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Banking for the Almost-Rich: A Look at Premium Checking

The structure, in a sense, mirrors how banks handle their ultra-high or high-net-worth clients, who are rewarded amply for investing a certain portion of their fortune with a particular financial institution. But the average consumer shouldn't let the lowered thresholds fool them into going after one of these second-tier accounts. As Wei points out, the perks on premium checking accounts aren't nearly as good.

Typically, they include access to a dedicated customer service team, but there also are a strange assortment of other perks associated with various accounts. Citi (C), for instance, gives its Citigold account holders priority processing on credit card applications, while Chase (JPM) gives its Premier Platinum Checking account holders nine additional checking accounts with no monthly service fee.

"Many of these services are of dubious usefulness or diminishing marginal returns," Wei says. They also typically don't include better interest rates on the checking account themselves, although account olders do bypass additional fees.

" The banks don't have anything to really give, so that's their perk: You don't pay a fee," Matjanec says.

These fees are often ones that those who qualify for premium checking already pay infrequently, such as fees for specialty checks, overdraft protection, incoming wire transfers and stopped payments.

This is not to say the accounts are completely without merit.

"What you're really getting out of it is discounts and freebies on other bank products," Wei says. As such, it may make sense for someone who is looking to take out a mortgage, open up a CD or buy an investment product to open a premium account.

Otherwise, she says, "if you're going to tie up $25,000 in a checking account, look for a conventional savings or high-yield checking account that offers better interest rates." This is especially true since account holders who fail to maintain the $15,000 to $75,000 requirements associated with these accounts will have to pay a fee that ranges from $20 to $35.

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