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If you're a Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) , SunTrust (NYSE: STI ) , JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM ) , or Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC ) customer, changes may be coming to the way you bank. Not a customer of one of these giants? Odds are, you won't be off the hook forever.
How it happened
Two years ago, credit-card debt writeoffs reached an all-time high, and banks heavily encouraged debit-card usage through incentives like rewards programs. Now, a new law reduces how much large banks can charge merchants each time you use your debit card. Called a "swipe fee," the charge is for non-ATM transactions at retailers, and the law applies to all banks with more than $10 billion in assets. As a result, large banks are now aggressively promoting credit-card rewards programs, eliminating debit-card perks, and increasing fees on checking accounts to recoup lost income from swipe fees.
What it means for you
Beginning next year, Bank of America will charge customers $5 for each month they use their debit cards. JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo are rolling out charges as tests in certain regions. Other banks, like SunTrust, will be charging only on its free checking accounts. Chase and PNC Bank (NYSE: PNC ) have rolled back or cancelled reward programs for debit-card users. Citigroup (NYSE: C ) will be raising its minimum balance requirements and monthly maintenance fees by the end of the year.
So if you want to avoid surprises, here are some tips you need to follow.
1. Review your statements carefully
Understand what your bank will charge (if anything) and how and when it will appear on your account. Your bank may not increase debit-card fees, but it might add a fee to what was previously a free checking account or impose new minimum balance restrictions. Fees could be imposed either for-use (i.e., each time you use your card or account) or on a monthly or annual basis. Everything's up for grabs.
2. Use your points while you can
If your debit card has a rewards program, find out whether it's being cancelled, and what, if anything, you'll be able to do with your points. SunTrust cancelled its program for new customers earlier this year, and points accumulated by existing customers will expire in January. Points earned by JPMorgan Chase customers expired this past July. Citi recently notified customers that it is also ending its rewards program.
If you've paid a fee to participate in a rewards program, you may be eligible for a partial prorated refund. Check with your card company to learn more.
3. Compare rates
Not sure whether your bank's fees are competitive? Curious what your friend at another institution might be paying? A website such as Bankrate can help you see what fees banks are charging on checking accounts and credit cards.
4. Track all your accounts online
Use a service such as Mint.com to track all your accounts in one place, and set up an alert specifically for bank fees to ensure you're not caught off-guard.
5. Upgrade to a premium, fee-free account
Several banks waive fees for customers retaining a higher balance. Consider combining multiple checking, savings, and/or money market accounts to ensure that your ccount meets any balance requirements.
6. Switch to a credit union or a small regional bank
Small banks and credit unions traditionally have lower interest rates and fees than commercial banks, and they aren't affected by the new law on swipe fees.
Is switching to credit-only for you?
Another option is to stay with your bank and reduce or eliminate your debit-card usage. Before you do that, here are some things to consider.
1. Even if you never use your debit card, swipe charges can show up in other ways, including as a monthly charge on your once-free checking account.
2. Be realistic about your habits. If you switched from credit to debit to reduce your debt, switching back might not be the way to go. You won't save much if you're carrying a balance on a high-interest credit card.
3. Don't be wooed by shiny points programs. Airline miles are nice, but if you're spending more on interest than you would on a ticket, it's not worth it.
4. Take a realistic look at how often you swipe and whether the rewards outweigh your costs.
5. Be sure to avoid the most common credit mistakes.
The Foolish bottom line
If you don't use your debit card very often, are with a bank that doesn't charge fees, or already manage your spending and rewards responsibility with your credit card, this change probably won't affect you much. But if you're the type who relies heavily on your debit card, now might be the time to make a change. Switch to an account or institution with no or fewer fees, pay cash more often, or charge responsibly.
Keep in mind that even if you switch back to a credit card, your credit card may soon be worthless. Check out this video to find out why. It's free for Fools.