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Why pay a bank to use your money? Avoiding fees involves some simple tech and even simpler questions.

3 minute read

You used to get a free toaster when you opened a bank account. Now you’re lucky to get a promise to waive a few fees.

But competition from low-fee online alternatives like the American Express Bluebird are pushing traditional banks back toward free checking, The Boston Globe says. Not all the way, of course. Instead of outright abolishing something like “monthly maintenance” fees, banks might agree not to charge them if you meet certain conditions. Make it sound like they’re doing us a favor by not charging to hold onto our money.

So your bank might cut you a break as long as there’s cash flowing into the account – like Bank of America, which won’t charge a $12 monthly fee to customers who direct-deposit at least $250 per month. Gee, thanks.

It might be enough to keep some people from jumping ship, though. A survey of more than 1,500 people by found almost half of us (45 percent) consider fees to be the most important part of banking. Here’s what everybody else thinks is most important…

  • Online and mobile banking (17 percent)
  • Convenient branch locations (14 percent)
  • Exceptional customer service (12 percent)
  • Great interest rates (12 percent)

As it turns out, wealthy people (those making more than $100,000 a year) care a lot more about interest rates than banking fees. Similarly, seniors put a greater emphasis on customer service, and young adults on high-tech banking.

But for the largest group of us, fees are most important – and they’re the easiest to control. Here’s how to avoid as many as possible…

1. Avoid overdraft protection

Overdraft protection kicks in when your bank covers a purchase you don’t have enough money in your account to make – and then charges you up to $35 a pop for it, even if you were short way less than that. And the people who need it most are exactly the ones who shouldn’t use it.

A Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report in 2013 found overdrafts account for more than 60 percent of the fee revenue that banks make off of consumer checking, even though consumers these days have to opt-in for the “service.” It also found the average total of overdraft fees paid for accounts that were overdrawn in 2011 was $225. Better to have a purchase declined, get embarrassed, and learn from the experience than to keep throwing extra money at the bank.

2. Use account alerts

If you have a smartphone and don’t have your bank’s app, check it out. Chances are it can show your account balance, and it may have a feature to automatically notify you when it gets low or below a specified threshold.

Even if you don’t have a smartphone, some banks offer text message alerts.

3. Abuse cash back

Out-of-network ATM fees add up fast, especially since you can be hit for a few bucks each way – from both your bank and the owner of the ATM you just used.

There’s an easy way to avoid this. Pay for purchases at the grocery store or pharmacy with your debit card, and then use the cash-back option. These are just as numerous as the ATMs, and even if you have to buy a soda or candy bar for $1.39 to pull out $20 or $40 because you forgot to sooner, you’re still saving money compared to ATM fees.

4. Read carefully

When you first open a bank account, you receive a slim little booklet called a fee schedule. It breaks down every way your bank plans to nickel-and-dime you, and you should read it carefully.

Of course, those booklets are easy to lose, and banks are always coming up with new strategies to separate you from your money. So search for “fee schedule” on your bank’s website or ask for a new copy. Between that and keeping an eye on your statements, you’ll avoid more fees.

5. Ask nicely

Banks can seem cold and ruthless, but the people who work there can be surprisingly nice. Last year, a study from found 44 percent of respondents have gotten banking fees waived just by asking. They were most successful in waiving overdraft and late payment fees. But it doesn’t hurt to ask about any kind of fee, especially if you’re a victim of unusual circumstances. Banks typically waive fees during and after severe weather situations, for instance.

6. Look at alternatives

If your bank won’t listen to reason, find one that will.

If you want to stick with traditional banks, WalletHub analyzed the transparency of 25 of the largest in a report from 2013. It doesn’t compare the actual banking fees, but it gives you a good idea who explains theirs well. Capital One, Fifth Third Bank, Citibank, and Union Bank ranked highest.

Unless you’re one of those people obsessed with “convenient locations,” you can try an online-only bank, which doesn’t have to maintain an expensive brick-and-mortar operation. That often means low or no monthly fees, and you can still get an ATM card (often with waivers on out-of-network ATM fees) and checks.

And then there are credit unions. While they might have some eligibility requirement to join, those who get in often enjoy access to a huge, shared network of ATMs, along with lower fees and interest rates than many big banks. Check out the Credit Union National Association’s credit union locator to see if you can join any nearby.

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About the Author

Brandon Ballenger

Brandon Ballenger

Having more than $10,000 in student loan debt has a way of piquing your interest in personal finance. And because my degree was in English and public communication, I get to share that interest with you. My wide-ranging stories on money and business have run on Business Insider, the Christian Science Monitor, Reader's Digest, the front pages of and Yahoo! Finance, Money Talks News, and the South Florida Business Journal. In my free time, I like to jump off skyscrapers and play video games.

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