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How to Choose the Best Free Checking Account

September 14, 2021 by Space Coast Credit Union



When searching for the right checking account, most people would prefer one that’s “free” — and rightly so. But it can be hard to know what exactly “free” means today when we know that fees and terms are often the name of the game. 

The reality is that financial institutions will define “free” in different ways. We’ll help guide you through those differences in this article while also describing other items so that you can choose the best free checking account for your needs.

You can learn more about Space Coast Credit Union’s (SCCU) no-fee, 100 percent free checking account and even apply for one if you’re ready here.
 

Central Role of a Checking Account

Your checking account’s often the heart of your personal and family finances. This is where you can receive paychecks and otherwise deposit funds as well as where and how you can pay your bills. For added convenience, you can typically set up automatic bill paying, which eliminates the need to manually pay your bills and helps ensure that they’re paid on time. 

Accessing your money is quick and virtually seamless with a checking account, whether that’s through writing a check or using an ATM. The money is safely insured, and you don’t have to keep lots of cash at home where it could get misplaced or stolen. 

The account can serve as a budgeting vehicle, provide a record for financial transactions at tax time, and much more. You can also access the account conveniently online or via the mobile app, which comes with increasingly more benefits as technology continues to improve. 

So, it’s easy to make the case that a checking account is a crucial part of personal finance in today’s world — but not all of these accounts are the same. In fact, differences among them can be significant. The headlining question becomes: Which one is best for you? We’ll delve more deeply into the differences among checking accounts — specifically among those that financial institutions label as “free.”
 

Comparing No-Fee Checking Accounts

At the core of free checking accounts is the lack of a recurring monthly fee — in other words, accounts that don’t come with maintenance fees. 

Unfortunately, that’s not what many consumers are experiencing with their accounts. As of 2021, account maintenance fees often reach up to $15 and are at an all-time high with the average at $15.50. Also at a record high: the average amount of money that accounts must have in them for people to avoid paying monthly account fees: $7,550. And here’s the mic-dropper: in a 2019 report, households in the United States paid more than $1 billion in maintenance fees on their checking accounts at the country’s top five banks in 2018 alone!

If your jaw just dropped to the floor, don’t worry, there’s a better way: accounts with no maintenance fees. The next step is to compare checking accounts that say they’re “free” and to ask the following questions, among others:
 
  • How much money do you need to deposit to open this account? 
  • Do you need to keep a minimum balance to avoid the monthly maintenance fee? If so, how much is required? 
  • Are direct deposits required to benefit from the free account?
  • Are there ATM fees? Overdraft fees? Stop payment fees? Statement fees?
  • If you close your account within a certain time frame, is there a closure fee?
Many free checking accounts often come with at least one of these conditions: keeping a minimum balance, having direct deposits come into this account, and/or having paperless statements. These requirements can be a bit disappointing to say the least. 

Getting a genuine no-fee checking account — with no strings attached — sounds amazing, right? We thought so too. With an SCCU free checking account, you save a good chunk of change while enjoying direct deposit a day early!

When selecting the best account for your needs, it’s important to consider additional factors: security, convenience, insurance, and quality service. Let’s take a closer look at each of these elements when choosing which free online bank account to open.
 

Ensuring Solid Security

Besides comparing fees, look for a financial institution that focuses on protecting your online checking account. The reality is that every network connected to the internet has some degree of vulnerability, and there will always be people with ill intent who will try to take advantage. But there are ways to fight back. To protect yourself, choose a financial institution that offers a variety of measures and takes security seriously. 

It’s a good idea to effectively monitor and manage your own accounts and to consider doing the following:  
 
  • Monitor your online checking account: Does the balance look correct? Are there withdrawals that you didn’t make? If anything looks suspicious, contact your financial institution; the more quickly you do so, the easier it will likely be to efficiently and effectively address the issue. 
  • Create strong passwords: Change them regularly, and don’t share them with other people. Use a mixture of upper- and lower-case letters along with numbers and symbols that are hard to guess and avoid any obvious combinations, such as birth dates or addresses. Use a unique password for your banking accounts that you don’t use anywhere else online. SCCU provides even more information about how to keep your online checking account secure
  • Be careful with buying online: Shop only from trusted sites on private devices (secure sites that encrypt data have a padlock symbol and start with “https://” rather than “http://”), and don’t save your account numbers online. Rather, re-enter them each time.
  • Choose secure places to access your accounts: Avoid accessing your account in public places where people can see what you’re entering, including libraries and ATMs in crowded places. It’s also best to log into your accounts using your mobile phone’s data when you’re out and about, not via public Wi-Fi (where someone can hack into your phone and steal your information). 
When selecting a financial institution for your checking account, see which of their services you can leverage to further protect yourself. For example, if unusual activity occurs, will the financial institution contact you? How quickly and in what ways? What other ways will they protect your personal information and money?

