Stop Robbing Your Own Bank Account

Surcharges, maintenance fees, courtesy services, setup costs -- what banks charge consumers these days gives new meaning to the phrase "bank heist."

Last year, according to the FDIC, banks raked in about $80 billion (yes, that's with a "b") in service fees.

Of course, no one's under the illusion that automatic bill payment, direct deposit, ATM access, and free toasters are offered out of sheer gratitude. Bank of America's (NYSE: BAC  ) recent hike in its ATM fees seeks to raise profits. So do alleged efforts by banks to increase fee income with questionable practices.

Then again, a heartfelt, handwritten thank-you note to customers isn't all that farfetched, considering that customers have become accessories in robbing their own accounts.

How exactly are you in cahoots with the very institution skimming a tidy sum off the top of your account? Easy: Make a few stops at the Kwik-E-Mart ATM, fall a penny below your minimum balance, and you end up shelling out $25 to $105 a month.

No wonder my bank teller is always smiling.

The costs of convenience
If you haven't scrutinized your monthly statement lately, you might be surprised how handsomely you're tipping your financial institution for the favor of babysitting your cash. According to a recent survey of big institutions, here's what we pay for ...

  • Simply having a bank account: $8.50, the median monthly account maintenance fee nationwide.
  • Receiving returned checks with your bank statement: $2 median monthly.
  • Using an out-of-network ATM: an average of $2.89 combined, to your bank and the out-of-network machine you used.
  • Choosing debit (using a PIN) instead of credit at checkout: $0.25 to $1 per transaction (and some banks limit the size and number of transactions).
  • Syncing your bank account with a personal-finance software program: $3 to $9.95.
  • Drawing bank accounts down to insufficient funds: $27.50 average bank fee per item; $2 to $5 fee for every day an account is overdrawn, plus $20 to $30 merchant fee.
  • Bank courtesy overdraft/bounce protection: $5 to $50 enrollment fee and 12% APR on outstanding balances.

Get it done: Slash your monthly bank tab
Planning and diligent record-keeping will help you keep your money in your account and out of your banker's. Here are some pointers that will help you pocket as much as $100 on next month's bank tab.

Find the right banking fit for your money habits. That means signing up for an account with a minimum required deposit that's realistic for your budget and scrutinizing other frequently used services -- like finding an institution with ATMs within a stone's throw of your everyday haunts or one that refunds fees when you cheat on your bank machine.

Sign up for services (or upgrade your account) to get fees waived. In many instances, using the bank's online bill payment service or simply having your paycheck directly deposited into your account qualifies you for fee-free checking or free software syncing.

Link your accounts. If you have checking and even a small savings account at one institution, sign up for overdraft-triggered balance transfers, which typically cost $5 to $10 per rubber check. It's the "courtesy overdraft protection programs" which often carry an enrollment fee, as well as a stiff APR on overdrafts.

Schedule weekly withdrawals at your bank. Go ahead and get a little exercise: Walk the few extra blocks to use an ATM owned by your bank for free. This can significantly cut the cost of cash. Or withdraw money at the checkout counter when you pick "debit." However, if your bank charges for debit purchases ...

Pick "credit" at the cash register. Doing so will save you the fee for choosing the "debit" option (if your bank charges one).

Upgrade your account to get free software syncing. If you use Microsoft's Money or Intuit's Quicken, check their websites to find official banking partners (often cheaper than the unofficial ones). You may also be able to avoid this fee at some institutions by upgrading your account or, again, using the bank's online bill payment service. Weigh the costs of each of these moves to see which way you'll come out ahead.

Actually read that "new terms and conditions" leaflet in your statement. Turn up the lights and grab your reading glasses. That little leaflet is a map to your bank's fee minefield. That's where you'll discover, for example, that Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC  ) now charges customers $2 for speaking to a live customer service rep on the phone about a transaction that could have been done via its automated system. Scour the teeny font and you'll learn how your bank monkeys with the way charges are debited from your account -- subtracting the biggest ones first (no matter when they were made) and leaving each of the smaller charges that followed to trigger overdraft fees.

Ask nicely for the fee to be waived. Don't just take your punishment sitting down, particularly if it's a first-time or infrequent offense. Call and ask (nicely!) for forgiveness, and specifically for the fee to be waived. Many banks will gladly let one slip-up slide.

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