Six Ways to Keep Rewards Checking Rewarding

Interest rates are falling. Free checking accounts are disappearing. Debit card rewards programs are closing. But there is still a way to make your personal finances pay off: a high-yield checking account.

With the rates of standard interest-bearing checking accounts averaging near a measly 0.5%, these programs continue to be a bright spot with annual percentage yields of around 4%, according to Bankrate's new survey. While the low-rate environment is impacting the world of high-yield checking, here are six ways you can continue to reap the benefits of what is also called rewards checking.

Shop Around

Even if you find the most attractive interest rate, the search is not over.

Bankrate's 2011 High-Yield Checking Survey shows a wide range of requirements for these accounts. Most accounts require debit card activity, but the number of monthly debit card purchases varies widely. Outside of debit card usage, you can explore these accounts to find qualifications that best fit your financial lifestyle. Each account requires different terms and can include online bill pay, direct deposit and e-statements.

"Finding a rewarding interest rate is great, but it doesn't replace the need to comparison shop to make sure that's really your best choice," says Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrates senior financial analyst.

McBride says consumers should compare monthly account requirements to determine if the hurdles they need to clear are attainable on a consistent basis.

Look Local

You may not want to look far from home when you start the search for a reward checking account.

When ViewPoint Bank of Texas first began offering its rewards checking program in 2008, the bank did not restrict the program with residency requirements. Wendi Costlow, chief marketing officer of ViewPoint Bank, says news of its interest rate spread across the Internet and many out-of-state yield chasers began to open accounts. The bank now solely offers the high-yield account to Texas customers.

Other banks appear to be following the trend of rewarding local customers only. As local customers are rewarded with above-average rates, banks and credit unions hope to be rewarded with more of their business.

McBride says confining high-yield rates to local customers can work to a bank's advantage when the institution hopes to sell additional services such as loans, CDs and other banking products.

Capitalize on Balance Caps

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. insurance limit of $250,000 keeps your money safe, but a smaller chunk of change is also typically eligible for accelerated interest rates in high-yield checking programs.

In 2010, Costlow says ViewPoint Bank lowered the first tier of its reward checking program from $50,000 to $25,000. This puts the bank more in line with industry standards, according to Costlow.

The Bankrate 2011 High-Yield Checking Survey supports the notion that the most prevalent balance cap for earning the highest annual percentage yield, or APY, is $25,000. Once account holders cross the threshold, their funds typically earn interest at much smaller rates, often as low as a few tenths of a percent.

If you reach your balance cap, you may want to search for more competitive rates for the remainder of your money. Some high-yield money market accounts offer rates of more than 1%.

To fully understand the difference in earnings potential, compare interest rates to see how varying rates impact your ability to accrue interest.

The Interest Rate Isn't Your Only Reward

While high-yield interest rates can help you earn money, some rewards checking programs help you save, too.

McBride says many high-yield checking accounts offer reimbursements for ATM fees. For customers who are cash crazy, these reimbursements can add up to additional savings.

Some banks reimburse all ATM fees for their high-yield checking account holders, but others may set a limit on the monthly amount they are willing to cover.

In some programs, customers can save on more than just ATM fees. For example, Costlow says ViewPoint Bank's rewards checking program includes incentives such as loan discounts and a free online budgeting tool.

Actively Use Your Account

While keeping the balance of your high-yield checking account high can help you earn more interest, suspicious spending behavior may trigger a reprimand from your bank.

"When we talk about (suspicious) behavior, we are talking about the account holder that makes 10 separate 1 cent or $1 purchases all at once and does not use the card any other time," says Jim Sturgeon, president and CEO of Founders Bank of Texas.

Sturgeon says the bank evaluates these customers on a case-by-case basis and will consider removing them from the rewards checking program.

"We like to make sure our customers are using the account in the spirit that it's meant to be used," he says.

Costlow says, "This is a transaction account. We want to give our customers the rewards in return for them using their account for their everyday spending."

That amount of required everyday spending may rise. As banks prepare for a potential loss of revenue from the Durbin Amendment's limit on debit card interchange fees, some are considering changes to their high-yield checking programs.

"We may need to require a larger number of debit transactions (for customers to qualify for the higher yield)," Sturgeon says.

Be sure to watch for your bank's notification of any increase in debit card activity required to keep your account eligible for your rewarding interest rate.

Watch Out For Falling Interest Rates

Unlike certificates of deposit with fixed interest rates, the terms of high-yield checking programs can change at any time.

Sturgeon says the bank's rewards checking program offered interest rates of more than 5% for balances below $10,000 in early 2010, but it has adjusted these rates in accordance with market fluctuations.

The interest rates for Founders Bank's high-yield checking program have fallen more than 2%age points to 2.76%, in less than 18 months.

"The low-rate environment is continuing to undercut the yields being offered," McBride says.

Rewards checking interest rates are not immune from today's market. As with increased debit card requirements, be sure to read any bank notifications to stay updated on your account terms.

If interest rates fall too low, you may want to survey other banks for potentially higher earning potential. Some long-term CDs offer yields higher than 2.3% and some high-yield savings accounts offer customers a rate of 1 full percentage point.