||3||29||15||30|
|T - 26||BMO Harris Bank||25||19||15||24||20|
|T - 28||Huntington||12||31||12||21||28|
|T - 28||Comerica||20||16||25||16||27|
|30||Bank of the West||21||19||13||27||25|
|T - 33||KeyBank||31||19||20||31||23|
|T - 33||RBS Citizens||29||31||23||30||11|
*Overall rankings reflect the average ranking for each institution in the use cases for which its products are suitable.
5 Tips for Finding the Best Checking Account
Clearly, checking accounts can be quite costly. They don’t have to be, though. Here are a few tips that will help you anticipate potential money-drains and keep prices down.
Be Practical: The sheer number of potential checking account fees is indicative of the myriad services they offer, ranging from ATM withdrawals to paper statements to international wire transfers. You likely won’t need them all, so it’s best to shop for a checking account with your past usage patterns in mind and focus on whichever fees will actually be relevant to you.
For instance, will you need a physical checkbook or paper statements? Will your transactions require frequent access to your local bank branch? How often will you need to withdraw cash from a non-bank-owned ATM? Let the answers to such questions guide your selection and dictate which fees to focus on minimizing.
- Comparison-Shop: Many consumers enter the shopping process with preconceived notions about their ideal bank as well as its size and services. However, that limits one’s choices to a particular bank’s offers, which may not be the most suitable for the customer’s needs. The best way to find the right checking account is to compare different offers and services from multiple banks and credit unions, large and small. The goal should be to find an institution and account that meet the majority of your needs. With those in hand, additional amenities and functions won’t matter.
- Forget About Debit Card Rewards: Don’t let debit card rewards bias your search for a checking account. Not only are debit card rewards far less common than they were before the Durbin Amendment took effect, but credit card rewards are also up to four times more lucrative. So, if you really want spending-based perks, get a rewards credit card with a high earning rate on your biggest everyday expenses.
- Carefully Review Account Terms Once you've identifie the account that you feel will best suit your needs (or even narrowed down your options to a few finalists), pore through the account agreement(s) with a fine-tooth comb. This is tedious work, but it can pay huge dividends by revealing restrictions and fees that you might otherwise be unaware of prior to experiencing them directly.
- Build a Financial Arsenal: Although checking accounts are quite versatile — allowing consumers to receive direct deposits, make debit card purchases, pay bills online and access cash on demand — they cannot be used for everything. An attractive savings account or credit card could fill the gaps. Supplementing your checking account with other such types of financial products will enable you to easily and efficiently manage your finances.
Below you can find a complete breakdown of all the accounts that were evaluated in this report, grouped by consumer segment.
Best & Worst for Old School Consumers
Best & Worst for Young Consumers
Best & Worst for Cash Strapped Consumers
Best & Worst for Everyday Joe Consumers
Best & Worst for International Consumers
|Account Name||Type of Account||Old School||Young||Cash Strapped||Everyday Joe||International and on the Move|
|Ally Bank Interest Checking||Online Only||Not Suitable||-$0.05||$150.00||$75.00||Not Suitable|
|Bank of America Core Checking||Branch||$15.36||$30.00||N/A**||$142.68||$332.26***|
|Bank of America SafeBalance||Alternative
No Check Writing
No Overdraft Options
|Not Suitable||Not Suitable||$89.40||$89.40||Not Suitable|
|Bank of the West Easy Checking||Branch||$19.97||$30.00||$526.99||$159.98||$353.99|
|BB&T Bright Banking Checking Account||Branch||$19.20||$30.00||$682.80||$147.60||$453.70|
|BMO Harris Select Checking||Branch||$22.90||N/A||N/A||N/A||$312.28|
|BMO Harris Everyday Checking||Branch||N/A||$30.00||$545.85||$146.70||N/A|
|Capital One 360 Checking||Online||-$0.40||$0.00||Not Suitable||$31.80||Not Suitable|
|Charles Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking||Combo (Checking & Brokerage)||Not Suitable||$0.00||$0.00||$0.00||Not Suitable|
|Discover Cashback Checking||Combo (Checking & Credit Card)
No Paper Statements
No Overdarft Options
|Not Suitable||$0.00||Not Suitable||$90.00||Not Suitable|
|Citibank Basic Banking Checking Account||Branch||$20.11||$30.00||N/A||N/A||$264.04|
