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Best in Banking 2013 – NerdWallet’s Favorites

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by on December 12, 2013

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2013 has been a blur. If you’ve been keeping up with the headlines, Pope Benedict resigned, the Obamacare website sputtered, Twitter IPO’d, and there was an absurd amount of Miley Cyrus news. Meanwhile here at NerdWallet HQ, we’ve been nerding out on the best news, deals and innovations in personal finance.

We recently evaluated 100 of the largest financial institutions in the United States to help consumers better understand which ones best meet their needs. A few rose to the top of the ranks. Read on to learn about the top accounts, institutions and services to help you make the most of your money in the New Year.

And now without more ado, NerdWallet is pleased to announce the winners of 2013’s Best in Banking for 5 categories: Best Savings Account, Best Checking Account, Best Student Account, Best Blog, Best for Nationwide Access

Best Savings Account

Barclays Dream Account

Why it wins: excellent yield, savings incentives

With savings accounts, there’s usually not much to brag about. But online bank Barclays’ new account offers a few features that make goal-oriented savings a bit more exciting. For one, it offers a top-tier interest rate of 0.95% APY, with no minimum balances required. Good luck finding a comparable savings account rate at any other bank these days.

On top of the excellent rate, Barclays has added a few incentives to help you save regularly and avoid dipping into your reserves (two key habits to stick with if you want to reach your goals). Make deposits to the account for six straight months and you’ll earn a 2.5% bonus on the interest you earned over that time. Keep yourself from making any withdrawals for six straight months and you’ll earn an extra 2.5% bonus on your interest earnings.

Other considerations: deposit limits

You’re limited to depositing just $1,000 each month, so this isn’t a great option for anyone with high balances and large regular deposits.

Honorable Mention

State Employees’ Credit Union Share Account

Unlike most entry-level savings accounts, the Share Account at State Employees’ Credit Union of North Carolina offers an extremely competitive interest rate (0.75% APY). Just $25 is required to open the account and avoid a $1 monthly fee.

Best Checking Account

Santander extra20 checking

Why it wins: monthly bonuses

Banks have a long history of offering checking account bonuses to entice new customers to open an account. A few decades ago, it was often a free toaster, but today cash is popular. You’re usually out of luck once you’ve spent the free money for opening a new account, but with Santander’s new extra20 checking, you can continue to earn bonus cash month after month.

The bonus comes in two parts: $10 for having direct deposits totaling $1,500 each month, plus $10 for paying two bills though online BillPay each month. Both requirements are meant to save the bank money and save you time.

If you can meet both requirements, it makes for a $20 windfall each month, or up to $240 of free money each year. That’s way more than you’ll usually earn with a basic savings account.

Other considerations: potential monthly fee

The account does carry a monthly fee, but it’s waived with $1,500 or more in monthly direct deposits, which is required to earn half of the bonus anyway.

Honorable Mention

Bethpage Federal Credit Union

This Long Island-based credit union offers its members quite a few unique checking account benefits. Bethpage does not charge out of network ATM fees, and checking balances can earn 1% APY for receiving online statements, utilizing direct deposit, and making 10 debit card purchases each month. New members can also earn a $100 bonus  for trading in their debit card or unused checks from another institution.

Best Student Account

Ent Federal Credit Union Free College Checking / Lion One Checking

Why it wins: no monthly fee, ATM fees waived, interest bearing

A good student checking account is a necessity for most college students, but it’s often overlooked. Excessive requirements can be hard to meet for students just scraping by, and monthly fees can strain already-tight budgets.

That’s why college students in Colorado are lucky to have Ent Federal Credit Union at their service. The credit union offers its Free College Checking account with no minimum balance or monthly fees, and it even waives four out-of-network ATM transactions each month (a potential savings of $72 a year). Of course, thanks to Ent’s membership to the CO-OP ATM network and CO-OP shared branches, students will rarely be far from a fee-free ATM. Finally, the account also pays interest, rare among checking accounts.

If you’re a student at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, you have the added bonus of linking your debit card to a student ID, eliminating the need to carry both. Ent also offers a service center and three ATMs right on campus for easy access even between classes.

Other considerations: limited presence

Ent FCU is based in Colorado, so students moving out of state after graduation might choose to switch institutions. With shared branches and ATMs, you’ll still be able to access your money nationwide, but won’t have the full range of in-person services available as you would at an Ent branch.

Honorable Mention

SECU Students’ Choice Checking

SECU’s student checking option also offers no monthly fee as well as access to the surcharge-free Allpoint ATM network nationwide. It even includes a bonus rate on CDs and a 0.25% auto loan discount.

Best Blog

Mountain Money (Mountain America Credit Union)

Why it wins: variety, freshness, social engagement

While more and more financial institutions have shared educational content on their websites and over social media in the past year, some are leading the pack by covering a big variety of topics, posting regularly and engaging with the online community.

Mountain America CU’s blog tackles this feat with ease and style. With topics ranging from preparing for college to running your own business, pretty much every MACU member has something to gain from surfing the blog. Readers can also check out its Twitter or Facebook feeds for the latest article or for the occasional contest (are you the next winner of a pair of Utah Jazz tickets?!).

Other considerations: visibility

If you don’t know where to look, you might have a hard time finding MACU’s blog. A more prominent place on its homepage would make it easier for current and prospective members to read more about the credit union, and learn something in while doing it.

Honorable Mention

Achievement Sessions (PNC)

PNC’s financial education initiative of 2013 is a hybrid blog/video resource center featuring some of the Internet’s biggest names in personal finance. So far, video sessions include topics ranging from budgeting to investing to credit scores. A quiz, a related challenge, and a Q&A section complement each session. Finally, you can easily read more from the instructors by visiting the Achievement Session blog.

Best for Nationwide Access

Hudson Valley Federal Credit Union

Why it wins: large surcharge-free ATM network, shared branches

With the rise of mobile and online banking, fewer and fewer people are making the trek to bank or credit union branches these days. But being able to visit a branch or ATM is still a big plus. Whether it’s to withdraw cash on vacation, deposit a check, or just ask a question face-to-face, we still want free and easy access to branches and ATMs.

For this, credit unions have a surprising advantage. Many belong to ATM and shared branch networks that let members handle basic transactions at partner institutions. Hudson Valley FCU takes the cake in this category by offering surcharge-free access to over 77,000 ATMs across the country, through networks including CO-OP, Allpoint, Presto! and SUM. The New York-based credit union also offers access to over 5,000 branches via the CO-OP shared branching network.

Other considerations: Transactions at shared branches and ATM networks are often limited to certain types of activities. Deposit-taking ATMs are available only in New York, for example.

Honorable Mention

U.S. Bank

With over 3,140 branch locations and 5,000 ATMs across more than 20 states, U.S. Bank has a similar reach to many of the big-name institutions. But where they go above and beyond most other big banks is by offering surcharge-free access to all MoneyPass network ATMs nationwide, providing tens of thousands of additional free ATMs to U.S. Bank customers.

Julie Rybarczyk / Flickr source

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