All banks are in business to make money, but some do it with a more consumer-friendly focus. After years of using large national banks and paying outrageous fees for basic services, I looked to smaller financial institutions in the Milwaukee area for my banking needs. These Milwaukee banks welcome new customers warmly while also supporting the local economy more directly than behemoth banks.
Most of my friends and colleagues are like me: they want a convenient bank for basic checking and savings accounts without the hassle of 5000 extra services or banking products designed for the high roller. That’s why I informally polled my personal coterie and asked which banks in Milwaukee they’ve successfully used. The following banks were consistently rated high for convenience, customer service, and overall quality.
1. Guaranty Bank (www.guarantybanking.com)
(I’m proud to say this is my personal bank, and despite this glowing review, I do not work for them.)
Guaranty Bank is a regional bank with locations in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana. Its thickest blanket of branches is certainly in the Milwaukee area. Headquartered in the Milwaukee suburb of Brown Deer, Guaranty has numerous locations in stand-alone buildings, shopping centers, and even in grocery stores. While some people scoff at supermarket banking, the concept is extremely convenient, especially for public transit users and after-work shoppers. Guaranty Bank’s hours are virtually unparalleled, with most locations open into the early evening and many others open on Saturdays and Sundays.
When I opened my Guaranty Bank checking account at the East Pointe branch on Ogden Avenue (Lower East Side, Milwaukee), I told the customer service representative that I wanted to switch from a larger institution that was charging high fees and offering lackluster service on the few occasions when problems arose. She confirmed that many new Guaranty Bank customers come from huge banks in the Milwaukee area where they’ve had negative experiences.
Guaranty offers a nice basic checking account with a number of key features:
· FREE Checks and a Check Card: You’re not stuck paying $15.00 for a pile of 500 checks when you’ll probably use only a fraction of them.
· Direct Deposit Bonus: This offer may not last forever, but they’ll give you $25 just for setting up direct deposit into your Guaranty checking account.
· ATM free break: If you use a non-Guaranty ATM (up to twice a month), they will cut you some slack and not charge fees. While there is no promise that the other bank will let you off the hook with fees, at least Guaranty won’t excessively milk your account for using a “foreign ATM.” Most large banks, such as Wells Fargo and US Bank, sock their customers for this type of fee, which can be as high as $2 per transaction!
· Online Banking: Their website is EASY to use and even offers bill payment. You can also see images of your cleared checks.
· Referral Program: This is another offer that may not last into eternity, but both you and your friend get $10 if your friend opens an account using a referral form you provide.
· No minimum required balance is required, just in case you live paycheck to paycheck like most Americans do.
· Friendly and knowledgeable customer service representatives make in-person and over-the-phone interactions pleasant.
[As an amusing side note, the voice at most Guaranty Bank ATMs is near comical. The ATM user hears an arguably tongue-in-cheek, stuffy female with a curious accent that sounds like a hybrid of British and Dutch affectations. She will politely tell you to please enter your secret “number” (overpronounced with a stiff lip) and to please wait while your transaction is “processing” (pronounced with a long “O”). Nearly every friend who has accompanied me to a Guaranty Bank ATM has commented on this!]
The only negative thing I can say about Guaranty Bank is that the debit card (check card) is extremely ugly. If you can deal with a visually unappealing fake-marble debit card offset by countless banking positives, then Guaranty Bank is probably for you.
Just in case I have not sold you on MY bank, here are some other local and regional banks that have garnered praise in the Milwaukee area:
2. Tri-City National Bank (www.tcnb.com)
Founded in 1963 at the shared border of three Milwaukee suburbs (Oak Creek, Franklin, and Greenfield), Tri-City National Bank has grown to over 30 branches in the Metro Milwaukee area. Tri-City is another bank that combines stand-alone, strip mall, and grocery store locations. Like Guaranty, it offers early evening and weekend hours. The checking account options are also excellent. “Completely Free Checking” has most of the standard accoutrements, including online banking and bill payment. Tri-City is apparently well-known as a community-minded bank that actively supports investment in the Milwaukee area.
Tri-City’s main flaw is that its locations are not adequately dispersed through all parts of the metro area. If you live on the South Side or in West Allis, they’ve got you covered. However, if you live on the East Side or spend any time downtown, there are no branches nearby.
3. Mitchell Bank (www.mitchellbank.com)
Taking its name from a historic street in what is now a primarily Latino neighborhood, Mitchell Bank has developed an excellent reputation for serving a diverse community. They have fewer locations than Guaranty and Tri-City, but their customers seem very loyal, citing caring in-person service and sensitivity to customers whose primary language is not English. There are more fees involved and fewer frills on their website, but the standard services are all available.
Also, I’ve personally noticed a number of local development projects in needy neighborhoods sporting signs that indicate the financing is through Mitchell Bank. This type of local reinvestment shows a community commitment. Based on the anecdotal evidence I’ve collected, this seems like a positive choice for someone who wants a socially responsible bank.
4. Guardian Credit Union (www.guardiancu.org)
If you want to avoid a traditional bank by choosing a not-for-profit entity, Guardian Credit Union has a strong reputation as a member-owned financial institution that has easy-to-meet membership requirements. All you need to do is live or work in one of the Milwaukee metro area counties, and you can have a cooperative banking experience without lining the pockets of slick CEO types.
5. Maritime Savings Bank (www.maritimesavings.com)
A friend of mine switched from giant US Bank to tiny Maritime Savings Bank because he lives just a block from their Bayview location. He insists that they’re incredibly friendly at his branch and that the tellers remember his name and make decent conversation. “It’s old school, but still convenient,” he chirped. The range of services offered by Maritime is more limited, but you still get the basic privileges of online banking and a check card. Plus, Maritime is part of a network of small banks (www.communitybankers.org) that agrees not to charge ATM fees to each others’ customers. Small banks of the Milwaukee area, unite!!
Armed with the recommendations above, perhaps you’ll consider relocating your nestegg from a bullying big bank to a kinder, gentler local bank in Milwaukee.