You can't live conveniently without a checking account. But new regulations and the low interest rate environment have made checking and savings accounts little more than a safer place to keep your money than under a mattress. Even worse, banks now charge customers for basic services that used to be free.
Unless you’re one of their premier customers.
Each of the mega-banks, as well as many regional banks, have what most call premium checking accounts. These accounts cater to higher net worth customers with perks that other customers don’t get. Here are the four top sources of premium accounts and what they offer, as of 2020.
Bank of America
If you’re a Bank of America customer and you maintain an average daily balance of $20,000 or more, you have access to its Preferred Rewards checking account. There are three tiers in the Preferred Rewards program. As your balance grows, your benefits grow as well. The Gold level is for balances of $20,000 to $50,000, the Platinum is $50,000 to $100,000 and the Platinum Honors level is anything above $100,000.
Each level higher gets you more rewards. For example, you’ll pay a fee for non-Bank of America ATM transactions at the Gold level, you'll get 12 free transactions at the Platinum level, and at the Platinum Honors level, you'll get unlimited free transactions. You also get discounts on loans and the interest rate you receive on your deposited funds moves higher as you move up in your rewards status. You won’t pay a fee on select Bank of America services including standard check orders and certain wire transfers as long as you’re above that $20,000 limit.
Chase is more forthcoming about its premium options. It offers two premium accounts along with its basic checking account options. The Premier Plus checking doesn’t charge a fee at non-Chase ATMs up to four times per statement period, the account earns interest and, like Bank of America, fees for money orders, cashier’s checks and counter checks are waived. You can also link two other Premier Plus accounts to your account.
You have to maintain an average daily balance of $15,000 in linked deposits/investments or make automatic payments to your Chase first mortgage to avoid the $25 monthly fee (in all states).
Chase also has its Sapphire checking account. It has all of the same features as the Premier Plus, but adds more free services: You can link as many as nine accounts and you receive priority customer service over the phone. However, you’re going to need an average daily balance of at least $75,000 in linked Chase accounts to avoid the fee, which is $25 per month. You can link deposits and investments, but not 529 plans and certain retirement plans, to qualify.
Citibank’s version of the premium checking account is called Citigold. The Citigold account not only pays interest like all other premium checking accounts, but you also can enroll your account in the Citi ThankYou Rewards program and earn rewards points "for eligible products and services linked to your checking account." This makes the account even more attractive. You will need $200,000 in eligible retirement balances, linked deposits and investments to qualify for Citigold.
Like the others, Citi offers many free services that other account holders have to pay for, along with access to a dedicated customer service team. You get more favorable rates on loan products, unlimited refunds on ATM fees when you use the Citibank Debit Card, and more.
Wells Fargo has had its problems since 2016. The company was shaken by allegations that employees opened bank accounts without customer approval and more recent allegations of employees altering customer data in its business banking unit. As of Feb. 2020, according to CosumerAffairs.com, the bank has agreed "to pay $3 billion to resolve civil and criminal charges stemming from the opening of millions of bogus checking and credit card accounts." For people willing to stick with the bank, it, too, caters to those with higher balances. It's offering: the Portfolio account.
This account comes with plenty of perks and free services including higher interest rates, a dedicated support staff and additional Wells Fargo credit card benefits including special purchase and travel protection coverage. Here's what you will need to keep at Wells Fargo to avoid the $30 monthly fee. You must have a minimum of $50,000 in qualifying linked bank deposit accounts (checking, savings, CDs, FDIC-insured IRAs) – or $50,000 in any combination of qualifying linked banking, brokerage (available through Wells Fargo Advisors, LLC) and credit balances (including 10% of mortgage balances, with certain mortgages not eligible).
The Bottom Line
The variations among these banks are minimal. Providing you meet the balance requirements to avoid the monthly fee, you may find that Citi, with its rewards structure, offers the best deal. On the other hand, Chase's Premier Plus offers the lowest minimum balance requirement, though fewer benefits than some of these accounts, including Chase's own Sapphire. If you’re already well established at a bank, the differences probably won’t make it worth the trouble of switching.