Banks and credit unions can seem a little unfriendly to anyone who isn’t familiar with how they work. There are no helpful signs telling you where to stand, what forms you need, how much anything costs, or even which tellers have the good lollipops. 

Compare that to a check-cashing store or payday lender, where you’re greeted by a menu board. Each possible transaction is listed, along with its price — or at least its initial price. (Unfortunately, even though check cashers appear to be upfront about what things will cost, they do not tell the full story of just how expensive their products are.)

If you’re new to the world of traditional financial institutions, don’t let the unwelcoming setup keep you from opening an account. Here’s what you need to know to navigate a bank or credit union:

Understanding the bank layout

Part of the intimidation factor of walking into a bank is the fact that there are lots of workers there — but no clear indication of what their jobs are. Do you speak to a teller behind the counter or approach one of the bankers sitting in an office off the lobby? Do you need to sign in on a ledger or computer screen or just walk up to someone? 

Knowing what tellers and bankers do can help you feel more comfortable navigating the bank. Here’s a rundown:

  • Tellers: Tellers generally stand behind the counter and can help customers with routine banking questions and transactions, including cashing or depositing checks, collecting loan payments, preparing money orders, or ordering new checks or debit cards.
  • Bankers: Bankers usually have a private office because their job is to help customers with more complex banking needs. These can include opening or closing an account, applying for a loan or mortgage, buying financial products, or financial planning. 

If you’re opening an account for the first time, you’ll need to sit down with a banker to handle the initial paperwork and transaction. However, you can always ask a teller for help if you’re not sure who to talk to. The tellers are used to directing customers to the right banker for your specific needs.

Know what’s offered

According to Jason Vitug, founder of Phroogal Financial Wellness, “banks seem to believe customers automatically know what they want — so instead of educating potential customers, what they offer is marketing.” And if you’re confused about banking in the first place, this kind of marketing can make it feel like a bank isn’t the right place for you. 

Vitug likes to compare banking to purchasing a cell phone. You don’t just say an iPhone isn’t “for you.” You see what various providers offer and make your decision based on what’s best for you. Customers should look at banking the same way — by asking how the institution’s services will best fit their needs.

Cally Ingebritson, financial coach and founder of Chillax Finance, recommends you find a way to “feel comfortable asking questions” when you are first setting up a bank or credit union account. Just as you should research the features, options, and fees of a new cell phone, ask as many questions as you need to when opening a new account. “There will be someone at the bank who can walk you through all of your questions,” Ingebritson says. 

And if there isn’t? Find a different bank. 

“Not all banks are the same, and you have choices,” Vitug says. It’s easy to find a bank or credit union that doesn’t make you feel bad for asking questions.

Questions to Ask

If you’re not sure what kind of questions you should be asking, we’ve put together this handy list based on suggestions from Vitug and Ingebritson.

  1. How quickly will I be able to access my money? The majority of people who choose to remain unbanked do so because of access to cash. “Check cashing has an immediacy to it,” Ingebritson says. “There’s no waiting for a check to clear.” Even though depositing a physical check may take a little longer than cashing it at a payday loan store, there are no fees for this service from a traditional bank or credit union. Also, choosing a direct deposit option will allow for even faster access to your money than receiving and cashing paper checks from your employer.
    Either way, see how long the place you are looking to bank will take and compare it to other options.
  2. Are there monthly fees or minimum balance requirements? While these kinds of fees can feel like a “gotcha!” to anyone wary of traditional banks, Vitug suggests comparing these potential fees to the money you’d be spending on check cashing. “If every time you use check-cashing service for your paycheck it costs you $25, that’s fifty bucks a month you’re paying in ‘fees!’”
    Once you see what kind of fees there are, see if there are easy ways to avoid them or check with other banks and credit unions to see if they have lower or no fees. 
  3. How are overdrafts handled? Understanding what will happen if you overdraw your account can help you decide on the right financial institution. Will the bank simply decline any transactions that will cause an overdraft or will it let the overdraft go through?
    If it allows the overdraft, where does the money come from to cover the overdraft, and what fee is assessed because of it?
  4. How does the banking app work? Virtually all financial institutions now offer a mobile app, and understanding how you can conduct your banking on your cell phone can ensure that you make the most of your account. This can be especially helpful for those who have been making do with cash, since living unbanked can be “like a part time job … physically cash(ing) your check or pay(ing) your utility bills,” Ingebritson says.
    Is it easy to navigate and does it come in multiple languages (if you need that)? Think about what’s important to you in an app that would make your life easier. 

Things to think about

If you used to have a bank account but something happened that caused you to not have one (like too many overdrafts or bad checks), your first stop might want to be checking ChexSystems to see if you can easily get an account. A ChexSystems report is a little like a credit report for your banking history. 

“ChexSystems reports any negative banking history, such as involuntary account closure, unpaid negative balances, or bounced checks, to financial institutions,” says Cally Ingebritson, financial coach and founder of Chillax Finance. Banks may deny accounts to any potential customers with a negative ChexSystems report history. But banks and credit unions also offer second-chance accounts to many individuals as well, so don’t be daunted if you have made missteps in the past. 

You can get a free copy of your ChexSystems report via its website once every 12 months. You can also get a free copy if you’ve been denied a bank account in the last 60 days. 

What to Bring with You

If you’re ready to apply for an account, Ingebritson recommends bringing the following with you:

  • Your Social Security number, birth date, address, and phone number
  • A valid, government-issued ID
  • Some cash for the initial deposit (Check to see what the minimum deposit amount is. Some only require $5, others $100 or more.)

You Belong Where Your Money Will Thrive

Vitug has noticed those without bank accounts seem to believe “banking is for those who have money and are already doing fine with it.” 

But banking is for everyone, even if all the rules seem to be unwritten. The bank is providing a service, and you have every right to take advantage of that service, no matter where you are on your money journey.

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