Free checking harder to find as banks broaden, increase fees

Posted: Thursday, October 12, 2000

NEW YORK (AP) -- Routine banking is getting to be an expensive activity. That's because fees are going up, there are more of them, and they're harder to avoid.

According to a new survey of more than 350 banks by the online financial information site bankrate.com, the fees to maintain checking accounts and to cover bounced checks have risen sharply in the past two years.

So, too, has the cost of using automated teller machines, with customers often facing fees from both the ATM owner and from their own bank.

Experts advise that there are ways to keep banking costs down -- if you're willing to shop around.

''You need to be realistic about the way you use your accounts, then hunt for the best ones with the lowest cost,'' said Jean Ann Fox, director of consumer protection for the Washington-based Consumer Federation of America. ''And you need to manage your accounts carefully to avoid paying exorbitant fees for mistakes like bounced checks.''

Many people seem to have adopted these strategies already.

The American Bankers Association, a trade group, said a phone poll of 1,000 consumers earlier this year found that 46 percent said they paid no monthly bank fees, while 17 percent said they paid $8 a month or more. The rest fell somewhere in between.

ABA spokesman John Hall said the poll showed that just because banks charge various fees, consumers don't always pay them.

''It's more like banks offer a menu of prices, and customers can pick and choose,'' Hall said.

He said that customers unhappy with the fees they're currently paying can ask for alternative accounts. Hall said that to avoid a monthly service charge at his bank, he's shifted to an ''all-electronic'' account at the same institution that's free if he limits his activities to online, telephone or ATM access.

The survey by bankrate.com found that some banks are charging $20 or more a month -- $240 and up a year -- for checking account services.

The average maintenance fee on interest-bearing checking accounts has risen to $10.43 a month, up nearly 9 percent from two years ago, the survey showed. To avoid fees, an account holder often must maintain a minimum balance in excess of $2,200.

On non-interest checking accounts, fees average $6.18 a month unless the consumer maintains a minimum balance of about $417, the survey found.

''You can find accounts that are truly free -- no monthly fee, no per-check charge, no high minimum balance,'' said Greg McBride, a financial analyst at bankrate.com. ''Every market we looked at had at least one institution offering at least one account that was free.''

Credit unions and small banks tend to offer the best deals, as do almost all Internet banks, which are looking to build their deposit bases, McBride said.

The Internet banks also pay a better return on interest-bearing checking, an average of 3.85 percent compared with 1.17 percent at brick-and-mortar institutions, the survey found.

''That means that someone with $5,000 to park in an online account would have $5,193 after a year -- almost $150 more than from a traditional bank,'' McBride said.

When it comes to ATMs, most banks don't charge their own customers for using the bank's own machines. But customers get whacked when they use ''foreign'' machines.

Surcharges, the fees you pay to withdraw cash from an ATM not run by your bank, average $1.43 a transaction, up a dime from two years ago, bankrate.com found.

Many customers get a double whammy when they're charged an additional $1.35 by their own bank for the same transaction.

''Computers are saving banks money, but paradoxically those computers are making it easier for banks to charge consumers a la carte,'' said Edmund Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington.

He said that banks essentially are ''unbundling'' services so that they can charge separately for things that used to be part of a package -- fees to see a teller, fees to use an ATM, fees for writing too many checks in a month, fees for overdraft protection.

PIRG is among the consumer groups supporting a lawsuit in California that seeks to ban extra ATM fees charged by banks to non-customers.

As to bouncing checks, the consensus is that it's expensive -- and avoidable.

The national average penalty for insufficient funds in an account is $23.87, up 10 percent from two years ago, according to bankrate.com. Penalties as high as $35 for a bounced check were found at some banks in Philadelphia.

End advance for use any time.



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