|Citibank Access Account||Alternative
No Check Writing
No Overdarft Options
|Not Suitable||$30.00||$30.00||$30.00||Not Suitable|
|Comerica Rich Rewards Checking||Branch||N/A||N/A||$736.99||N/A||$387.99|
|Comerica Access Checking||Branch||$19.47||$24.00||N/A||$128.98||N/A|
|BBVA Compass ClearChoice Free Checking||Branch||N/A||$30.00||$541.28||$154.56||N/A|
|BBVA Compass ClearChoice Premium Checking||Branch||-$1.50||N/A||N/A||N/A||$276.50|
|E*Trade Checking Account||Online||Not Suitable||$0.00||Not Suitable||$99.00||N/A|
|E*Trade Bank Max Rate Checking Account||Online||Not Suitable||$0.00||Not Suitable||$99.00||$157.50|
|Fifth Third Bank Enhanced Checking||Branch||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||$572.66|
|Fifth Third Essential Checking||Branch||$20.16||$24.00||$461.04||$133.08||N/A|
|First Niagara Choice Checking||Branch||N/A||$0.00||N/A||$115.80||N/A|
|First Niagara Pinnacle Plus Checking Account||Branch||-$0.50||N/A||$810.71||N/A||$43.50|
|First Republic ATM Rebate Checking||Branch||$10.49||$300.00||$482.64||$395.28||$183.89|
|First Republic Classic Checking||Branch||N/A||$300.00||$482.64||$395.28||N/A|
|HSBC Choice Checking||Branch||$22.08||$30.00||N/A||$146.04||$264.78|
|HSBC Basic Banking - Checking||Branch||N/A||N/A||$281.52||N/A||N/A|
|Chase Chase Total Checking||Branch||$19.20||$30.00||$676.80||$141.60||$303.70|
|Key Express Checking Account||Branch||$55.98||$30.00||N/A||N/A||$333.99|
|KeyBank Hassle Free Account||Alternative
No Check Writing
No Overdarft Options
|Not Suitable||Not Suitable||$30.00||$30.00||Not Suitable|
|M&T EZChoice Checking||Branch||N/A||N/A||$735.00||N/A||N/A|
|M&T MyChoice Plus Checking||Branch||$23.50||$0.00||N/A||$127.50||$482.50|
|PNC Virtual Wallet -Performance Spend||Online||-$0.30||$0.00||N/A||$108.00||N/A|
|PNC Virtual Wallet-Performance Select||Online||-$0.30||$0.00||N/A||$108.00||$269.70|
|PNC Performance Checking||Branch||-$0.30||$0.00||N/A||$108.00||N/A|
|PNC Bank Standard Checking||Branch||N/A||N/A||$680.00||N/A||N/A|
|RBS Citizens One Deposit Checking||Branch||$46.08||$36.00||$665.52||$176.04||$267.68|
|Regions LifeGreen Checking||Branch||N/A||$30.00||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|Regions LifeGreen eAccess Account||Online||N/A||N/A||N/A||$168.00||N/A|
|Regions LifeGreen Simple Checking Account||Branch||N/A||N/A||$552.00||N/A||N/A|
|Regions LifeGreen Preferred Checking Account||Branch||$12.00||N/A||N/A||N/A||$318.50|
|Santander Bank Simply Right Checking||Branch||$53.28||$36.00||$566.32||$185.64||$309.48|
|SunTrust Bank Select Checking||Branch||$26.83||$0.00||N/A||$121.42||$354.06|
|SunTrust Balanced Banking||Alternative
No Overdraft Options
|Not Suitable||Not Suitable||$186.71||N/A||Not Suitable|
|TD Bank TD Simple||Branch||N/A||$107.88||$585.02||$235.15||N/A|
|TD Bank TD Premier Checking||Branch||-$1.25||N/A||N/A||N/A||$238.75|
|Huntington Asterisk-Free Checking||Branch||N/A||$36.00||$525.82||$142.64||N/A|
|Huntington 5 Checking||Branch||$9.78||N/A||N/A||N/A||$448.98|
|U.S. Bank Easy Checking||Branch||$14.40||$30.00||$623.00||$169.20||$351.90|
|U.S Bank Silver Checking||Branch||$14.40||$30.00||$623.00||$169.20||$351.90|
|Union Bank Baking By Design||Branch||N/A||$24.00||N/A||N/A||$300.00|
|Union Bank Ready to Go Checking||Branch||$0.00||$24.00||N/A||N/A||$300.00|
|Union Bank Access Account||Alternative
No Check Writing
No Overdraft Options
|Not Suitable||Not Suitable||$96.00||$24.00||Not Suitable|
|USAA Secure Checking||Branch||-$0.50||$0.00||$150.00||$75.00||$277.50|
|Wells Fargo Everyday Checking||Branch||$13.44||$30.00||$573.36||$141.72||$307.54|
|Alliant Credit Union Free Chcecking||Online||$24.48||N/A||$315.12||$93.24||N/A|
|Alliant Credit Union High-Rate Checking Account||Online||$24.48||-$0.32||$315.12||$92.92||$280.19|
|Boeing Employees Credit Union Checking||Branch||-$2.50||$0.00||$302.95||$80.90||$219.93|
|Navy Federal Credit Union Everyday Checking||Branch||N/A||N/A||$252.00||N/A||N/A|
|Navy Federal Credit Union Flagship Checking||Branch||-$17.50||N/A||N/A||N/A||$132.50|
|Navy Federal Credit Union e-Checking||Online||N/A||$0.00||N/A||$87.00||N/A|
|Pentagon Federal AccessAmerica Checking||Branch||-$3.40||$17.76||$150.00||$120.00||$184.51|
|State Employees Credit Union Checking||Branch
SECU only offers overdraft transfers from deposit accounts or lines of credit
N/A indicates a checking account is less suited for the particular consumer segment, other offers being more advantageous. With the exception of alternative accounts, if a given checking account was deemed to lack a key feature needed by one of our profiles, it was labeled “Not Suitable”.
