Your Bank's Latest Fee Shakedown

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You know how banks now have to give you more notice before hiking your credit card interest rates? And how they're no longer allowed to charge those crazy penalty fees on top of other penalty fees? Great stuff, right?

That'll be $144, please.

That's the minimum cost -- $12 a month -- of having a Chase Total Checking account if you don't maintain a $1,500 minimum balance (or $5,000 across all your deposit accounts) or make $500 in monthly direct deposits.

These new fees from JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM ) take effect Feb. 8. And though I'm sure you're tempted, don't hastily blow off the bank for greener pastures just yet. The grass on bank lawns everywhere is getting browner by the day.

What do you mean, I owe you money?
Costs like these on formerly "free" accounts have been creeping onto bank statements lately, ever since new consumer protection laws capped some of banks' more usurious fees.

With new limits on how much they can shake down customers for every infraction, banks have begun to hit up the rich relatives for rent money. Here's the part where we're supposed to cue a sad-faced clown showing his empty pockets, apologizing for not being able to "afford" to offer you, dear customer, free checking anymore.

Pay no attention to those record profits behind the curtain, bank patrons. Instead, have your checkbooks handy. As Lowcards.com reports, banks have dropped the "r" in the word "free":

  • Over at Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) , you'll pay $6 to $25 a month, depending on your account balances and the kinds of accounts you have with the company.
  • A basic account at Citigroup (NYSE: C ) runs $8 a month if you fail to transact with the bank at least five times a month. And for a less basic account, it's $20 a month if your balance (in a single or multiple accounts) falls below $6,000.
  • And at Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC ) , formerly free checking now costs new customers $5 a month, plus $6.95 for online bill payment privileges.

Qualify for free checking? You're still not off the hook
Even if you have sufficient funds to earn the privilege of free checking, you still may not be able to shake off that bull's-eye on your back.

That's because the fee infestation is spreading. For example, starting Feb. 8, in addition to increased checking account fees, ATM and debit card withdrawals at non-Chase money machines will rise to $5 (formerly $2). Daily overdraft protection and insufficient funds fees will go from $10 to $12 each.

Wire transfers, online transfers, stop-payment requests, and even printing recent account activities at an ATM -- basically, any type of transaction that was not subject to new regulations -- is fair game for fee increases. It all gives new meaning to the phrase "cash machine."

How to avoid the sting of new banking fees
Finding the best bank for your bucks once required a simple side-by-side comparison of interest rates. These days, self-awareness is the first step in finding banking bliss (or at least not getting robbed at your own bank).

With interest rates paying such a pittance, a few visits to a foreign ATM or a dip below the minimum balance requirement can wipe out months of interest earnings. If it's been a while since you've looked at your banking habits -- and costs -- now's a good time to see whether you and your current financial institution are a good match. Some considerations:

  • How much money do you typically keep in your account? If you tend to ride the line, then your biggest consideration should be the monthly fee.
  • Do you have checking and savings accounts at the same bank? Or is your banking business spread across several institutions? Consider giving your savings, checking and/or other business to a single bank where your minimum account balance will be calculated based on all of your accounts.
  • How often do you get cash from an ATM? Is it convenient to find your bank's machines?
  • How good are you at keeping records? A bank that offers to refund a certain number of foreign ATM surcharges sounds great - but only if you're good about adhering to the limits and keeping track of your wayward banking ways.
  • Do you have direct deposits or regular transfers set up? Direct deposits are often a ticket to avoiding maintenance fees. So are automatic transfers from a savings account, at least at some institutions.
  • How often do you use your debit card? As with direct deposits, some banks encourage debit transactions (10 times a month or more, since it's more profitable for them) and will waive fees for customers who make a minimum number of transactions per month.
  • How often do you need to visit a physical branch of your bank? If you're comfortable conducting some of your business online or via mail, online banks like ING Direct charge less -- and pay interest on some accounts -- because they have less overhead costs to cover.
  • Do you pay your bills online? Check to see whether online bill payment costs extra, or if it counts as a fee-waiving activity. Also consider the costs of paper checking, and getting copies of cancelled checks sent to you physically or online.
  • Do you qualify to become a member of a credit union or community bank? Although not fee-free, the costs of banking at these community-owned institutions can be significantly less than doing business with the larger corporations. Plus, many offer free checking accounts for students and senior citizens who opt out of paper statements. Find a local bank via culookup.com , findacreditunion.com , or ICBA's community bank locator .

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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The NASDAQ OMX Group, Inc.



This article appears in: Personal Finance , Banking and Loans

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