Opening Your First Online Savings Account: 10 Factors to Consider

Opening Your First Online Savings Account: 10 Factors to Consider

I continue to be surprised by the number of people – well educated people, in fact – that I come across in my daily routine who tell me that they have not yet opened their first online savings account.

Nobody disputes the fact that a savings account is, at the very least, an important, safe way to keep cash available.   Even if you are entirely long of asset classes other than cash (equity, bonds, commodities, real estate, etc.), you need also to have a place to put your savings.   A standard savings account is going to earn a scant amount of interest and, when factoring in inflation, could actually lose money for depositors over time.

Especially when you take account of the value of compounded interest over time, higher yielding online savings accounts will outperform standard accounts.  You can experiment with the numbers yourself on BestCashCow’s savings and CD calculator.  I even hear a refrain from people who have millions of dollars in low interest earning accounts that they just don’t have the time to focus on chasing higher yields when the difference is at most 1%.

The most important thing to consider is that it really doesn’t take much time or effort at all to open a higher yielding savings account than one at a major money center bank, and it doesn’t involve any risk.

Higher yielding savings accounts offer the same FDIC coverage as brick and mortar banks (which is similar to NCUA insurance for credit unions).  Just stay within FDIC (and NCUA) insurance limits at every bank where you bank.  As a basic rule of thumb, your funds at each banks are insured by the FDIC up to $250,000.  If you open an account through a credit union that is insured by the NCUA, your money is secured up to $250,000 through the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund (NCUSIF).    Learn more about FDIC and NCUA insurance here.

While online accounts are ordinarily very easy to open and can be done from your own home, it goes without saying that the higher yield savings accounts available to you may actually still come from a brick and mortar bank.  Check those rates where you live here and check credit unions here.

What to Consider Before Opening Your First Online Savings Account

Before opening an account anywhere, think about the following 10 factors:

1. Required Initial Deposit: How much money do you have to deposit to open the account?   The five major online banks (CIT, Synchrony, Goldman Sachs, Ally and Barclays) ordinarily do not have minimum deposit requirements for the savings products.    Others do, but it is always clearly stated on the BestCashCow rate tables.

2.  Minimum Balance Required: How much money are you required to keep in the account to earn the advertised rate of interest and to avoid the assessment of account maintenance fees?  Most major online banks do not have minimum balance requirements to get their best rates.  Synchrony is the exception to this rule, as they require that you keep $30 on deposit in order to avoid a $5 monthly fee.  Where a bank has multiple tiered rates (also, known as graduated rates), BestCashCow's tables list only the highest rate.

3.  Rate of Interest Paid (APY): How much interest will you earn on your deposits and how long will that interest rate last? Is it an "introductory" rate that changes at a certain point or is it the permanent rate?   BestCashCow does list rates that are only offered to new depositors or for new money, but does not list so-called introductory and gimmicky rates, such as those offered by EverBank or some of the local Massachusetts banks.  Rates are always subject to change and can go up and down without notice.   If you seek to lock in rates or require certainty that the rate will not fall over a given period of time, you should consider CDs.  The tradeoff with CDs however is that your rate ordinarily cannot rise during the course of term (except so-called “raise your rate” or “step up CDs” offered by CIT or Ally).  Here is a good primer from which to start learning about CDs or you can download our CD Ebook from the EBook section.

4.  Application/Account Set-Up and Maintenance Fee: How much does the bank or credit union charge you to apply for and/or set up the new account? Is there an ongoing monthly, quarterly or annual fee to keep account privileges?   Again, the major online banks do not charge set-up and maintenance fees, and you should avoid any bank or credit union that charges set-up or maintenance fees.

5.  Links to Other Bank and/or Brokerage Accounts and the Speed of Transfers: Does the account allow you to create links between your funds in the new account and other banks and brokerages so that you can easily transfer money in and out of the account?  All online banks have transfers down pretty well, but there are differences in ACH transfer speeds.  Goldman Sachs is known to offer immediate ACH transfers, whereas outbound transfers from Synchrony can take days.  If you are concerned about transfer speeds, you may want to read reviews of online banks accessible from BestCashCow’s rate tables before opening an account.

6.  Required Additional Accounts: Does the bank require that you open or hold an additional account, such as a checking account, in order to open the savings account or to access/withdraw funds from the account? Wells Fargo, of course, became famous (or infamous) in 2016 for forcing account holders to open multiple accounts with multiple fee structures.  The major online banks do not require you to open multiple accounts, except HSBC Direct where the Online Savings Account has a matching Online Payment account that does not earn interest and which you must use to withdraw funds. 

7.  Compounding Method: How is the interest compounded and calculated on your savings - daily, monthly, quarterly, semiannually or annually?  We view this as a red herring; it doesn’t really matter how often your money is compounding.  Banks are required to report an APY rate, which standardizes measurement of the interest that you earn regardless of the compounding method.

8. Handling Deposits. This is especially important to know if you are opening an account with an online bank. How will you be able to make deposits into the account - by direct deposit, by wire transfer, or by ACH transfer.   Can you have your paycheck deposited directly from your employer's account?   Does the bank have a good mobile deposit application? 

9. Accessing Funds: What options are available to withdraw funds? Can you write checks against the account? Transfer funds electronically?  Can you use another bank's ATMs? Use an ATM and, if so, through what ATM network and at what cost?

10. Number of Transactions Permitted. Is there a limit on the number of times you can withdraw or transfer money out of the account each month?   Some banks, including some major online banks, limit you to six transactions per account statement cycle (usually, per month).

Whether you view cash as an important part of your investment portfolio or simply need to keep small amounts liquid, high yielding savings accounts can protect your cash from a loss of real purchasing power to inflation over time.   

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