*First Niagara was recently acquired by Key Bank, and its products will likely undergo modifications in the coming weeks as a result. As such, the information above may no longer be valid.
**Consumers will be recommended the Bank of America SafeBalance instead.
***BAC has partner banks throughout the world that provide our customers with ways to avoid paying ATM fees.
In this study we analyzed checking accounts with an online application component for 30 of the largest consumer-facing U.S. banks in terms of total asset volume, as reported by the FDIC, plus 5 of the largest credit unions. Where institutions offered multiple checking accounts, we reviewed all relevant accounts and presented the costs of the most affordable option for each scenario, assuming it met the following criteria:
a.) Must be available to all consumers (must not require a minimum opening deposit over $2,500, or be for students or seniors only)
b.) Must provide all of the services (including check writing) that would be necessary to meet the needs of each scenario
It is possible that consumers with usage patterns similar to those in our scenarios would benefit from alternative account offerings, or by combining overdraft protection with either a line of credit or a linked savings account at many of the institutions reviewed. We therefore decided to add alternative checking accounts (accounts that do not allow check writing or decline overdraft transactions) to the mix this year in order to show how consumers can reduce the cost of everyday banking if they are willing to forgo some of the features offered by traditional check accounts.
All account information collected was current as of August 8, 2016.
We gathered the basic information for our report from the websites of each of the 35 institutions, and confirmed fee information with each institution except for Fifth Third, E*TRADE Financial, KeyBank and PNC, which missed data-verification deadline, and State Employees Credit Union, which refused to participate.
Usage Patterns for Consumer Profiles
The goal of this report was to compare the cost structure of different banks across a number of theoretical consumer usage patterns. However, these profiles are not meant to mimic the particular usage patterns observed by any one bank or even to follow the average transactions of all checking accounts. Instead, we tried to capture a wide range of usage patterns and key fees in our profiles.
Where possible, we did use existing research to inform our methodology. For example, overdraft fees are one of the most costly expenses that checking-account consumers can encounter. We therefore wanted to illustrate the cost of multiple overdrafts without over representing their cost or associated risk. In creating our “Cash Strapped” profile, we relied on data from June 2014 CFPB report that stated: "…a relatively small number of account holders are responsible for most overdrafts, with 8.3 percent of account holders who overdraft more than 10 times per year responsible for 73.7 percent of overdraft fees. A majority of accounts, 69.8 percent, do not incur any overdrafts, and 82.3 percent of accounts incur 3 or fewer overdrafts." Additionally the report lists that the average annual charge for overdrafts alone for this consumer segment to be $380.40. This data helped inform our decision to include 12 transactions annually that resulted in Customer C’s account balance dropping below $0; six debit transactions and six check or ACH transactions. It also lead us to leave three of the five total scenarios free from all overdraft fees.
We also tried to represent a variety of transaction types and key fees that consumers might encounter, depending upon one’s financial profile and banking patterns. Below we have listed the description of each profile as well as the specific transactions that composed the calculations.
Old School: Uses her checking account in a traditional manner and wants in-branch service. Her primary use of the account is to pay bills by check. She uses her credit card instead of a debit card for purchases. She goes to her own bank to withdraw cash once a week (never uses another bank’s ATM), keeps a minimum balance of $5,000 in her account and uses direct deposit. She manages her account with a paper statement.
Transactions: 1 monthly maintenance fee (if applicable), no third-party ATM fees, no online bill pay, 8 checks written per month, no overdrafts, no wire transfers, paper statements, credit card purchases.
Young: Is a modern consumer who uses his account primarily to pay bills online, make debit-card purchases (9 per month), and retrieve money from ATMs. He typically looks for in-house ATMs but occasionally needs to access another bank’s terminal. He has direct deposits $3,000 per month. His account occasionally dips below $100, leaving him with insufficient funds to pay for debit-card purchases a few times a year. Because he did not sign up for debit-card overdraft protection, those transactions are denied at the point of sale and he is not charged an overdraft fee. He manages the account online.
