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Despite Falling Rates, Rewards Checking Still Viable for Savers
Finding a solid return on your savings is a tough task in today’s low interest-rate environment. Savings accounts and certificates of deposit (CDs) fail to impress diligent savers, who’ve watched rates sink in recent years.

Rewards checking accounts have also seen rates plummet. But they remain relatively attractive for some savers.

Many rewards checking accounts pay out 2.00% APY or more — double what you can get on many online savings accounts and 1-year CDs. In fact, rewards checking accounts have maintained this interest-rate advantage even as their rates have fallen. For example, in January 2011, East Carolina Bank’s reward checking account paid 4.01% APY. Today, it pays 2.01% APY — still twice as good as what most customers can get with a savings account.

Rewards checking rates are so attractive that some banks actually have to stop accepting new customers. Evantage Bank, AmericaNet Bank and Redneck Bank have “sold out” of their rewards checking accounts, all of which are paying 2.50% APY.

The typical rewards checking account offers a highly competitive interest rate only if the accountholder meets a stringent list of requirements, which usually include paperless statements, direct deposit and a certain number of debit-card transactions.

Customers who fail to meet those requirements will wind up getting different terms, such as a reduced interest rate or loss of certain account perks.

And banks tend to limit the balance that is subject to the high interest rate — any balance that exceeds the limit will earn less interest.

For example, the rewards checking account from Kinderhook Bank pays 2.50% APY on balances up to $20,000 and 0.75% APY on balances greater than $20,000 when customers have at least 10 debit card purchases posted, receive online statements and have a direct deposit posted per month.

Not meeting the requirements means customers earn 0.07% APY on balances of at least $1,000 and ATM fees are not refunded. However, the checking account remains free of monthly maintenance fees.
Some strategy required

When it comes to rewards checking accounts, meticulous savers recognize there is strategy involved.

First, it would be wise not to keep a balance in excess of the limit that can earn the maximum APY, because that extra money would earn more interest in an online savings account.

Second, savers have to acknowledge that spending is required to earn the higher interest rates (pushing balances lower.) And earning those higher interest rates will push balances closer to the APY limit. So if the goal is to maximize the balance without exceeding the APY limit, the account needs careful management.
Is it still worth it?

Rewards checking accounts can be considered “high maintenance” accounts. If this type of upkeep is manageable under your current financial situation, it could be worth it.

For example, in the above situation, a $20,000 balance in a rewards checking account earns $500 in interest. But holding that same balance in TIAA Direct’s online savings account, which pays 1.25% APY, would earn you $250. It is up to you to decide if the $250 difference between interest earnings on a rewards checking account and a savings account is worth the effort.

And, rewards checking accounts are most commonly found at small community banks and credit unions, which tend to be less convenient than the bigger banks. You may have to move your monthly direct deposit to the rewards checking account.

In the near future, interest rates on all deposit accounts are unlikely to improve. Because the Federal Reserve intends to keep interest rates remain low until late 2014, this period of low savings rates is likely to stick around for a while.

Using a rewards checking account is one way to weather the current economic climate. At the very least, rewards checking accounts tend to be free whether or not you meet the requirements to earn the maximum APY. That trait alone makes a compelling case for rewards checking.

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