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It’s no secret that as more services become digital, retail businesses have sometimes struggled to find their place in the new reality. While many imagine in-person shopping being replaced by online retailers, a similar trend is happening with U.S. banks as consumers continue to visit brick-and-mortar branches less frequently.
In some communities, neighborhood banks being forced to shutter their doors has caused significant damage to local economies and exacerbated existing financial inequities.
Below, Select details what’s been happening with retail banking lately and how you can choose the best bank account for your personal and financial needs.
Branch closures hurt consumers and communities
One of the bedrock decisions of personal finance is choosing where your money lives, and that’s typically in a bank. The vast majority of Americans — approximately 95% — have established bank accounts. According to 2019 FDIC data, roughly 5% of Americans remain “unbanked,” meaning they don’t have a traditional checking or savings account. And as banks continue to shutter across the country, that’s making banking opportunities even more difficult.
For starters, the bank closure trend is nothing new. In 2000, there were 8,000 commercial banks in the United States, according to FDIC data. By 2021, just over half of them, 4,236, were still standing, and that number continues to fall even into 2022 — it’s now down to 4,194 as of Mar. 31. The closures are also not limited to small banks in rural communities, as they’re happening to large legacy banks in highly populated areas as well.
According to a report by S&P Global Market Intelligence, Wells Fargo led the pack with 267 bank branch closures in 2021, followed by U.S. Bank and Truist with 257 and 234 branch closures, respectively. The five states that were hit the hardest were California, with 269 branch closures; Michigan, with 247 branches; New York, with 221 branches; Florida, with 192 branches; and Illinois, with 153 branches.
While this trend is widespread, it’s been hitting low-income and majority-minority communities even harder. According to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, one-third of the branches closed from 2017 to 2021 occurred in areas that were predominately lower-income and majority-minority.
The ramifications of banks suddenly disappearing from communities aren’t surface-level either — affected residents now have to drive farther to make a simple deposit or withdraw cash, which takes more time, for example.
The consolidation of bank branches is also creating “banking deserts,” when communities are without access to a bank or credit union within 10 miles. Several studies have shown these communities are more likely to use non-traditional and high-fee lending options such as payday loans and check-cashing services, which increases financial inequities and ends up widening the wealth gap.
While fewer physical bank locations may exist, there are still some options out there for consumers, despite what may or may not be available to you locally.
How to choose a bank
When you’re choosing a new bank or credit union, there are several things to consider to help you decide which is the best fit for your financial situation:
Evaluate account features and fees
First and foremost, if your bank is charging you monthly fees, find out why. With a wide variety of no-fee bank accounts available, you really shouldn’t be paying for a checking or savings account.
You may also want to look through the other account features to see what else could be useful to you. For example, another bank may offer perks such as free credit monitoring or a higher interest rate than your current bank. Or, if you want better online tools, moving to a digitally savvy bank could be beneficial.
When you’re searching for a new bank, ask yourself this question: What features do I really need?
The answer could be anything from fee-free ATM withdrawals, no overdraft fees or online bill pay to a well-designed website and mobile app, and 24/7 customer service. Whichever benefits suit your needs should be the focus of your next bank account.
Banking digitally vs. in-person
Whether you live in a major city or a rural community, it’s hard to argue the convenience of an online-only bank. According to J.D. Power’s 2022 U.S. Direct Banking Satisfaction Study, one-quarter, or about 27%, of Americans currently use an online-only bank.
The study also suggests that online banks are best when it comes to customer satisfaction, with Charles Schwab and Discover Bank tied at first place and Ally Bank following in third for checking accounts. Savings accounts had similar results, with American Express, Discover Bank and Charles Schwab leading the pack.
If you tend to pay for expenses with cards over cash, going digital could be a more efficient decision.
Take advantage of welcome bonuses
Just like rewards credit cards, banks will sometimes offer welcome bonuses to attract new customers, typically in the form of cash incentives for keeping a specific balance in your account or for setting up direct deposit with your employer.
Personally, I’ve made a habit of switching banks to snag welcome bonuses and have made significant profits by doing so. If you’re a bit flexible when it comes to choosing a bank, consider one of these active checking account bonuses:
- Up to $400 for opening and using a new Virtual Wallet by PNC Bank — that’s $50 for a new Virtual Wallet, $200 for a new Virtual Wallet with Performance Spend or $400 for a new Virtual Wallet with Performance Select.
- A $200 bonus for opening a Chase Total Checking® account and setting up direct deposit within 90 days (offer valid through July 20, 2022).
- A $100 bonus for opening a Chase College Checking℠ account and completing 10 qualifying transactions within 60 days (offer valid through July 20, 2022).
Additional offers are also available and change frequently, so be sure to check what’s available in your area or online often.
Because the retail banking space has evolved rapidly in recent years, it may be time to reassess your banking relationship. Whether your local branch now has limited hours or has already shuttered its doors, or your financial needs have changed, switching banks may be a great financial step for you.