How to avoid the bite of big bank fees

How to avoid bank fees
How to avoid bank fees   

Getting nickeled and dimed is a little more annoying when the spare change in question—and often, much bigger feesare being debited directly from your checking account in the form of bank fees.

But it's a frustration that's easily avoided. A survey from the American Banking Association found that 74 percent of customers pay $3 or less in monthly bank chargesand the bulk of those pay nothing at all.

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To limit charges, start by reassessing your account. Almost three-quarters of credit unions still offer free checking, according to Bankrate.com, and 38 percent of big banks. Avoiding the fee at others might be as simple as keeping $100 or so in your account, or signing up for direct deposit. "We've found that's a reliable way to get a free account," said Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for Consumer-Action.org.

Banks may also tack on other fees for certain features, like getting mailed paper statements or even talking to a teller in person, said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Or using an out-of-network ATM. A study released Sept. 29 by Bankrate.com found the average fee is now $4.35 per transaction, an increase of 23 percent in the last five years.

So consider those fees when shopping around to avoid picking a "free" account that doesn't actually fit how you bank.

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Worse are penalty fees like overdrafts, which tend to be more prevalent over small charges. "Nobody wants to pay $35 plus $4 for a latte," Mierzwinski said. But that's what often happens under banks' default overdraft plans if you tap out your checking account. (The average overdraft fee is now $32.74, a new record, according to Bankrate.com.) Consumers' best bet is to opt out: Request that the bank decline the transaction instead, he said, or set up automatic transfers from a savings account.

Then play it safe. "Pretend you have $100 less in your account than you actually do," he said. That'll keep you firmly in the black.