Even if you don't know the difference between a fishing net and the Internet, or you think a web is something you clean out of the attic, you can still be a pro at online banking. It's easy, convenient and, best of all, safe -- maybe even safer than the traditional banking that has served you for so many years.
"You can still use all the services you used before. It's just another option -- and who doesn't want another option?" - Brad Blue, spokesman for Denver Community Credit Union
Bank from your living room
Forget about "bankers' hours." With a few clicks and keystrokes, you can have all your accounts and up-to-the-minute financial information on the screen in front of you, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Transfer funds, pay bills, balance your accounts or apply for a loan -- all from your sofa, your SUV or Sydney, Australia.
Online banking has come of age, thanks to the ease of the Internet, and most banks -- and even local credit unions -- now offer the option of transacting your financial business from the comfort of your living room.
"It's a no-brainer, really," said Tracey Weber, managing director of Internet and mobile for Citi, one of the largest full-service financial institutions in the world. "There is an education process and an awareness process, but each day, more people are switching over."
Just follow the prompts
First, contact your financial institution to find out whether it offers online banking services. Or do a search online to find the website. Have your account number handy.
"Any Citibank customer can enroll online with their account number," Weber said.
Most other financial institutions that offer online services provide the same ease of enrollment. When you get to the website, just follow the prompts. Different institutions will use different language, but look for words and phrases such as "enroll," "get an online account" or "get a user ID."
When you click on the prompt, you'll be taken through several simple steps to create your online "account," complete with a password that only you and your bank will know. In just a few minutes, you'll have access to your bank accounts, credit card accounts, loans and any other services you access through your bricks-and-mortar bank.
Don't worry about entering your personal information -- just look for the letters "https" in the navigation bar and a padlock at the bottom of the Web page. These features indicate that your information is secure, usually through the use of encryption, which encodes your information so that unauthorized parties cannot access it. You can also click on the padlock to view the site's security information.
If you do not see one or both of these features, do not enter any personal information onto the page. Click "log out" or "sign out" and call your financial institution for help.
Your money at your fingertips
Now that you have online access, you can take care of business in minutes from your own home, rather than spend hours driving to your bank, completing transfer forms, writing checks to pay bills and completing loan paperwork.
"Through online banking, customers can review account balances and transactions, transfer funds, as well as receive and pay bills electronically," said Tara Burke, a spokeswoman for Bank of America.
Most banking websites are designed to allow you to move easily between accounts or see all your balances at once. Take some time to become familiar with all that your institution has to offer online.
Transfer features let you move money quickly from one account to another, to cover that errant check you wrote, or from one bank to another, so your money is right where you want it.
Bill-pay features allow you to set up automatic payments for car loans, utility bills, phone bills and other monthly expenses, ensuring that your bills are paid on time. You can also choose to sign on whenever you want and pay your bills then. You can even sign up to have your credit card bill automatically paid from your checking or savings account every month.
Some financial institutions allow you to set up alerts through text messaging or email. Alerts can notify you when your bank and credit card statements are ready, when your bills are due or when you want timely information about your account.
"I have an alert for when my checking account drops below $1,000," Weber said. "That way, I can make sure that I maintain a certain balance at all times."
Peruse the site to find the various features you want and then follow the prompts to sign up for them. If you need help, or if you have a question or concern about your account, many of the larger institutions offer online chat services, which allow you to communicate with a bank representative right there on the website. Just click on the online chat feature to access this service.
Save time, money, and the environment
Establishing an online account saves time and money, allowing you to limit or eliminate paper checks and mailing expenses.
"Online bill pay is less time-consuming because you're not writing out paper checks," Weber said. "And you're not using stamps -- saving 44 cents a bill -- which can add up substantially when people are paying 30 to 40 bills."
Not only that, but the environment also benefits through the use of less paper. You'll write fewer checks and can opt out of paper bank statements and paper bills. In addition, since you aren't driving to the bank, you aren't burning fossil fuel.
And these electronic functions keep you safer as well. "A great deal of identity theft actually occurs with traditional forms of payment," said Brad Blue, a spokesman for Denver Community Credit Union. "Statements and bills are taken straight out of the mail. If you're going to do electronic banking, sign up for an e-statement (electronic statement), and you've taken the ability away from someone to take your statement out of the mail."
The human touch
Electronic banking doesn't eliminate human interaction. You can still walk into your bank at any time and talk to a real person, face to face.
"We don't call it a 'switch' to online banking," Blue said. "We call it 'adding a service.' They can still come in and talk to a person."
Weber agrees. "Electronic banking is just one of the ways you can work with us," she said. "It's part of the suite of offerings we have available. People shouldn't view it as an 'either/or' -- it's just an 'and.' "
"Nothing is lost," Blue said. "You can still use all the services you used before. It's just another option -- and who doesn't want another option?"
So, head to your financial institution's website and explore your options. Financial freedom might be just a click away.
Creating a powerful password
Most financial institutions have multiple layers of protection, as you will discover when you enroll in online banking. But you can help by adding an extra layer yourself, which starts with a powerful password.
Paul Tichy, president of Appaloosa Business Services in Lake Oswego, Oregon, has these suggestions:
Don't make your password something that is easily guessable by both friends and strangers, such as your mother's maiden name, your birth date or parts of your Social Security number.
Include at least one number and one capital letter in your password, if possible. Some sites do not distinguish between capital and lower-case letters.
Make your password at least six characters long.
Try to make your password as random as possible, using combinations of letters and numbers that do not spell out words or use known sequences.
Pick a different password for each site you use.
Don't keep your banking password with your banking information in your home or on your person. Memorize your password and shred any papers that contain it.