Checking accounts are an unrivaled tool for using and spending money. Increasingly, consumers have taken to online banking, but even when transactions don't involve paper checks, millions of daily financial interactions depend on having a checking account.

On the negative side, checking accounts are not an investment product. Expect wretchedly low interest rates from every established banking option, including savings accounts, certificates of deposit and related financial vehicles.

The features of a good checking account are consistent across customer demographics, but couples may have banking needs that differ from those of other customers. Basic requirements include:

  • Minimal fees
  • Bill pay service
  • Mobile banking options
  • Good ATM network
  • Earns interest
  • FDIC-insured

Also, find out what type of account the bank offers. Most checking accounts couples open classify them as “joint tenants with rights of survivorship.” That means that if one person dies, the other owner automatically owns the account. For more on this choice, read The Benefits And Pitfalls of Joint Tenancy.

Fees

Many banks now impose a monthly fee on all checking accounts. The fee typically ranges between $6 and $25 per month, and can be waived for customers who meet certain requirements. Sometimes the requirement is to maintain a minimum daily balance in the account or in a combination of accounts held with the institution. Other times the presence of certain transactions, such as direct deposit, is enough to get the fee waived.

Cash-strapped couples should pay close attention to the fees and waiver requirements, to avoid inadvertently doing something that leaves the account ineligible for waived fees.

In general, investigate all fees that may affect your account. Some banks automatically sign up new customers for overdraft protection service, which can be quite costly. For customers who tend to have cash savings on hand to cover the overdrafts, and when the service is free, overdraft protection makes sense. Otherwise, a better option is to let the debit card be declined when there isn’t enough to cover the transaction. For more, see How Overdraft Fees Work – And How To Avoid Them.

Cash Incentives

In the case of a tie between banks that meet the couple’s needs, look for cash incentives for opening an account. Currently, Chase Bank offers a $150 bonus to new Chase Total Checking account holders who open an account by April 15, 2015, set up direct deposit and enroll in paperless statements. The monthly fee is $12 in most states ($10 in Calif., Ore. and Wash.), and Chase offers several ways to get the fee waived, including monthly direct deposits of $500 or more, or a combined average daily balance of $1,500. This account, however, does not pay interest on your deposits.

At Bank of America, new customers who open a checking account by April 10, 2015, and make two qualifying direct deposits totaling $2,000 or more within the first 90 days can receive a $300 bonus – but only if they are already Bank of America customers. The Core Checking account costs $12 per month. The fee is waived for customers who have a direct deposit of $250 or more each month or who maintain an average daily balance of $1,500. This account also doesn't pay interest.

Only couples who are confident that they can meet the fee waiver requirement should pursue these cash incentives. Otherwise, the monthly fee will soon overcome the amount of the bonus. For the accounts mentioned above, if the joint account holders both work for companies that offer direct deposit, getting a fee waiver every month could be an easy task. For both banks, getting interest on your deposits requires a different checking account with higher financial requirements.

Consider Geography

Online banks offer all the usual services like ATM cards, checkbooks and paper statements but they have no actual place where customers can speak with a teller. Because virtual banks save vast amounts of money by not paying rent or utilities at multiple locations, or have the need to hire sizeable numbers of support personnel like traditional banks, they often offer better deals in a range of banking products.

Some of the best checking accounts don’t offer plenty of local branches. But a couple should choose one that offers an ATM network that will meet their needs. Couples who travel frequently should focus on national banks or credit unions that offer thousands of fee-free ATMs nationwide. Couples who frequently deposit cash should pay special attention to the ATM network. And those who rarely use an ATM – and instead handle most transactions online or on a mobile device – can opt for an account with a limited ATM network.

Nontraditional Options

Both Charles Schwab Bank and United Services Automobile Association (USAA) offer outstanding checking opportunities for couples. (USAA requires military affiliation, though the affiliation can be through a parent who was a USAA customer). Both offer no ATM fees and their customers receive fee reimbursements when they use an unaffiliated ATM machine. Further, they each provide:

  • No minimum balance; no monthly service fees
  • Free online bill pay service and free paper checks
  • Mobile banking
  • Interest paid at 0.01%  APY for USAA checking; 0.10% APY for Schwab. Not much, to be sure. But better than nothing at a time of near-zero earnings.

Credit unions come into play, too. Their non-profit membership status does not change the fact that they function exactly like banks. But they are not taxed like other banks and the savings can be passed to customers. Many credit unions offer free personal checking accounts.

The Bottom Line

A great checking account for couples will allow both people to easily access and manage the account, and earn (not spend) money. Transparency is important. Both account owners need to know and understand the fee structure and other account terms.

The selection process boils down to a few essential factors:

  • ATM network. Look for a network that meets your geographical needs, or a reimbursement policy for the times you need to use other ATMs.
  • Maintenance fees. Look for a free account or easy ways to avoid the fee.
  • Interest. This is not common in low-fee accounts, and any rate is better than zero if you can find it.
  • Bill pay services. If you’ve transitioned away from paper checks, be sure you can pay electronically for free.
  • Mobile banking. Once you deposit a check using your phone, you may never make an in-person deposit again.

For more on marriage and money, see Financial Changes When You Marry and Learn About These 6 Dumb Money Pitfalls For Married Couples.

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