March 29, 2011 at 10:58 AM ET
"Total Checking." "Value Checking." "MyAccess Checking." What do they all have in common? The word "free" is missing from the name.
You are likely painfully aware that big banks like Chase, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America have ended no-strings-attached free checking accounts. But if you had any questions about how restrictive -- or expensive -- those strings can be, consider Chase bank. Scarcely two years ago, we marveled at banks’ efforts to inch fees up to $3 per withdrawal. Chase bank is now test-piloting $5-per-withdrawal fees for non-customers in Illinois. That's in addition to fees the consumers' bank charges. Soon it may cost $10 to grab $20 in a pinch.
Once upon a time, consumers could expect to earn money by leaving their cash sitting in a bank. Today, consumers must worry about their bank slowly bleeding money out of the account. The change is happening swiftly. Chase says it's converted around 8 million free accounts -- many former customers of Washington Mutual -- into "follow-our-rules-or-pay-up-to-$144-annually" accounts.
It costs banks about $300 apiece annually to offer checking accounts, according to a recent study by Bretton-Woods. They used to recoup these costs by helping themselves to some $30 billion worth of overdraft fees from consumers. But now that the cash cow has been largely eliminated by new consumer regulations, banks are trying out new techniques to recoup this lost revenue.
Just how far will banks be able to push fee-weary consumers? That's unclear. Earlier this month, Bankrate.com released a survey showing 75 percent of consumers earning $75,000 or more would rather switch banks than pay higher fees. Overall, 64 percent of customers said they'd bolt.
That ire may not translate into action, however, and banks know it. A J.D. Power study released on March 1 found that, while consumers are switching banks at a slightly higher rate than in the past (8.7 percent last year, compared to 7.7 percent a year earlier), fees and interest rates have almost nothing to do with their choices. "Pricing" impacted only 4 percent of consumers, the study found.
This would not be a surprise to behavioral economists. Consumers almost never consider fees -- particularly punitive fees like overdrafts or "your balance fell below $1,000" charges -- when making purchase decisions. Nearly everyone suffers from what's sometimes called "magical thinking" -- as in, "I'll never misbehave and get hit by that fee."
It's the shallow things that matter
So what do people consider when switching banks? Big, impressive buildings and billboards seemed to matter most, the survey found. Here’s the depressing quote from the JD Power press release:
"For customers evaluating and ultimately selecting a new bank, the most important factors driving their decision are advertising; branch convenience; products and services; promotional offers; and direct and indirect customer experience," it said.
That means you can expect higher fees, more buildings and more kooky ads from banks.
There was one positive note in the J.D. Power research. There is evidence consumers do have their limits. About 17 percent of consumers who switched banks said high fees or low interest motivated the breakup.
Banks argue that it's not fair to say free checking has disappeared. OK. Let’s just say NSA relationships with big banks are dead, replaced It's by accounts wrapped in red tape. And remember, many of these rules can change at any time. So here's five Red Tape Traps you’ll find along the way to a free checking account.
1) Soaring ATM fees
We've already mentioned Chase's $5 experiment. Plenty of folks now pay $6 or $7 per withdrawal, when the ATM machine fee is added to their own bank's fee. These fees are perhaps the best example of magical thinking at work. Most folks think they'll be good about walking the extra block to access cash at their bank's ATM. But when there's a screaming kid in a stroller or an impatient date on the arm, you're likely to just pay the fee. Even one so-called "foreign" ATM transaction with a $5 hit every month costs $60 annually. Be realistic: If your bank charges for such transactions, you should just budget $100 annually for ATM service. But a much better choice is to find a bank that doesn't charge you. For those ATM emergencies, you'll at least cut your ATM fees in half, and some banks -- USAA Federal Savings Bank, for example -- refund the ATM bank’s fees. There's no law preventing you from getting a secondary checking account with a new institution that you use primarily for accessing cash on the fly. I recommend this kind of "allowance" account structure in Stop Getting Ripped Off.
