×

ATM, overdraft fees surge to record high

If you're less than diligent when it comes to monitoring the your ATM withdrawals, here's some bad news. Two common checking-account missteps just hit their highest penalty level in almost twenty years, according to a new study by Bankrate.com.

The average fee for using an out-of-network ATM rose to $4.52 per transaction this year, while the average overdraft fee hit $33.07, according to Bankrate. Those numbers mark a record high for overdraft and ATM fees over the 18 years that the site has monitored them.

Atlanta topped the list of priciest places to get cash from an out-of-network ATM, at $5.15, while draining your account balance costs the most in Milwaukee, at $34.79, according to Bankrate, which surveyed 243 institutions that offered interest and non-interest checking accounts between July 9 and Aug. 5.

This year's rapid rise is part of an ongoing trend of steep fee hikes, with out-of-network ATM fees surging 21 percent in the past five years.

"This is a trend that affects consumers tremendously, and it does so more and more each year," said Devan Goldstein, a banking associate for personal finance website NerdWallet.

Despite harsher punishments for mismanaging your cash, most people pay a median of $35 per year in overdraft fees, and more than half of people charged overdraft fees do not remember opting in to the coverage, according to a 2014 study by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

But while free checking accounts are harder to find than in previous years, 37 percent of non-interest checking accounts are still completely free, Bankrate said. Even if you live in a pricier area, fees are "completely avoidable" if you shop around, Greg McBride, Bankrate.com's chief financial analyst, said in a statement.

If you're among the group that tends to incur these fees, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers some tips. You can opt to have your debit card and checks decline, rather than incur the fee, or link your checking account to a savings account or a line of credit to pick up the slack when you overdraw.

But even some overdraft protection services have fees, so it's best to avoid overdrafting all together if you can, said Nick Clements, co-founder of price comparison website MagnifyMoney.com.

"Checks, recurring payments like gym memberships and bill-pay transactions are not protected," Clements said. "This is one of the biggest areas of confusion. People opt out, and are surprised to realize that they can still be hit with an expensive overdraft fee."

Goldstein also suggests signing up for text or push notifications from your bank when your balance gets low. Opt for cash back at convenience stores and split the tab with peer-to-peer payment apps like Venmo, instead of getting cash from pricey ATMs.

Consumers should be wary of pending charges that hit accounts near the end of the day, Goldstein said, especially running a debit card as "credit" at a gas station, where charges are commonly delayed.

"The biggest thing is to know your bank's own policies," Goldstein said. "The fee structures can be really complex, and the fine print is really quite fine. You might get charged one thing for a balance transfer and another for a withdrawal."

If your current account still isn't working for your lifestyle, several personal finance websites compile lists of checking accounts that can be filtered for low ATM or overdraft fees. NerdWallet has a handy online guide, and so does WalletHub.