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Banks pushing 'premium' accounts

The big banks are trying to entice the not-quite-rich with these no-fee checking accounts. But what are you really getting when you sign up?

By MSN Money Partner Mar 16, 2012 3:24PM

This post comes from Jeanine Skowronskiat partner site MainStreet.


MainStreet on MSN MoneyIt may be easy to lash out at a bank each time it adds another surcharge to a checking account product, but in many respects the impact regulatory changes have had on financial institutions has less to do with the fees themselves and more to do with how they can be avoided.


Image: A man holding a check book (© Image Source/Getty Images)Take, for instance, Wells Fargo's recent expansion of its $7 monthly checking account fee. Account holders can easily bypass the charge by maintaining a $1,500 minimum daily balance or making direct deposits of $500 or more each month.


The idea here is to make sure each customer maintains a certain amount of money with the financial institution, and it speaks to a larger trend within the banking sector.


"Banks are not making money off of lower-tier checking accounts, so they're moving towards relationship banking," says Alex Matjanec, co-founder of "To get the full experience at a bank, you need to have more than one account with them."


Enter premium checking accounts, which entitle their holders to additional services, fee waivers, better rates and other discounts in exchange for linking more than just a monthly paycheck to the account. Instead, account holders maintain their elite status by keeping combined deposits, investments and installment loans totaling, on average, between $15,000 and $75,000 at one bank. (Post continues below.)

The products are designed specifically to get consumers who are on the edge of being considered "affluent" by the bank to do more of their business with the financial institution they're already with.


"These accounts are targeting the 10%," says Stephanie Wei, vice president of deposit products at NerdWallet, who recently put together a comprehensive roundup of the requirements and benefits associated with each premium checking product offered by all the big banks.


The structure, in a sense, mirrors how banks handle their ultra-high or high-net-worth clients, who are rewarded amply for investing a certain portion of their fortune with a particular financial institution. But the average consumer shouldn't let the lowered thresholds fool them into going after one of these second-tier accounts. As Wei points out, the perks on premium checking accounts aren't nearly as good.


Typically, they include access to a dedicated customer service team, but there also is a strange assortment of other perks associated with various accounts. Citi, for instance, gives its Citigold account holders priority processing on credit card applications, while Chase gives its Premier Platinum Checking account holders nine additional checking accounts with no monthly service fee.


"Many of these services are of dubious usefulness or diminishing marginal returns," Wei says. They also typically don't include better interest rates on the checking account themselves, although account holders do bypass additional fees.


"(The banks) don't have anything to really give, so that's their perk: You don't pay a fee," Matjanec says.


These fees are often ones that those who qualify for premium checking already pay infrequently, such as fees for specialty checks, overdraft protection, incoming wire transfers and stopped payments.


This is not to say the accounts are completely without merit.


"What you're really getting out of it is discounts and freebies on other bank products," Wei says. As such, it may make sense for someone who is looking to take out a mortgage, open up a CD or buy an investment product to open a premium account.


Otherwise, she says, "if you're going to tie up $25,000 in a checking account, look for a conventional savings or high-yield checking account that offers better interest rates." This is especially true since account holders who fail to maintain the $15,000 to $75,000 requirements associated with these accounts will have to pay a fee that ranges from $20 to $35.


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