Next to venting about bad customer service, American consumers love to complain about bank fees. From ATM fees to monthly maintenance fees to the infamous and expensive overdraft fee, these fees can add up if you're not careful. Last year, they paid out $32.5 billion in bank charges and penalties.
Actually, that's an improvement from 2009, when bank fees peaked at $41.1 billion. But Americans still have a long way to go to avoid bank fees.
To help you keep whittling away at those annoying fees -- especially those tied to checking accounts -- MyBankTracker has put together several fee-fighting tips.
Live fee or free? That's largely up to you, as most banks set up ways for you to avoid these types of fees that can end up burning a hole in your wallet, if you're not careful. If you find that you are consistently paying expensive bank fees, make a commitment to avoid them at all costs.
Also, now that 2014 is coming to an end, assess how much you've paid in bank fees this year, and use any of the 10 tips below to start 2015 off on the right foot. Avoid bank fees at all costs -- here's what you can do lower or eliminate bank fees on your checking account.
1. Maintain a minimum balance
Because your checking account is your workhorse, it's a good idea that your horse always has something in reserve for a cash emergency. Besides providing you with a cash buffer, keeping a minimum balance can help you avoid monthly maintenance fees.
Bank of America's Core Checking Account has a monthly maintenance charge of $12, but you can avoid this fee if you maintain an average daily balance of $1,500. Wells Fargo's popular Everyday Checking costs a monthly service fee of $10, but you can get it waived if you maintain a $1,500 minimum daily balance. Santander Bank's Classic Checking costs $10 a month, which will be waived with a $750 average balance.
The problem most people have with keeping a minimum balance is a shortage of cash. If you're pretty sure you won't be able to keep up with minimum balances, don't worry. There are many other options for you.
2. Stay in school
Say what? That's right, most banks won't charge you a monthly fee if you're a student. For example, Chase charges no monthly service fee for college students, ages 17-24, with proof of student status. Similarly, Bank of America will waive your monthly maintenance fee if you're under 23 and enrolled in a high school, college or vocational program. US Bank charges no monthly maintenance fee for students enrolled at a high school, university, technical college or trade school.
So if you're a young academic aspirant, don't fail to ask your bank about its checking fees for students. For more information, check out our student checking account comparison story.
3. Use direct deposit
If your monthly balance tends to be unpredictable, perhaps a better way to avoid monthly maintenance fees is to use direct deposit, whereby your paycheck, pension, Social Security, or other regular monthly income is automatically deposited into your checking account. Each bank may have slightly different qualifying criteria.
HSBC waives its monthly $15 maintenance fee with electronic deposits made at least once per payment cycle into your checking account. The bank doesn't list a qualifying amount. Citibank waives its $10 monthly maintenance if you have direct deposit and make at least one bill payment via phone, online or mobile. Bank of America will waive its $12 fee if you have at least one qualifying deposit of $250 or more.
Your bank should offer a similar waiver program for direct deposit, so check it out.
4. 'Hack' your direct deposit
As noted above, to avoid maintenance fees, you can arrange for the direct deposit of recurring income into your checking account. However, there's another way to have your bank credit you for a direct deposit. Use your a PayPal account (or any other electronic money transfer service), and move a portion of the money to your checking account.
Although your direct deposit is being moved from your PayPal, your bank may treat the transferred funds as a direct deposit. Keep in mind this end-around maneuver may not work at every single bank -- it really depends on how your bank categorizes these types of transactions.
Check your bank statement at the end of the month. If the ACH transfer from PayPal to your bank was marked as a "direct deposit" or "PPD" for "prearranged payments and deposits," your direct deposit should have cleared and your monthly fee waived.
5. Open an online account to avoid ATM fees
When you use an out-of-network ATM -- one not in your bank's network or affiliated network -- you pay, on average, $4.35 per transaction. The $4.35 is the sum of two charges: Your bank charges you for using another bank's ATM, and the actual owner of the ATM charges you, too.
You can make those fees go away, however, if you open a no-ATM-fee checking account at an online bank like Ally Bank or Schwab Bank. Both offer free checking accounts that offer unlimited ATM fee reimbursements.
Just because you open a no-ATM-fee checking account doesn't mean you have to abandon your current checking account. Simply use your no-ATM-fee checking account for out-of-network ATM cash withdrawals.
