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How to Waste $36 Billion

Consumers with checking and savings accounts squandered away $36 billion in fees in 2006. That's enough money to treat every man, woman, and child on the planet to a gourmet coffee drink -- twice, if you don't order the most expensive thing on the menu.

The government investigators at the Government Accountability Office who gathered this information insightfully suggested that consumers' willingness to pay so much raises questions about their "awareness of their accounts' terms and conditions." In other words, the GAO wonders whether you knew that your banker charged extra for teller transactions, debit card purchases, and sugar cubes for the "free" coffee.

It's quite possible that you didn't, because these same government investigators, posing undercover as consumers, couldn't even get fee information or account terms and conditions at 40 of the 185 banks they visited.

That means it's up to you, Fool, to track down the details of your checking and savings accounts. Here's what you might find, according to a separate fee survey that Bankrate conducted last year:

  • Bounced-check fees that average more than $28.
  • High balance requirements and service fees for interest-bearing checking accounts that don't bear much interest.
  • A $1.25 fee from your own bank for using another bank's ATM, on top of the $2 you'll pay to that ATM's owner.

You should be able to find information about your fees in the paperwork you received when you opened your checking or savings account, or by visiting a branch. However, the undercover consumers had more luck just checking the banks' websites. If your bank isn't forthcoming about its fees or account requirements, it's time to find a new bank.

Your banking style
Your ideal bank will match your money habits and your lifestyle. If you like to conduct all of your banking business electronically, find an institution that offers top-notch online services. If you'd rather take your paper check to the local teller, you need a bank with neighborhood branches near your home and office.

You can also diagnose your own fee failings by pulling out the statements from your current bank and scrutinizing the charges. If you're always dropping below the minimum required balance, for example, drop your interest-bearing checking account. You'll almost certainly pay more in fees than you'll earn in interest.

Even if you rarely pay an extra cent in bank fees, see how your institution stacks up against the average. Even the most diligent money managers can experience glitches that cause them trouble, and you don't want to get fleeced.

Lastly, watch your cash flow to avoid paying fees for bounced checks, extra ATM withdrawals, or minimum-balance violations. Keep tabs with an online or telephone account service system, or just use an old-fashioned checkbook register.

Keep tabs
Once you find a bank you like, keep track of any changes to your account terms. Check those leaflets stuffed in your statements, and read the messages on your register. With Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) hurting for cash, Wachovia (NYSE: WB  ) reporting losses, and even Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC  ) feeling the pinch, your bank may be looking to make a couple extra billion dollars from you.

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