5 ways to dodge new fees on checking accounts

/ Source: The Associated Press

First they took away free checking. Now banks are charging more for ATM withdrawals, stop payments on checks and other services.

The encroaching fees on checking accounts come as the industry seeks ways to offset the impact of new regulations that limit key revenue sources.

Most notably, banks are bracing for a cap on the fees they can collect from merchants whenever customers swipe their debit cards. Some estimate that the Federal Reserve's proposed restriction could slash this income by as much as 70 percent, or about $14 billion a year, once it goes into effect this summer.

Banks are also prohibited from automatically enrolling customers in overdraft programs, which have been an increasingly rich source of penalty fee income.

To make up for the losses, banks are quietly raising or introducing new account fees. But a sharp eye can help you avoid them.

Here are five ways to dodge fees on your checking account.

Pick the right account
If you don't pay close attention to notices from your bank, you may not realize if there's been a change in the lineup of accounts and their features.

At Citi, for example, customers who maintained a minimum balance of $1,500 previously enjoyed free checking. Now customers who sign up for the most basic checking account have to make at least five transactions a month to get an $8 monthly fee waived.

Even if your bank hasn't changed its menu of options, keep your eyes peeled. The industry is still feeling out ways to adjust to the new regulations.

Bank of America, for example, is testing checking accounts with fees ranging from $6 to $25 this month. The trial is limited to three states but is expected to go national sometime next year.

Watch out for service fees
Don't be surprised if you see new charges for services that were once free, or hikes in existing fees.

Take for example a check you deposit that ends up bouncing. In the past, it may have caused a headache, but at least it didn't result in a penalty fee. But Bank of America recently started charging $12 for each deposited check that doesn't clear. Statements that include check images are no longer free either. They now cost $3.

Chase customers are looking at a spate of fee hikes starting Feb. 5 too. If a deposited check doesn't clear, it will cost $12, up from $10. A stop payment will cost $34, up from $32. Domestic wire transfers will cost $30, up from $25 and online wire transfers will be $25, up from $20.

Such fees don't get a lot of attention because most customers don't incur them regularly. But being aware can help inform your decisions and ensure you're not caught off guard.

Don't get robbed by the ATM
A trip to the ATM could cost more if you're not careful.

To start, it might be better to print your statement at home. Bank of America is now charging $3 if customers print an account summary at an ATM, up from $2. Chase next month will begin charging customers $1 to print recent account transactions.

And the cost of using another bank's ATM isn't getting any cheaper. Not only will your own bank ding you, but so will the ATM operator. The combined cost for getting cash was almost $4 on average, according to a Bankrate.com conducted in the fall of last year.

Banks have already raised fees since that study came out. In November, Citi raised the fee for using another bank's ATM to $2, from $1.50 for customers with entry-level accounts. At Chase, customers who use an ATM while overseas will be charged $5 starting next month, up from $3.

Tune in and opt out
One of the fastest ways to rack up fees is by overdrawing your account. Now at least you can prevent that costly mistake by turning off the ability to do so.

This wasn't an option before July of last year, when it was industry standard to automatically enroll customers in overdraft programs — often with no way to opt out.

Now that customers must be given a choice, banks are touting lower penalty fees to try and entice enrollment. But keep in mind that fees are still as high as $39 per violation. And if you don't notice that you've overdrawn your account, you can quickly rack up hundreds of dollars in fees without realizing it. That's even if you overdraw your account by just a few dollars at a time.

If you opt out, on the other hand, the worst you'll suffer is some momentary embarrassment when your transaction is denied at the register.

Take the money and run
If you're still not satisfied with your checking account, start shopping for a new place to park your cash.

Even though banks are pulling back, free checking is still widely available; 65 percent of checking accounts last year were free, according to Bankrate.com.

When factoring in accounts that offer fee waivers, that number rose to 88 percent. So it might take some homework and a closer examination of your spending habits, but you should be able to find plenty of free checking options.

If it's service fees you're worried about, banks sometimes waive certain fees for customers who keep higher balances. So consolidating your deposits — CDs, checking and savings accounts — at a single bank is worth considering. Another option is to check out smaller community banks or credit unions, which may offer more favorable terms and a more intimate level of service.