Sep. 29, 2011 at 12:56 PM ET
Soon, it's going to cost more money to spend money.
Bank of America will begin charging debit card customers a $5 monthly fee for using their plastic to make purchases starting next year, according to spokeswoman Anne Pace. The move follows tests by other major banks, including Wells Fargo and J.P. Morgan Chase, to tack monthly fees onto debit cards.
The changes will only add to confusion for consumers who try to get the best deal -- or at least, pay the lowest fees -- when pulling plastic out of their wallets at checkout counters.
Banks are making the change because revenue from lucrative interchange fees paid by merchants -- so-called swipe fees -- is drying up. The Federal Reserve Board issued rules in June that essentially cut swipe fees in half, from an average of 44 cents to 24 cents per transaction. The new rule takes effect Oct. 1, and Bank of America has said it will lose $2 billion annually because of the change.
So banks are trying to shift their costs onto consumers now.
"The economics of offering a debit card have changed with recent regulations, and we've decided to introduce a monthly fee for customers who use their debit cards for purchases," said Pace. "The price of a debit card was previously determined by the amount and type of transactions. We were able to pass some of these costs along to merchants, but because of regulatory changes, we are adjusting our pricing to reflect today’s economics."
The fees will allow Bank of America to continue to offer "fraud protection, overdraft prevention, record-keeping, fraud monitoring, and savings programs," Pace said. Customers will still be able to get cash at ATMs and use online bill-paying for free, she said, and consumers who don't make a debit purchase during any given month will not be assessed a fee.
The move was reported earlier by Bloomberg News.
The new monthly fee will not apply to high-value banking customers who maintain large balances or other "premium" account holders. But it will impact many consumers who have shunned credit cards in favor of debit cards in an attempt to avoid accumulating expensive credit card debt.
"Banks have lost a great deal of revenue in the past few years with (financial reform). The banks have to make up for this loss of revenue with either new fees or increased rates, and it is always the customer that ends up paying for it," said Bill Hardekopf, who operates credit card ratings site LowCards.com. "Charging fees on debit card use and checking accounts are two ways that banks can make a significant amount of revenue very quickly. And that is what we are starting to see."
For years, personal finance advocates have instructed consumers to choose debit over credit as a superior way to manage their finances. That advice might change now that debit cards will be more costly to use.
Merchants prefer use of debit cards because they are less prone to fraud -- consumers must enter PIN codes when making purchases - and their associated fees can be a fraction of credit card fees.
Until now, fees for debit card use have been rare, but they have always existed. U.S. Bank, for example, in the past charged 25-cent per-transaction fees in some markets when consumers entered PIN codes while buying with a debit card, rather than signing their names to credit receipts.