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Bank fees soar, free-checking offers decline

A just-released study by finds that checking account fees have hit unprecedented highs. At the same time, it’s becoming harder to get a truly free checking account, one with no strings attached.

Here are the key findings from the Bankrate 2012 Checking Survey:

  • The average monthly maintenance fee for a non-interest checking account is now at a record high of $5.48. That’s a 25 percent jump from last year.
  • Overdraft fees are also at a record high. The average NSF or nonsufficient funds fee is $31.26, up from $30.83 last year. 
  • The cost to get cash from an out-of-network ATM is up dramatically. Expect to pay an average fee of $2.50 to the owner of the ATM, a new record and up 4 percent from last year. Plus your bank will charge you another $1.57 on average, an increase of 11 percent. 

As fees go up, “free” checking – with no minimum balance requirement and no monthly fee – continues its march toward extinction. 

“And that’s going to continue over the next few years,” said Bankrate’s senior financial analyst Greg McBride. “I don’t expect it to reverse anytime soon.” 

The Bankrate survey shows that only 39 percent of the major banks in the U.S. offer non-interest checking accounts that have no fee. That’s down from a peak of 76 percent just three years ago and 45 percent in 2011. 

Why is this happening? 

Bankers are responding to new federal regulations that have reduced their revenue from both overdraft fees and debit card swipe fees. 

“Free checking accounts have become the casualty of those regulatory changes,” McBride said. “Rather than handing out that free checking to everybody who walks through the door, you typically have to have some other relationship or business with the bank.”

You can avoid the fees

Bankrate found that with most non-interest checking accounts – about 95 percent – there are ways to avoid the fees.

“The easiest way to get your account for free is to sign up for direct deposit,” McBride said. “That’s the most common string attached and it’s a pretty low hurdle to clear.”

Some banks require a minimum balance to waive the fee and that amount continues to rise. In some cases, it can be thousands of dollars. According to the Bankrate survey, the average minimum balance to avoid a fee now stands at $723, an increase of 23 percent from last year.

There is another option: move your money. Look for a financial institution – a credit union, community bank or online bank – that offers totally free checking with no requirements to qualify. Bankrate found that 72 percent of the largest credit unions still offer free checking.

Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, has prepared a tip sheet on how to move your money to a new checking account. 

Skip most interest-bearing checking accounts

Bankrate found that these accounts have become even less attractive in the last year.

They have higher fees than non-interest accounts and require a larger balance to have those fees waived. 

  • The minimum balance required to avoid a monthly maintenance fee now sits at a whopping $6,118. That minimum has nearly double in the last two years.
  • Miss the minimum threshold and you’ll get hit with a monthly maintenance fee that averages $14.75.

More importantly, the yields are ridiculously low. The average interest-bearing checking account in the U.S. right now pays a paltry 0.05 percent. If you had $250,000 in that account for a year, you’d only earn $125. 

“This is not an efficient use of cash,” McBride said. The interest earnings you receive are a pittance and really don’t justify tying up that amount of money at very low and uncompetitive rates of return.” 

Beat the banks

Most bank penalty fees can be avoided and it’s not all that difficult to do. You just need to remember what triggers a fee and act accordingly. 

Plan ahead if you need cash 

Only use your bank’s ATM or one that is in-network. In a pinch, make a purchase with your credit or debit card and get some cash back. That way, there’s no fee. 

Avoid overdraft fees 

We all make mistakes, but you’ll get clobbered if you overdraw your account. Monitor your account: keep track of automatic bill payments, debit card charges and cash withdrawals. It’s easy to check your balance online or on the phone. See if you bank offers email or text alerts that let you know when your checking account balance drops below a level you set. 

Link your checking account to a savings account that can be tapped if you overdraw. That service is a lot cheaper than paying an overdraft fee. 

If you want to prevent overdraws with a debit card (and avoid NSF fees) don’t opt-in to the bank’s overdraft protection program. Sign up for this “courtesy” service and you will be able to overdraw your checking account when you make a purchase with your debit card – and you’ll pay a hefty fee if you do. Without debit card overdraft protection the transaction will be declined at the register if you’re about to trigger an overdraft. 

Do you know if you have overdraft protection on your debit card account? If you’re not sure, call your bank.

ConsumerMan: Customers still confused about overdraft protection 

Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook or visit The ConsumerMan website.

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