Bank fee avoidance possible despite loss of free checking
If your checking account balance is unexpectedly low, bank fees may be to blame. But that doesn't mean you have to pay up.
Fee-free accounts seem to have gone the way of the free toaster. The average checking account these days has an average of 30 potential fees attached to it, with some listing more than 50, according to a new study from WalletHub.com. Experts say they see the usual suspects—overdraft fees, ATM surcharges and maintenance fees—becoming pricier, too.
"Fees have been going up for years, even before the regulatory changes of the past couple years kicked the trend into overdrive," said Greg McBride, a senior analyst at Bankrate.com. "In tune with inflation, the cost of everything goes up."
(Read more: Wanna see a teller? Banks want you to pay for it)
PNC Bank is among the latest to bid adieu to free checking. It announced a plan in June to phase out free accounts by June 2014, adding a $7 monthly fee that will be waived for account holders who meet the $500 minimum balance or direct deposit requirements or are age 62 or older.
In December, customers using the bank's Virtual Wallet online accounts will also face a $7 charge unless they meet those requirements, qualify as a student or do all their banking online, by mobile device or at an ATM.
Granted, such fees are still easily avoided.
According to an American Bankers Association survey, 55 percent of consumers said they paid nothing in monthly bank fees—although that's down from 59 percent in 2011.
"Typically they'll waive those fees or reduce them for a stronger banking relationship," said Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education at Credit.com. There's still enough variation on fees by account and bank that it's worth shopping around for an account that fits your needs and minimizes charges.
Plus, many of the fees on banks' rosters are ones that consumers can expect to encounter rarely, if at all, said Odysseas Papadimitriou, chief executive of WalletHub.com. For example, a counter check fee, which is a charge for a check provided at the branch, or a chargeback fee, which reverses an earlier outbound transfer of money.
If you are charged, there's a good chance you can talk your way out of it. A recent Credit.com survey found 44 percent of consumers have had a bank fee reversed after they complained, with the most success on overdraft fees.
That's good news, because overdraft fees—which average $35—continue to surprise consumers. A 2012 study from The Pew Charitable Trusts found that 54 percent of people who had been charged an overdraft fee said they hadn't opted in to bank programs allowing them to overdraw their account.
"That shows to us there's this rampant amount of confusion out there about how the system works," said Susan Weinstock, director of Pew's Safe Checking initiative.
Cheaper alternatives: Sign up to allow automatic transfers from a savings account to prevent overdrafts, which cost $10 each, she said. Or opt out altogether, at the cost of having any transaction that would overdraw your account declined at the point of sale.
Down the line, experts say, consumers could see even more fees for using a teller, receiving paper statements or using some mobile banking features. But such fees are tough to implement, said McBride. "Banking is incredibly competitive, and it's not just a local marketplace," he said.
(Read more: High college fees: Worth it for the salary boost?)
Introducing accounts that scale back service to avoid fees isn't always successful. In late August, Bank of America stopped opening new "eBanking accounts," which offered fee-free checking on the condition that users do all their banking without accessing branches. (Visit a teller, and an $8.95 monthly fee kicks in.)
—By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter @KelliGrant.