New Year's resolutions often center on personal habits: eating right, exercising more, giving up smoking and so on. However, while you are working on getting your body in shape, give some thought to toning up your banking situation.
Here are four things you should do in the new year to get your banking situation into better shape:
1. Optimize your checking/saving balance
The increasing scarceness of free checking has caused some customers to keep more money than they normally would in their checking accounts, so their balances qualify them for a fee waiver. This means having less money earning interest in savings -- at a time when low savings account rates have already reduced interest earnings drastically.
While avoiding checking account fees may still be more cost-effective than making the most of savings account interest, make sure your checking account balance has not built up beyond what is necessary to meet upcoming expenses and qualify for free checking. Better yet, look for a free checking account -- they are the exception these days, but far from completely extinct. That way you can both maximize your savings account interest and minimize your checking account fees.
2. Move deposits longer -- with caution
This year may be remembered as the period when mortgage rates and Treasury bond yields broke a long-term declining trend and started rising. The stage may be set for deposit rates to begin to follow in 2014. Since long-term rates often rise faster than short-term rates, you may want to shift savings into longer-term CDs. If you do so, emphasize CDs with mild penalties for early withdrawal, so you are not completely locked in should rates continue to rise.
3. Consider a shorter-term mortgage
Just as rising rates may make longer-term deposits more attractive, on the borrowing side of the ledger they give shorter-term loans more of an edge. As mortgage rates rose in 2013, the spread between 30-year and 15-year mortgage rates widened. So, if you are looking for lower mortgage rates, consider a shorter-term loan -- especially if you are refinancing and have already paid several years off of your original mortgage.
4. Re-prioritize your banking needs
People often choose their banks because of convenience, but the nature of convenience has changed in recent years. Americans are doing more and more business online. They have become more likely to get cash at an ATM or the supermarket and less likely to get it from a teller -- if they still use cash at all. In other words, the closeness of your local bank branch may no longer be as relevant as it used to be.
Even if you have not already changed your habits, banks may be forcing your hand. Since 2009, the number of bank branches in the U.S. has declined by more than 3,000. It may be time to go with the trend and consider an online bank -- you might get a higher savings account rate or a better deal on a checking account as a result.
Working out and eating right are investments in yourself -- a little sacrifice now so that you feel better later on. The time you spend getting your banking in shape is a similar form of investment -- make the effort now, and watch the results keep paying off over time.