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By Herb Weisbaum

You work hard for your money. Why waste it on needless bank fees?

Three of the most common ones — monthly checking account maintenance fees, overdraft charges and out-of-network ATM fees — can all be avoided.

“You may not need to switch banks to avoid these fees, just change your behavior,” said Ariel O’Shea, investing and retirement specialist at NerdWallet, the financial advice website. “You should be looking through your bank account statements to find out what you’re currently paying in fees. Then you can figure out how to avoid them.”

CHECKING ACCOUNT FEES

Free checking was the norm 10 years ago. These days, free checking often comes with strings attached, such as direct deposit or minimum balance — but not always.

According to a recent survey conducted by Bankrate.com, 41 percent of non-interest checking accounts are free by default, up from 38 percent last year. Another 57 percent become free with direct deposit, minimum balance (average to avoid fee is $631) or some other condition, the survey found.

“Your goal should be to have an account that's totally free,” said Greg McBride, Bankrate’s chief financial analyst. “If you don't find it at your bank, look at credit unions. We found in a separate survey that more than 80 percent of credit unions offer a free checking account with no strings attached.”

Most interest-bearing checking accounts (74 percent) require a hefty minimum balance ($6,319 on average) or direct deposit to waive the monthly service fee.

Bankrate notes that interest rates on checking accounts “remain negligible,” with the average yield just .08 percent.

TIP: Keep enough money in a free checking account to cover routine expenses and park your rainy-day funds in a high yield savings account. Some are now paying as much as 2.25 percent APY. Check Bankrate’s Best Savings Accounts & Rates and NerdWallet’s Best Checking Accounts to compare financial institutions.

ATM FEES

You need some cash and you need it right now. Chances are there’s an ATM nearby, but is that cash machine part of your bank or credit union’s network? If not, expect to pay for the convenience.

“ATM withdrawals are a lot like health insurance, you've got to stay in network. Go out of network and it's going to cost you,” McBride said. “You're going to typically pay both the ATM owner and your own bank a fee for doing so. Together those fees can easily add up to $5 dollars or more and takes a big chunk out of that $50 withdrawal you might be making.”

The Bankrate survey found that:

  • The average surcharge assessed by the ATM owner is now $3.02. That’s up 53 percent over the last decade.
  • The average fee charged by your bank to use another institution’s ATM averages $1.66.

These ATM fees are completely avoidable. Plan for where and when you make a cash withdrawal, so you can stay in-network. If you’re away from home, go to your bank’s website and find the nearest in-network machine.

TIP: If you're really in a pinch for cash and there's not an in-network ATM nearby, go to a store and get cash back at the point of sale when you use your debit card. That's essentially a free withdrawal.

OVERDRAFT CHARGES

We all make mistakes and financial institutions make a lot of money when we do.

According to the Bankrate survey:

  • The average overdraft fee is currently $33.23, the second highest on record.
  • The most common overdraft fee is $35.

Overdraft fees vary by region. The highest average overdraft fees are in: Philadelphia ($35.30), Baltimore ($35.05), Houston ($34.33), San Diego ($34.22) and Phoenix (34.15).

The lowest average overdraft fees are in San Francisco ($31.44), Los Angeles ($31.89), Minneapolis ($31.95), Boston ($32.05) and Seattle ($32.10).

Avoiding an overdraft penalty fee is simple: Make sure the available balance in your checking account is enough to cover that payment (by check or debit card) or ATM withdrawal.

Many bank customers are confused by the “overdraft protection” offered on their debit cards. Here’s how it works:

  • Opt-in and agree to overdraft protection for debit card transactions: Purchases will go through even when there’s not enough money in your checking account to cover them and you’ll get hit with one or more overdraft charges.
  • Decline debit card overdraft protection: If you won’t don’t have enough money in your checking account to cover that transaction, the purchase will be declined at the point-of-sale. Yes, it’s a little embarrassing, but there’s no overdraft charge.

TIP: Link your checking account and your savings account. That way, if you do slip up, the transactions will be covered. Fees applied to such transfers are typically $10 or less. That sure beats paying $35 for an overdraft.

SPOT SOMETHING UNEXPECTED? SPEAK UP

Unexpected fees are common. Almost half the adults (48 percent) in a recent NerdWallet survey said they have incurred an unexpected fee on their bank accounts (40 percent) or investment accounts (19 percent).

If you find a service charge or fee on your monthly statement that doesn’t make sense — ask about it. It could be a mistake. You might even be able to get the fee waived, if it was a one-time slip-up.

“I think it is always worth calling the financial institution to see if they'll cut you some slack,” NerdWallet’s O’Shea told NBC News BETTER. “It doesn't mean that you'll always get the charge removed, but if you do, it will definitely be worth the time.”

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