1. Money in a bank account is safe.
A bank is one of the safest places to stash your cash since your account is insured against loss by the federal government for up to $100,000 per depositor. But you can insure more than that if you have multiple deposit accounts that are different in nature (e.g., an individual checking account, a joint checking account and a CD). That's because each type of account is insured separately.
2. You pay for the convenience of a bank account.
Banks pay lower rates on interest-bearing accounts than brokerages and mutual fund companies that offer check-writing privileges. What's more, bank fees can be high -- account costs easily can add up to $200 a year or more unless you keep a minimum required balance on deposit. In a fall 2001 survey, Bankrate.com found the average minimum required for a fee-free, interest-bearing account was $2,434.
3. Inflation can eat what you earn from a bank.
Even at a low rate of inflation, the annual creep in the cost of goods and services usually outpaces what banks pay in interest-bearing accounts. With the historical annual inflation rate running at 3.1 percent (from 1926 through 2000), little or nothing in the way of real earnings will be generated in most savings accounts.
4. Not all interest rates are created equal.
Banks frequently use different methods to calculate interest. To compare how much money you'll earn from various accounts in a year, ask for each account's "annual percentage yield" rather than for its interest rate. Banks typically quote both figures, but only APYs are calculated the same way everywhere.
5. You can get better rates (but there's a hitch)
Certificates of deposit (CDs) offer some of the best guaranteed rates on your money and are insured up to $100,000 each. The catch: you have to lock up your money for three months to five years or more. If interest rates fall before the CD expires, the bank is out of luck and must give you the rate it quoted. If rates climb, you're stuck with the lower rate you agreed to when you opened the account. And if you take your money out before a CD matures, you'll pay a penalty -- typically three months of interest.
6. ATM fees can take a significant bite out of your budget.
The convenience of using automated teller machines is an increasingly pricey one. On average, the fee a bank charges you, its customer, to use another institution's ATM is $1.36, according to the Bankrate.com survey. That's on top of the $1.45 that the other institution charges you to use its ATM. To avoid these fees, use your own bank's ATM whenever possible.
7. Getting the best deal takes work.
You won't get a great deal on a car if you just walk into a dealer and plunk your money down. Likewise, you won't get a great banking deal unless you comparison shop and bargain. For example, a bank might offer free checking if you are a shareholder or if you direct deposit your paycheck.
8. Use the Internet to shop for bank services.
You can use the Internet to compare fees, yields and minimum deposit requirements nationwide. To find out what a local bank is offering, plug its name into any Internet search engine or compare what different banks offer at bankrate.com.
9. Banking online can make bill-paying easier.
Electronic bill-paying can save you the monthly hassle of paying your bills. And if you couple online banking with a personal-finance management program, such as Quicken or Microsoft Money, you'll be able to link your banking with your budgeting and financial planning as well.
10. You can bank without a bank.
A number of competitors offer accounts that resemble bank services. The most common: Credit union accounts; mutual fund company money market funds; and brokerage cash-management accounts.
Next: How to get the best account