At SCCU, we provide account alerts and fraud alerts. To ensure that we can notify you in case of any suspected fraudulent activity, we ask that members keep contact information up to date, including a current address, email, and phone number. As a member, you can easily update this information in your Online Banking account under “Settings.”

If someone tries to guess at your log-in info, we’ll lock your account after the hacker makes three unsuccessful attempts. This stops them in their tracks from continuing to try other password variations. We then use layered security authentication to help protect you against password-related scams. With this system, even if a hacker gets your password, they won’t be able to provide the second security factor and therefore won’t be able to falsely confirm your identity as their own.

We offer a biometric login on the SCCU mobile app for our members, which means they can use face or fingerprint identification to further enhance the security (and convenience) of its use. 

Know that SCCU will never ask for account numbers, your Social Security number, driver’s license number, birth date, or other personal information through an outgoing call (one you didn’t initiate with us). And we won’t ask for this information in an unsolicited email or text message, either. If you receive an unsolicited message in one of these ways from someone claiming to be from SCCU, don’t provide that information. Instead, please contact us as soon as possible to share the specifics of what you’ve experienced. (Note: if you call us, we’ll ask for your personal information to verify your identity.) 

You can learn more about ways to arm yourself against fraud on our Fraud Prevention Center.
 

Convenience is Key

Nowadays, people want their online checking accounts to come with all of the conveniences associated with digital technologies of modern life. Whenever possible, they’d also like to have free online bank accounts. If that sounds like you, be sure to research what the financial institutions you’re considering will charge for mobile and online banking.

With SCCU’s mobile banking, you can bank on the go with a free, safe, and secure mobile app. Through this app, you can access your online checking account (and other accounts), deposit checks, transfer funds, pay bills, and more. You can also set up real-time alerts and use online budgeting tools to track spending.

Here’s something else that falls under the convenience umbrella: the number of free transactions you can make during a month’s time. Our credit union doesn’t have frustrating minimums or limits on the number of checking transactions. With our no-fee checking account, you can deposit, transfer, and withdraw funds an unlimited number of times at no charge. You can even transfer money from an external account into your SCCU checking for free. 
 

Account Insurance

The great majority of checking accounts are federally insured. That’s because nearly all banks are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporate (FDIC) with this insurance covering $250,000 per depositor per bank. Rare exceptions include state-run financial institutions that are insured by their state. Credit unions, meanwhile, are fully insured by the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), a U.S. governmental agency that backs up each member’s deposits to at least $250,000.  

This protection wasn’t always a given, though. In the early days of banking in the United States, the average lifespan of a bank (they were not federally chartered) was about five years long. In 1913, the federal government created the Federal Reserve Bank — the “Fed” for short — as a central bank and as a way to establish monetary policies in the United States and maintain economic stability. 

This wasn’t enough to stop the stock market crash in October 1929, though, or the Great Depression that followed the crash for a period of several years. Plenty of people couldn’t withdraw the money they’d deposited into banks, and the result was a widespread mistrust of financial institutions by consumers. People who could withdraw their money often did so, furthering the downward spiral.

To address this situation (both the current one and as an ongoing solution), in 1933, legislation was passed that prohibited banks from speculating with the publics’ deposits and that established the FDIC — the governmental agency that insures bank accounts. Then, in 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the following legislation into law: the Federal Credit Union Act. This allowed federally chartered credit unions to form non-for-profit cooperatives in each state of the nation. 

Credit unions had existed in North America before that. They were first formed in 1901 in Canada and in 1909 in the United States (more specifically, in New Hampshire). The presence of credit unions significantly expanded in the U.S. in 1920, and in the following year, the Credit Union National Extension Bureau was created and they enacted state laws to charter new institutions. Over the next several years, 38 states and the District of Columbia passed credit union legislation as they became an even more integral part of consumer finance.

Meanwhile, in 1932, legislators explored the notion of federal credit unions, which would be a “blanket insurance policy for all our state laws.” By 1952, nearly three million Americans had become members of a credit union (SCCU was founded in 1951). In 1960, there were more than six million members across the country.

In 1970, the NCUA formed and this organization began to insure credit union deposits. By 1981, more than 28 million Americans belonged to credit unions with total assets now more than $100 billion. In 1990, membership totaled 61 million Americans. In 2000? More than 77 million. In 2008, NCUA insurance increased to at least $250,000 per depositor per institution, the same level of rock solid protection that exists today.
 

Benefits of Credit Unions

When choosing where to open your checking account, you can pick between banks and credit unions. Banks are for-profit enterprises, owned by investors who may (or may not be) depositors in that financial institution. Decisions made can focus on the interests of these stockholders with a goal being to make money. People who bank there (“customers”) do not have an ownership interest in the institution.

Credit unions typically offer the same kinds of services as banks, but unlike banks, credit unions are not-for-profit financial institutions that are actually owned by their members. Therefore, profits earned can be returned to the members through lower fees, reduced rates on loans, higher rates on savings accounts, and so forth. (To become a member of a credit union, you simply need to open an account at that institution.) 

