Much Ado About Money

In light of recent jackwagonry put forth by Bank of America (and despite them abandoning said plans), the Hildreths have decided that though there's pain in our chests we still wish them the best, with a... you know the song. So where do we move our money to?

What follows is by no means a comprehensive analysis. This is a basic comparison based on our financial needs, and it is offered up in the hopes that it will be useful. It is not intended to be sound financial advice.

The assumptions are as follows: we have direct deposit. We will use the debit card constantly, but will make occasional trips to the ATM. We will be paperless as much as possible. Minimum balance requirements stink. And we would like to feel... valued.

These assumptions excluded some banks that would otherwise be considered. For example, TD Bank requires a "low" minimum balance on all their worthwhile checking accounts, and Wachovia/Wells Fargo seems to be following the same path Bank of America is going down. Also, for the two of you reading that don't know, I live in Greenville, SC, so the available banks depend on that.

Last note: the information on bailout funds can be found at ProPublica. Ready? Then let's go.

The Status Quo: Bank of America

  • Interest: none
  • Free Checks: none
  • Free ATM Usage: Bank of America only
  • Branches: Plenty
  • Online Tools: Good
  • Deposit Options: Branch, ATM
  • Bailout Received / Returned: $45B/$45B

Included as a point of reference. It's not bad, especially when you consider the cash-counting, check-scanning ATMs that have saved my bacon countless times. They got a large amount of TARP funding, but to their credit paid it all back. Now that they won't be charging for a debit card there isn't an urgent need to switch, but as you'll see, other banks offer so much more.

The Tracy Jordan: Ally Bank

  • Interest: yes
  • Free Checks: unlimited
  • Free ATM Usage: unlimited
  • Branches: none
  • Online Tools: good
  • Deposit Options: Scanner, Mail
  • Bailout Received / Returned: $16B/$3B

I want to like Ally. I really do. I mean, seriously, withdraw from any ATM, get unlimited checks, deposit from your computer, earn interest. They even offer cash back rewards for using your debit card. So what's the dealbreaker? The fact that Ally is the bank arm of GMAC, the former financing arm of General Motors. Feature-wise, they're awesome, but their bailout status doesn't inspire much confidence.

The Mom and Pop: CPM Federal Credit Union

  • Interest: with $200 minimum balance
  • Free Checks: 3 boxes per year
  • Free ATM Usage: Co-Op Network
  • Branches: a few
  • Online Tools: Barely
  • Deposit Options: Branch
  • Bailout Received / Returned: none

I've already got a savings account (and therefore a membership) with CPM, and they've been nothing but helpful. I've got no qualms about the financial stability of the organization; my hesitations lie in my ability to use them for my day-to-day banking and the quality of their online tools. They're contenders.

The Bundle: USAA

  • Interest: with $1000 minimum balance
  • Free Checks: unlimited
  • Free ATM Usage: 10 visits/month, refund $15/month in fees
  • Branches: none
  • Online Tools: excellent
  • Deposit Options: Mail, UPS Store, Scanner and iOS app (if insurance customer or have credit card)
  • Bailout Received / Returned: none

USAA insurance is like an exclusive club. The company was formed to support armed services personnel and their families, which I respect. I received my eligibility from my parents who received their eligibility from their parents who were in the military. We currently use them for auto insurance, and every conversation with every other insurance salesperson has died as soon as they found out. It's that good.

Why the long story? The best features of the USAA bank (deposit from iOS app) are only available to insurance and credit card customers. This wouldn't be an issue, except that we may soon be forced to change insurance companies due to South Carolina becoming the equivalent of e.coli-infested raw meat in the insurance world1. However, the ability to make deposits at a UPS store almost makes up for this.

The Unexpected: State Farm Bank

  • Interest: with $2500 minimum balance
  • Free Checks: first box
  • Free ATM Usage: unlimited
  • Branches: none
  • Online Tools: yes
  • Deposit Options: Scanner, iOS app, Mail
  • Bailout Received / Returned: none

Did you know State Farm had a bank? Yeah, neither did I. And feature-for-feature, they're not half bad. They've got unlimited where it counts (ATM usage), though their conditions for interest are a little high. It's hard to judge their online tools; the glimpse I was able to see wasn't particularly impressive. If we for sure wanted an online bank, they'd be a serious contender, but as it there's just not enough info out there.

The Tuxedo: South Carolina Bank and Trust

  • Interest: yes
  • Free Checks: none
  • Free ATM Usage: unlimited SCBT, refund 3/month out-of-network
  • Branches: a few
  • Online Tools: yes
  • Deposit Options: Branch
  • Bailout Received / Returned: $65M/$65M

This is the current frontrunner. They offer interest with all of our prerequisites and they have an option for using other banks' ATMs. They've only got a few branches in the area, and only one of them is convenient, and even it is hard to get to (on the second floor of an office building with no clear direction). They did receive TARP funds, but it's less than 1/100th of what Bank of America got and it was all paid back. Most impressive to me is their graphic design on their brochures and web site: it's clean, fresh, and classy. While money is not made with marketing alone, the fact is they care about their image more than other banks on this list, and that speaks volumes to me about the kind of approach they take to customer service.

That said, there are some misgivings. The 3 other ATM visits per month is never actually found on their website; that information came from the tellers at the bank. Being able to talk to someone in person is a great asset, but is having one fairly inconvenient branch that much better than having no branches at all? And while their TARP funding is significantly less than most other banks in the area, the fact that it seemed necessary is (only a little) disconcerting.

The Wildcard: Simple

  • Interest: yes
  • Free Checks: ???
  • Free ATM Usage: Allpoint network
  • Branches: none
  • Online Tools: Yes. Very yes.
  • Deposit Options: iOS app
  • Bailout Received / Returned: n/a

If you haven't heard of Simple (formerly BankSimple), get on the internet. Their approach is a little different: instead of holding your money, they act as a services company that gives you (extremely convenient) access to your money stored at a "partner bank." You still get FDIC insurance, and all your interactions are with Simple; the difference is more technical than practical. So far, they look beautiful. They promise to have a superior online experience, including being able to see your "safe to spend" balance at a glance.

So why the wildcard? Simply put, there's a lot we don't know. They haven't launched to the public yet, and their website is scarce on details. No word on their partner bank, and it appears that they'll be using the Allpoint ATM network though that's not explicitly mentioned on their website.2 No idea on paper checks (will you have to mail them from the site or can you order them?). One thing that is mentioned in their FAQ is that they currently do not support joint accounts, which kind of kills the idea a married couple using it.

What does it mean?!

Not sure. Like I said, this is a comparison based on our market and with our specific needs. If you're facing a similar decision, I hope you can use this as a jumping-off point for your own research. If you have any issues, addendums, or comments of your own, feel free to send me an email. Personally, I still have high hopes for Simple, but they can't be a contender until the service matures and gains credibility. To their credit, they know that and aren't opening the service up until they get things straight. And it didn't take Square long to get to the same point.

  1. USAA is not writing new property insurance (renters and homowners) policies in South Carolina unless you are a military family. Took me several phone calls to find that out; their website was unhelpful and so were the first 3 people I talked to. We eventually went with Allstate for renters insurance, but when it came time to get a homowners policy, guess what? They're only writing new policies in SC if you have car insurance with them. See above note on how awesome USAA car insurance is. We eventually went with State Farm, but in order to lower our deductable we need to get car insurance with them as well. 

  2. The Simple website uses the phrases "largest nationwide ATM network" and "40,000 ATMs" multiple times. Google brings up Allpoint as the first non-ad listing. 

Evan Hildreth @oddevan