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Your checking account may cost an arm and a leg

There isn't much in life that's free, and that really goes for some checking accounts these days.

Annual maintenance fees on checking accounts in the first half of 2016 averaged $159.48, according to a recent survey by MoneyRates.com. That's about the cost of a week's worth of groceries for a family of four, according to the Department of Agriculture.

It is also a 17.8 percent jump since the second half of 2011, MoneyRates found.

"It's completely out of step with the general lack of inflation and the lack of raises in wages," said Richard Barrington, senior financial analyst at MoneyRates. "Chances are, the average person's wages haven't gone up 17 percent in the last four years."

Finding an account without a fee has also become harder. In 2011, almost 35 percent of checking accounts had no maintenance fee. By 2015 that figure had dropped to less than 25 percent.

ATM banking
Juanmonino | Getty Images

ATM fees have increased, as well. A customer using an out-of-network ATM can expect to pay on average $1.73, up from $1.10 in the second half of 2011. A non-customer using a bank's ATM will pay an average of $2.87 for the privilege, up from $2.37. And since non–customers typically pay two fees when they use a different bank's ATM — one from their bank and one from the bank with the ATM — going out of network can be very costly.

"If you are like a lot of younger people, grabbing an emergency $20 or $40 bill, that's a hell of a high percentage to get your hands on your own money," Barrington said.

Consumers do have options, however. Some banks offer free accounts to those who set up direct deposit of a paycheck, for example. You may also get a free checking account if you maintain another account at the bank. College students may be able to find a local bank near them that offers students deals on accounts, though it is important to read the fine print.

Another possibility is an online only bank account, which generally offers less costly checking. Some 53 percent of the online bank accounts MoneyRates surveyed have no monthly fees, compared with 22 percent of traditional accounts. In addition, average monthly fees for online bank accounts are $10.13, well below the $13.47 for branch-based accounts, according to MoneyRates.

In a 2015 Accenture survey on consumer digital banking, 34 percent of the respondents said that "online is the most important channel for banks to invest in over the next five years," and 20 percent pointed to mobile banking. But even so, online-only banks have yet to capture a commanding share of the market.

"One of the amazing things about banking is the inertia involved. It is amazing how slow people are to change banks," Barrington said.