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  • Writer's pictureBridget Sullivan Mermel CFP(R) CPA

Breaking Up with My Bank

Dear Bridget,

Although I like a good vampire movie, I don’t like it when I feel like my big bank has fangs in my neck. Between high fees, low interest earnings, and lousy service I am fed up. Don’t get me started on the way they game the political system and the foreclosure crisis. I’m ready to change. Help!


Not heartbroken

Dear NH,

Wow! Call me Bridget the Big Bank Slayer.

If you want to switch banks, here are some suggestions:

Suggestion one: stop auto-pays at your current bank.

The big banks focus on convenience; they were the first to figure out banking online makes it difficult to switch institutions. Auto-pays make it that much tougher to leave.

To prepare for the break-up, stop auto-pays; paying everyone manually through your online banking system is fine. Consider getting a regular paycheck instead of direct deposits. Or, find out what your payroll department will require for you to change the direct deposit of your check. Once you’ve switched to a new bank and you feel good about it, go ahead and start up the auto-pays again.

Suggestion two: Explore your local community banks

Local community banks are privately owned local banks. That means that they take deposits and loan them out to the local community. Large national banks may do some community lending, but with local community banks your dollars on deposit should help the local economy, not trickle off into corporate never-never land or the derivatives market.

If you look around when picking banks you can typically find a local community bank that is convenient to where you live or work. Online banking will probably be available, perhaps with an interface that seems more basic than as with the too-big- to-fails. When I got fed of with my big bank, I checked the ratings on Yelp before picking North Community Bank in Chicago for a lot of my banking.

Suggestion Three: Explore Credit Unions

Credit unions are created when groups of people pool their resources, hire a manger to run the operation, and provide banking services to themselves. Credit unions are owned by their members and can limit their membership.

They are run typically in a straight-forward manner with transparent agendas. They’re not trying to lure you in and extract fees. They’re trying to provide the best service to the most members.

Often credit unions originate with employers. I’m still a member of Summit Credit Union in Wisconsin, which I joined because my coworkers at my part-time job working for the state government when I was in college told me it was a good deal. Other credit unions have geographical boundaries. Here’s a website to help you locate a credit union that might work for you:

Suggestion Four: Find a Community Development Bank

Just add “development” to a community bank and you’ve got another type of bank. The difference between a community bank and a community development bank is that a community banks lend money to the community at large and community development banks focus their lending on people who don’t have access to regular banking. In other words they reach out to the economically disadvantaged.

Community development banking has taken off since legislation that encourages it was passed in the 90s. Although a rapidly growing sector of banking, there are far fewer community development banks than either community banks or credit unions. While deposits up to $250,000 are insured by the FDIC, this type of bank typically lacks some of the convenience factors of other banking institutions.

I posted a listing of community development banks on my website from Green America:

For many people, the ideal would be banking at a community development bank down the street. Unfortunately, most people don’t have that available. Just like many decisions, picking a bank requires striking a balance between idealism and pragmatism.

So how to make decisions? Here’s my recent experience. I have one account I’m interested in moving right now: my high-interest Internet savings account.

I recommend high-interest Internet savings to stash emergency funds. Personally I’ve had this type of account with ING Direct for over 5 years. These accounts pay about 1% right now. That might sound pathetic until you open up a Chase statement and see the interest on their savings accounts: .01%. That’s right, the Internet accounts pay 100 times more.

From the bank’s perspective, I think these accounts are a marketing tool to get deposits. As a customer, my big concern is that a high-interest account will suddenly and silently become a not-very high-interest account. The biggest risk I’m taking in switching is that the bank will withdraw the high-interest.

So what are my options? My local community bank and my credit union don’t offer high-interest Internet savings. I haven’t found many that do. If I’m going to bother switching, it’s going to be to a local bank.

Chicago was home to one of the pioneers in community development banking, ShoreBank. Politicians of almost every ideology like banks that help people who can’t get loans, and ShoreBank was located in the community where Barack Obama got his political start as an Illinois state senator. I would venture to guess that somewhere there is a photo of a young-looking Obama smiling in between the founders of the bank.

ShoreBank got in trouble like a lot of banks did and ended up being taken over by the FDIC and selling its assets to a group called Urban Partnership Bank a few years ago.

Urban Partnership Bank is the ultimate political hot-potato. When ShoreBank was in trouble, some folks on the right claimed that because of the bank’s association with Obama, they were getting preferential treatment.

But the folks on the left have a lot to hate, too. Because who owns Urban Partnership Bank? It’s a private bank owned by a consortium of foundations and companies (including Goldman Sachs and Citibank). The owners sounds like fat-cats with questionable motives to many on the left.

So back to my banking decisions. When it comes to what I call sustainable personal finance, I’m not a purist; I’m a pragmatist. Urban Partnership Bank has a high-interest Internet savings account. Their mission is to loan to people who can’t get loans. They’re paying 1% and are FDIC insured. Political hot-potato or not, I’m going to give them a try.

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