A few other creative efforts can cut your ATM fees. Get cash back when you shop at grocery stores with your debit card, although that's not my favorite way to use debit. Better yet: Find fee-free ATMs. They're out there. The WaWa convenience store chain offers them, and it recently performed its one billionth fee-free cash withdrawal.
What it costs: Two “foreign” withdrawals per month -- $120
2) Keeping your minimum balance
Most account holders are familiar with the idea that they might have to do something -- maintain a minimum balance or direct deposit their paychecks -- in order to keep some level of service.
But now, a single slip-up, such as a flurry of cashed checks that sink your balance to $998.43 for one afternoon, can be costly. With fees of $12 or more, the experience is not unlike getting hit with an overdraft. The same advice you followed to prevent overdrafts applies here. Some banks let you link your savings and checking accounts to make sure you don't dip below that minimum. Sign up for text message alerts so you can get early notification of a dangerously low balance, and log on to online banking to check your balance often. Stagger your regular payments so they hit after your paychecks.
The biggest Red Tape Trap of all, however, is the dreaded movable minimum balance. Consumers who once enjoyed fee waivers for keeping $500 in an account can see that minimum raised to $750 or $1,000. It's easy to miss a warning letter from the bank, and end up with one or two months of $12 fees. The clearest hint a balance change is coming is an account name change (see below).
What it costs: Two slip-ups -- $24
3) Overdraft fee marketing
The voracious overdraft fee animal isn't gone, it's just been put back in its cage. Until recently, consumers could incur $35 overdraft fees by making small purchases with their debit cards. Today, those transactions are simply declined by the bank, or approved without the fee -- unless the bank has received explicit opt-in permission from the account holder. Banks have driven hard to trick consumers into giving up this permission, which is inappropriate for the vast amount of consumers. They've given it pleasing sounding names like "courtesy pay," "Buffer Zone," or "debit card advance," and plastered bank windows with pictures of smiling, attractive men and women who say they are relieved to have this peace of mind. If you've been tricked into signing up for overdraft protection, un-sign up immediately.
What it costs: Two overdrafts -- $70
4) The name has changed
The surest sign a new fee or restriction is coming is a name change -- either the name of your bank has changed because of an acquisition (like Washington Mutual becoming Chase) or the name of your account has been changed. Former Washington Mutual customers have seen their account names changed from “WaMu Free Checking” to “Chase Free Extra Checking” to “Chase Total Checking,” which is totally more expensive than free. Ironically, a Google search for Washington Mutual still sends consumers to a Web page at Chase.com with the title "WaMu.com, home of WaMu Free Checking, is now Chase."
Chase customers can avoid checking fees through a variety of methods -- maintaining a minimum daily balance, a high average balance, making at least one large direct deposit, or by paying a bunch of other fees.
The amounts required -- at least one $500 deposit -- aren't Draconian, but the rules mean consumers have a lot of new things to keep track of. They will slip up, and pay. And of course, the rules can and will change. Beware the notice that you've just been upgraded to "Complete Awesome Checking" or “Value Asset Acquisition Checking." You almost certainly are about to be hit with a new fee or rule.
What it costs: Two mistakes -- $24
5) The hidden cost of no interest
Of course, requiring a minimum balance of $1,500 or so is itself a fee. That's money you could park in a high-yielding money market account earning interest. Even a 1 percent interest rate would get you a smidge more than $15 on your $1,500, so that kind of minimum requirement amounts to a $15 annual fee.
What it costs: Missed interest -- $15
TOTAL TRAP COST: $253 annually.
This entire column has been a not-so-subtle suggestion that you consider banking alternatives. Online banks like ING Direct offer higher interest and fewer fees. Credit unions and small banks still offer really free checking. In fact, BankRate.com just released a survey showing 38 of the 50 largest credit unions have free checking with no strings attached, and about half of them don't even require a minimum balance. Their ATM fees are, on average, half of traditional bank fees and one-quarter of the large credit unions charge no ATM fees at all.
That means there's no reason not to open a credit union account, even if it merely serves as a secondary checking account.