You have other means to avoid ATM fees, as well. You can use MyBankTracker's mobile app to help you locate a nearby in-network ATM. Then, there's always the option of asking for cash back after swiping your debit card at a retail store. But, keep in mind retail stores have a limit on how much you are allowed to withdraw. Also, if you find yourself constantly running to an ATM for a variety of transactions, you should consider switching to a bank that offers a larger, more convenient ATM network.
6. Use your debit card frequently
This one is a little hard to believe because many banks charge for overuse. But certain banks encourage you to use your debit cards, like Wells Fargo. With Wells, if you use your debit card 10 or more times in a month, the bank will waive your monthly maintenance fee. Check with your bank to see if they offer this.
Wells Fargo is just being smart. Banks make a little pocket change each time you use your bank-issued ATM card. So, if you're a serial debit card user, you're going to make your bank even more money.
7. Opt out of overdraft fees
Until 2010, your bank would automatically provide you with overdraft protection when you signed up for a checking account. If you wrote a check or swiped your debit card over the amount in your checking account, your bank would cover the overdraft. Banks still offer this protection, of course, but now you have the choice to decline or opt out of the coverage.
The reason you want to opt out -- unless you're a chronic check bouncer -- is that overdraft fees are expensive. A MyBankTracker analysis in July showed that the average overdraft fee charged for a transaction that resulted in a negative account balance was $35.20 at the 10 largest banks in America. PNC Bank charged the highest fee, $36. SunTrust Bank charged the lowest, $34.
When you realize that a $3 latte sent your account into the red, triggering your $35 overdraft protection, your coffee's not going to taste so hot. With no overdraft protection, your card would have been politely declined, but that's better than being saddled with a $35 fee. Your card also will be turned down at the ATM if there aren't enough funds in your checking account to cover your withdrawal. It's important to know how much you have in your account at all times, so set up an alert with your bank or Mint account to send you a text if your checking account balance falls below, say, $50.
If you habitually overspend your account, make sure to opt out of your bank's overdraft protection.
8. Link your accounts
Typically, your bank will waive your checking account fees if your combined balance from multiple accounts at the bank exceeds a certain threshold. This is called a relationship waiver. Qualifying accounts could include money market, CDs, IRAs, brokerage accounts and mortgages.
To avoid the monthly maintenance fee on Bank of America's interest checking count, you have to maintain a combined balance of $10,000 or more during each statement cycle.
For Chase's Premier Plus interest-bearing checking account, you must maintain an average daily balance of $15,000 or more in qualifying linked deposits. For its basic checking account, Chase Total Checking, the minimum linked balance is $5,000.
9. Go paperless
If you're paying a fee for paper statements each month, you might as well be throwing your money away. If you want something in print, print it yourself (from your electronic statement online) because more banks are charging for paper. TD Bank charges customers $1 extra to receive paper statements. U.S. Bank charges up to $2 on some checking accounts.
If you want Wells Fargo to print your last 10 ATM transactions on your primary account or print balances of all accounts to your card, you'll pay $1 for either service.
10. Limit transfers
Earlier, we noted that many banks will charge you for excessive activity. Such is the case regarding transfers from your savings account to your checking account. Federal Reserve Board Regulation D, which all banks must adhere to, caps the number of transfers from a savings account to a checking account at six. There are no limits, however, on the number of times you can transfer money from a checking account to your savings account.
The thinking behind the regulation is a checking (demand deposit) account is supposed to be a transactional account whereas money in a savings account is supposed to remain on deposit longer so it's there for banks to lend out. If you constantly transfer money from your savings to your checking and exceed the six transaction a month, your bank my automatically change your savings account to a checking.
As a cautionary note, don't just assume any intra-bank transfer (when you transfer funds between accounts inside your own bank) will occur without a fee. Sometimes such a transfer can cost more than transferring funds to an outside financial institution, so be on the lookout.
One last bit of advice
So, now you have 10 ways to avoid bank fees linked to your checking account. But here's one more. Don't consider it a tip as much as words to the wise: Be wary of accepting bad checks as payment.
If you accept and deposit a check that bounces, you're going to lose out two ways. You're going to be out the amount that the check was for, and your bank is going to charge you a "Deposit Item Returned" fee or DIR.
It hardly seems fair, but when you endorse a check that has insufficient funds backing it, you're telling the bank you're responsible for that check. When you break that promise, your bank believes it has the right to charge you a fee, and it will!