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Banks Offer Cash to Open Accounts, But Is It Worth It?

Banks have been trying to attract new customers for years by offering gifts like appliances and iPods when opening up one account or another. Now more banks are offering sign-up, cash bonuses.

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“The $100 bill is the new toaster," said Richard Barrington a consultant at MoneyRates.com, a financial education Web site.

Banks like Capital One , Chase , SunTrust Banks , M&T Bank and Bank of America are offering cash incentives, ranging from $50 to $200, to new customers who open an account.

The pitches come at a time when consumers are thinking more about switching banks, says Rilla Delorier, chief marketing officer of SunTrust, which is offering $150 for new customers to open accounts and $100 for current customers to use online bill paying.

She says company research found that people were worried about the stability of their bank after a wave of mergers and bank failures in the past recent years.

But are the deals worth it to consumers?

"They’re at best as a tie breaker if you're considering a switch between two accounts that are both equal,” says Barrington.

If you’re looking to make a switch based on a cash promotion, consider these tips from personal finance experts:

You’re not just opening account. Many of the banks are advertising that if you "open an account" you’ll get the money, but it’s much more complicated than that, says Avi Karnani, strategic advisor at LendingTree and co-founder of Thrive, a free personal finance site.

For many of the promotions, there’s a set a list of rules customers must follow in order to get the money. For some promotions you have to set up direct deposit and/or sign up for bill payments. Karnani says what banks are really trying to get you to do is switch banks entirely and build up their government-insured deposits.

Make sure you can make that commitment before accepting an offer.

Switching banks takes work. “It’s not free money, it’s a lot of work to switch your bank,” says Karnani. Consider everything that needs to be done: switching direct deposit at work, rewiring electronic payments and changing your debit card number for automatic payments that you may have set up for places like the gym or online rental DVDs.

Check fees and interest rates. While the $100 might look attractive, investigate the fees the bank will charge and also the interest rates on their savings accounts, says Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at BankRate.com.

You'll be paying much more than the $100 upfront gift in the long term if the bank has higher fees and lower interest rates than your current bank.

Go if you need a new account.

Of course, if you're looking to change banks, then you may be in luck.

“If you’re already out to change your banking relationship, it could be a potentially a good deal for you,” says Karnani, who stresses that you make sure that you understand all the rules and follow them.