The Americans with the least money pay the most per month for their checking accounts.
Households with an average income below $30,000 pay an average of $31 per month in bank or credit union fees, according to a survey commissioned by Bankrate.com and MONEY. That's more than three times the $9 that Americans in other income brackets pay in monthly banking fees, which include routine service charges, ATM fees, and overdraft fees.
That's only part of the problem
Lower-income Americans are caught in a troubling loop. Most live paycheck to paycheck, and even a slight miscalculation can cause them to overdraft their accounts. On top of that, those with less money can't afford to take as much out of the ATM each time they need cash, which can lead them to pay those fees more frequently.
Both of those issues can cause fees to pile up. The average out-of-network ATM withdrawal costs $4.69, and the average overdraft fee is $33.38, according to Bankrate. In addition, only 38% of banks offer free checking accounts, while the rest charge an average of $12 monthly.
Higher-income customers can often have those maintenance fees waived by having their paychecks direct-deposited into the account and maintaining a balance of at least $1,500. Many lower-income Americans can't meet those requirements.
How big is the problem?
For Americans making less than $30,000 a year, simply having a checking account can be an issue. Only 59% in that income bracket have one; across all other income levels, 83% of households have one.
Nearly two-thirds (63%) of checking-account holders avoid bank fees, but one-third of those who pay fees are charged at least $26 per month, and they disproportionately come from households with lower income and education levels. In fact, Bankrate cited a CFPB study that found 9% of accountholders overdraft more than 10 times a year, carrying 79% of banks' total non-sufficient funds fees."
Part of the reason for that may well be that the people paying the most in fees have an account that does not meet their needs. That's because most Americans rarely switch banks: The average checking-account holder has been using the same account for about 16 years.
"It can be hard to commit to a haircut, diet or job, but it seems like the opposite is true with banking," says Bankrate.com analyst Amanda Dixon. "Being loyal to a bank is fine if you're getting a good deal. But it's smart to shop around because the bank you've used for decades may not offer the best savings rates, ATM access or mobile app."
What can you do?
The first step a person at any income level can take to lower their banking fees is to own their banking habits. It can be tempting -- especially when money is tight -- to hope a check clears or a bill payment does not cause an overdraft, but that's a terrible practice. If you instead communicate with the people you owe money to, they may give you a little more time to pay up. And if you get the numbers a little wrong and overdraw your account, your bank may be open to reducing or waiving the fee -- if you don't have a history of overdrafts.
Many smaller and regional banks are flexible. Talk with them before you incur a fee and try to work out a plan that meets your needs. If you can't, consider finding a new bank more in tune with your personal economic situation.