Like thousands of other Americans, I got some bad news recently: My bank is ending its free checking accounts.
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For years, I’ve relied on my free checking account to pay bills, direct deposit paychecks, and withdraw cash. Now, starting July 1, Wells Fargo will charge $15 a month to customers with “complete advantage checking” accounts, unless they maintain a $5,000 balance, transfer $75 a month to a money market savings account, or link their account with a Wells Fargo home mortgage. (Different types of accounts have different fees; Wells Fargo offers the complete details on its website.) While checking account fees have steadily been climbing over the years, the banking industry attributes this latest push to changes in the law that limit banks’ other sources of revenue, such as overdraft fees.
$15 a month might not seem like much, but it is: It’s the equivalent of a Netflix account (which my husband and I just cancelled to save money) or buying a new book each month. For someone with $1,000 in his account, $15 a month, or $180 a year, adds up to an 18 percent loss. After five and a half years, the bank would have absorbed the entire account.
Consumers are not totally helpless, however. Not all banks are rolling out fees right away, and the size of the fees vary greatly. That means it’s now more important than ever to do research before choosing your bank. Comparison sites such as bankrate.com make it easy to search for local banking options and see how they stack up to the competition.
Now is also a good time to investigate the bank you currently use. Has it announced any new fees? If it has, what are the exceptions? If it’s a minimum balance, perhaps you want to consolidate accounts to make sure you maintain enough cash in the account to avoid fees. Another relatively easy option is transferring your checking account to an online bank such as ING Direct. In general, online banks have lower fees because of their lower overhead costs, but always be sure to confirm it is FDIC-insured before moving your money.
As Bargaineering.com’s Jim Wang points out, consumers might also want to take a closer look at credit unions. Because they are owned by their customers, they usually charge minimal fees and have low opening balances. While membership in a credit union depends on belonging to certain communities, such as a workplace, region, or church, many consumers are surprised to discover that they qualify for entry into one. In fact, experts say that most Americans qualify for at least one credit union.
So how do you find one? Websites such as NCUA, Find a Credit Union, and the Credit Union National Association can help. In addition, ask around—your employer, spouse's employer, or local government council can direct you as well.
The bottom line: Consumers have to be more active than ever, dedicating their time and energy towards researching the best banking option for them, if they want to avoid fees that can add up to a lot of cash.