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NerdWallet’s Best Rewards Checking Accounts

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Best Rewards Checking Accounts

You’re probably used to the idea of earning rewards with credit cards, from cash back to airline miles to points you can spend on cool stuff. But did you know you can be rewarded just for using your checking account?

Many rewards checking account promotions offer perks such as sign-up bonuses, good interest rates and airline miles, all in an effort to lure new customers and keep existing customers happy,

The Nerds have rounded up our favorite rewards checking accounts. Check them out.

Best checking account sign-up bonus: Chase Total Checking

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Chase is a good all-around bank, with a variety of checking accounts, savings accounts, credit cards, investment accounts and loans. It also has solid Internet banking tools and provides a great mobile banking experience.

We don’t love the complicated fee structure at Chase, but the bank makes it worthwhile to do business there, with a generous $150 sign-up bonus if you open a Chase Total Checking account and sign up for direct deposit. Add a Chase Total Savings account to the mix and you’ll take home an additional $100 bonus.

Chase Total Checking is a good checking account, even without the bonus. There’s a low $25 minimum to open the account, and the $12 monthly fee is waived if you have at least $500 in direct deposits, maintain a $1,500 balance or keep $5,000 across all your Chase bank accounts.

For people with a Chase mortgage, you might be better off with the Chase Premier Plus Checking option, which gives you four free withdrawals per statement period from non-Chase ATMs and pays 0.01% interest. If you don’t have a Chase mortgage, though, you’re better off sticking with Chase Total Checking.

Best debit card rewards: Discover Cashback Checking

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10 cents per transaction

Debit card rewards used to be much juicier, but many programs have been discontinued in the past few years. You might be able to find rewards at a regional or community financial institution in your area. For example, Security Service Federal Credit Union, which operates in Texas, Utah and Colorado, offers a rewards debit card that links up with credit card rewards.

There are a handful of banks that offer miles or points per dollar spent, often at a rate of one mile for every two dollars. But since airline miles have a relatively small monetary value, we prefer a more straightforward reward — such as the one offered by the Discover Cashback Checking account, which gives you 10 cents every time you use your debit card, pay a bill or write a check.

The reward is capped at $10 a month, or 10 cents apiece for 100 transactions, but that’s still a pretty generous monthly boost. The reward can be redeemed by combining it with the Cashback Bonus account associated with your Discover card, or it can be deposited directly into your Discover checking account.

Not bad, right?

This account is best for people who don’t want the hassle of points or miles and just want a straight cash reward for their transactions.

Best high-interest checking account: Consumers Credit Union

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3.09% to 5.09% APY

Credit unions aren’t necessarily exclusive. Membership in this one is open to anyone who pays a one-time $5 fee to join the Consumers Cooperative Association.

To earn the high interest offered by the Consumers Rewards Checking Account, you have to jump through quite a few hoops:

  • You’ll earn a 3.09% annual percentage yield, or APY, on the first $10,000 of your account balance, if you use your debit card to make 12 purchases a month without entering your PIN. That allows the credit union to collect higher fees from the merchant, as if you had paid with a credit card. You also have to set up direct deposit or use the credit union’s bill pay service. Plus, you’re required to access online banking once a month and elect to receive statements and other documents electronically. If your balance is higher than $10,000, you’ll earn 0.2% APY on the next $5,000 and 0.1% APY on balances higher than that.
  • You’ll get a 4.09% APY on the first $20,000 of your account balance if you meet the above requirements and make 12 purchases a month on a CCU credit card. If your balance is higher than $20,000, you’ll earn a 0.2% APY on the next $5,000 and 0.1% APY on balances above that.
  • The best APY, 5.09% on the first $20,000 of your account balance, requires meeting the requirements for the 3.09% interest rate and spending at least $1,000 a month on your CCU credit card. Again, you’ll earn 0.2% on balances above $20,000, up to $25,000, and 0.1% APY on anything above $25,000.

Although that’s a lot of requirements, we appreciate that Consumers Credit Union is all about how you manage your account, not how much money you have.

Many people don’t make enough purchases in a single month to earn the highest interest rates on these accounts, but we would be willing to use our credit or debit card to buy a pack of gum every day on our lunch break if it meant we could score these high yields. This account is great for people who make a lot of debit and credit card purchases each month and keep sizable balances in their checking accounts.

Best monthly bonus: Santander extra20 Checking

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$20 monthly bonus

Santander Bank’s extra20 Checking is one of our favorite checking accounts out there. For customers who set up a direct deposit of at least $1,500 a month and use online bill pay twice a month, Santander will deposit $20 into a linked extra20 Savings account every month.

Santander is an international brand whose presence in the United States is limited to the Northeast, so this is not a great option if you live in, say, Arizona. But if you do live in the northeastern U.S., there are nearly 700 branches and more than 2,300 ATMs to choose from.

Note that you’ll get hit with a $3 ATM fee if you use a non-Santander ATM, but for $20 a month it may be worth it to take the trouble to find a Santander ATM when you need cash. Santander also has a pretty online banking site, and a mobile app for both iOS and Android.

Best airline miles rewards: BankDirect Mileage Checking With Interest

20,000+ American Airlines AAdvantage miles in your first six months

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Travel rewards such as airline miles, hotel points or free car rentals are a mainstay of the credit card industry, but if you look you can find a checking account that offers similar perks.

BankDirect’s Mileage Checking With Interest awards American Airlines AAdvantage miles to new customers. It’s more like a sign-up bonus than a rewards program, but the list of ways to earn miles is long, and many of the rewards are generous. If you play your cards right, you could earn enough miles for a plane ticket in the first six months you have your account.

Here are the ways you can earn miles:

  • 1,000 miles for opening the account.
  • 10,000 miles if you direct-deposit at least $2,000 per month for the first six months.
  • 5,000 miles if you use bill pay at least three times a month, totaling at least $500, for the first six months.
  • 5,000 miles if you use your debit card at least 12 times a month, totaling at least $500, for the first six months.
  • 1,000 miles if you refer a friend.
  • 100 miles a month for each $1,000 of your balance, up to $50,000, for the first six months.

That’s a lot of potential miles. We’d like to see the program expanded to reward you every time you use your debit card, and not just for the first six months. But this is still a good deal for people who use their checking accounts frequently and would rather use their rewards for travel instead of getting them in cash.

A word of caution

The best rewards and sign-up bonuses in the world can’t make up for having a checking account that doesn’t have all the features you need or that charges you high fees to access your money. But it’s worth looking to see if you can find a financial institution that offers you a little extra incentive to bank with them.

Virginia C. McGuire is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: Twitter: @vcmcguire.

Published July 22, 2015.

Illustration via iStock.