Heading off to college? Banking 101 Part I – National Consumers League

By Alex Schneider, NCL LifeSmarts and Public Policy Intern

For high school students heading off to college, there’s a lot to think about.  There’ll be new friends, new classes, and for many, a new place to call home.

Researching what bank to choose probably won’t be high on the list of priorities.  But when you consider all the expenses that build up throughout college, not to mention the difficulty of securing even a minimum wage job in this economy, every penny counts. Taking some time to consider your options could save you hundreds of dollars a year.

Ask about fees
The rumors are true: free student checking accounts still exist.  Don’t even think of walking into a bank unless they have a free student account.  It doesn’t matter how conveniently located the bank is or how many lollipops they have in the lobby, it just is not cost effective for students to pay banking fees when so many other banks offer free student accounts.

When opening that free account, remember to ask about the basics so you won’t be caught with hidden fees: What is the cost of out-of-network ATM withdrawals?  How much does it cost to order checks? Are there any minimum balance requirements?  Is a debit card free with the account?  Are you required to have a savings account, too? Are there other costs associated with the checking account?

When it comes to fees, weigh the positives and negatives.  Purchasing 100 checks for $4 isn’t a big deal, but a monthly $8 fee – which amounts to $96 a year and $384 for four years of school –  can be a considerable, easily avoided expense.

Think local
Most students entering college will find they already have a bank account. The best way to ensure easy access to your money, however, is to open a new account with a local branch near your school.  You’ll have free access to local ATMs and you’ll be able to cash checks more easily. If you try using an Anytown Bank debit card at the ATM on college, you might face fees of upwards of $4 per transaction, half paid to Anytown Bank, half paid to the local bank. Avoid the fees and open a new account.  As a bonus, finding a new local bank will get you off campus to see and learn more about the neighborhood around your school.

Open a credit card
The literature on credit cards is lengthy, but the basic benefits are clear: if you open a student card with no annual fee, you’ll build up your credit history while benefiting from purchase protections offered by credit card companies.  If you know you won’t be able to pay your bills on time, however, don’t open the card.  Graduating college with a poor credit history is the worst financial mistake a student can make.

Stay tuned for the next blog post on college banking later this week!