Additional benefits of choosing a credit union can include:
 
  • Personalized service that can go above and beyond to help members achieve their financial goals
  • Financial education and counseling services
  • Voting rights when selecting board members
Credit unions are typically founded to serve specific geographic locations, employers, or groups. SCCU serves more than 500,000 members in 29 Florida counties that span from Flagler to Miami-Dade counties, making SCCU the third largest credit union in the state. More specifically, you can become a member if you live in one of these counties:
 
  • Brevard County
  • Broward County
  • Clay County
  • Collier County
  • Duval County
  • Flagler County
  • Hillsborough County
  • Indian River County
  • Lake County
  • Lee County
  • Manatee County
  • Marion County
  • Martin County
  • Miami-Dade County
  • Monroe County
  • Nassau County
  • Okeechobee County
  • Orange County
  • Osceola County
  • Palm Beach County
  • Pasco County
  • Pinellas County
  • Polk County
  • Putnam County
  • Seminole County
  • St. Johns County
  • St. Lucie County
  • Sumter County
  • Volusia County
You just need to open up a share account, which is a regular savings account, with at least $5. This gives you one share of SCCU. At that point, you’ll be assigned a unique member number that will identify you and your overall relationship with SCCU. (You can use this number to enroll in online and mobile banking services and when you want to access all of your accounts over the phone.)

After setting up your share account, you can then open up your no-fee checking account, along with plenty of other types of accounts, as desired. Each of these accounts will be given a specific account number to distinguish the various accounts that you may decide to open at SCCU. This is the number you’ll use to set up automatic payments, transfer funds, and other transaction-specific activities.
 

Switching Your Checking to SCCU

If your current financial institution is charging too much, and you’re ready to enjoy a no-fee checking account or break up with your bank, we’ll walk you through the steps to take here to make the switch to SCCU.
 
  1. Leave enough money in your old account to cover any checks that haven’t cleared yet and to take care of any automatic withdrawals that will occur during the switch-over process. You don’t want anything to bounce or to incur overdraft fees; this may mean that you’ll have two checking accounts for about a month. 
  2. Use the SCCU Switch Kit to seamlessly go through the process. 
  3. Use our Automatic Payment Checklist to write down all of the automatic payments that you’ll need to transfer to your SCCU free checking account.
  4. Stop writing any checks on your old account.
  5. Use the Reconciliation Worksheet in our Switch Kit to balance your checkbook.
  6. Confirm when there are no longer any outstanding checks that need to clear the old account.
  7. Use the SCCU Direct Deposit Change Form to transfer any direct deposits to your new, no-fee checking account at our credit union.
  8. Update each of the automatic payments listed on our Automatic Payment Change Form and send each to the appropriate billing source. (If you want to set up additional automated payments for even more convenience, you could do that now as well.)
  9. Use the Account Closure Request Form to close out your old account. Have any remaining funds sent to you. 
  10. Confirm with the old financial institution that the checking account is actually closed rather than simply having had its funds withdrawn. You don’t want to accrue additional fees on that account.
 

Free Checking Account at SCCU

The SCCU free checking account is absolutely free with no minimum balance or direct deposit requirements. Members who choose this account can save, on average, $92 annually when compared to big bank options.40 There are no hidden fees. No hidden restrictions. No fine print. Plus, you can open an account with just $25.

Features that are free include:
 
  • CALL-24 telephone banking
  • Person-to-person payments
  • Statements
  • Online and mobile banking, including mobile deposits
  • Access to SCCU ATMs
  • Visa® contactless debit card
  • Account alerts/fraud alerts
  • Bill payer
This account provides plenty of convenience through online/mobile banking features. In addition, you can receive direct deposits a day early through our Priority Pay. We also participate in a cooperative network that gives you free access to shared branch locations when you’re out of town. 

We have dozens of ATMs throughout Florida, and you can use them at no charge. As part of our surcharge-free ATM network, you can visit numerous retailers and use their machines. These include Costco, CVS, Duane Reade, Speedway, Target, and Walgreens, as well as any Cumberland Farms in Florida. 

Student Checking: We also offer free checking accounts for students ages 13-17! Students can open one with an adult joint account holder and enjoy all of the free features and benefits as a no-fee checking account at SCCU for adults. This account can help them learn how to manage their money responsibly and get them started on the road to financial independence.

You can open your no-fee checking account online or by calling Express Sales at your local number: 
 
  • Brevard: 321-752-2222
  • Broward: 954-704-5000
  • Miami-Dade: 305-882-5000
  • All other areas: 800-447-7228
For even more convenience, you can use our live chat on our website to talk about setting up your free online bank account and any other questions you may have. During business hours, an SCCU team member will be happy to assist you! 

Our promise to you is: “Honest people. Trusted products. Time valued.” We look out for our members’ financial interests, and our Team Members genuinely care about our members. We only recommend the products that are right for you, and we ensure you understand your product terms.” (You can learn more in our Owners’ Manual, the SCCU membership guide.)
 
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