Transactions: 1 monthly maintenance fee (if applicable), 1 out-of-network ATM withdrawal per month, pays all bills online and doesn’t write checks, 9 debit card purchases per month, 5 debit card NSFs per year, online statements only, uses debit card 9 times per month.
Cash Strapped: Uses her bank account to help manage monthly cash flow. She deposits her checks as they come in (no direct deposit) and her account frequently dips below $0.00. Customer C opts-in to debit card overdraft and pays overdraft fees so that her bills and purchases are covered until her next pay check. Four times a year her balance remains below zero for 5 to 10 days, during which time she incurs additional “extended” overdraft fees from some institutions. Because she is often low on funds, she does not have a line of credit or a savings account to cover the overdraft transactions when they occur. She also uses the account for other banking features such as ATM access, online bill pay and check writing. She typically looks for in-house ATMs but occasionally needs to access an ATM from another bank. She receives both online and paper statements and uses her debit card 9 times a month.
Transactions: 1 monthly maintenance fee (if applicable), 1 out–of-network ATM withdrawal per month, bills paid online, 2 checks written per month, 9 debit card purchases per month, 12 overdrafts per year (6 debit card, 6 checks), opts-in to debit card OD without line of credit, triggers extended OD fee 4X (2X 5 days and 2X10 days), online and paper statements.
Everyday Joe: Has direct deposit of $3,000 per month and uses the account for the typical features: ATM withdrawals, online bill pay and check writing. He typically looks for in-house ATMs but occasionally needs to access one at another bank. Occasionally, he unknowingly runs his account below $0 but does not have overdraft. He pays bills online and writes checks. He receives both online and paper statements, and he uses his debit card 17 times per month.
Transactions: 1 monthly maintenance fee (if applicable), 1 out–of-network ATM withdrawal per month, 3 check/ACH overdrafts per year, does not opt-in to OD, bills paid online, writes 4 checks written per month, paper and online statements.
International and on the Move: Has family overseas and travels one month out of the year to visit them. He primarily uses his account to pay bills and send money to his relatives overseas. He has a direct deposit of $4,000 per month and does not allow his account balance to dip below $0. He pays his bills online, writes several checks, wires money to his family every other month and uses his credit card to make purchases rather than his debit card. When he travels overseas, he uses an ATM to withdraw funds. He manages his money using an online bank statement.
Transactions: 1 monthly maintenance fee (if applicable), 6 international outgoing wire transfers per year, 5 3rd party domestic ATM withdrawals per year, 4 international ATM withdrawals per year, 3 checks written per month, bills paid online, no account overdraft, online account statements, credit card purchases.
ATM Fees: We did not include the cost of non-owner ATM surcharges in our calculations. To calculate the international ATM charges, we included both the flat international ATM fee and the conversion percentage fee. Conversion fees listed in percentages have been calculated based on the assumption that Customer E withdraws $200 per transaction.
Per Check Fee: Check costs vary according to style. The per check fee we assessed is based on the purchase of the physical checks (not transaction costs which are uncommon). To calculate a per- check fee, we divided the cost of the most basic box of checks by the total number of checks in each box. We excluded “first box free” orders.
Overdraft/ NSF Fees: Include fees assessed when the bank covers a customer shortfall to complete a transaction as well as NSF fees for when the bank does not cover the missing cost. Where we note that the consumer has “opted in” to debit card overdraft, this means they have chosen to have the bank pay for transactions that cannot be completed with the remaining account balance alone (enough money in their account to cover the full amount of the transaction (rather than having such transactions rejected at point of sale). None of our scenarios have overdraft plans that tie a checking account account to a line of credit or a savings account. Additionally, we assumed that none of the overdraft transactions happen on the same day, that each exceeds $10.00 and that the amount overdrawn amount is $50.
Online/ Paper Statements: Two of our customer scenarios include both paper and online statements. In cases where banks do not offer customers the option to receive both, we assumed that the consumer would choose to receive a paper statement. All applicable fees were taken into account.
Wire transfer fees: When an online wire transfer fee was available, we chose to use that fee over a branch fee for customer E.
Interest bearing accounts: We applied the APYs offered by these types of accounts to the balance assumptions for each scenario. We then used the amount yielded to offset the total monthly cost for the respective scenarios.
NOTE: We have only used on-going fees and features related to accounts. For example, an offer for a free checkbook or limited-time bonuses (APY or cash) are reflected into our total cost assessment.
In our cost difference and average annual costs analysis we used only bank and online accounts data given credit unions membership requirements and small geographical footprint.