Bank fees for free checking rise to record highs

WASHINGTON — It costs a lot more these days to get free checking. Banks have significantly boosted the average required minimum balance this year to $723, according to data released Monday by Bankrate.com.

As banks respond to the tough economic times and new regulations, they have raised checking fees to record highs in 2012 — and made it tougher to avoid those fees.

The result is truly free checking accounts — those that have no minimum balance and no monthly fee — continue to become rarer, Bankrate said of the findings in its 15th annual checking survey.

The average monthly fee for a checking account that pays no interest was a record high of $5.48, up 25 percent in 2012 from a year earlier. The average monthly fee for an interest-bearing checking account also reached a record of $14.75, a 4 percent increase from 2011.

Only 39 percent of non-interest bearing checking accounts were free of any fees or minimum balance requirements, Bankrate said, down from 45 percent last year. The peak, of 76 percent, came in 2009.

“Checking accounts that are free on a standalone basis continue to diminish,” said Greg McBride, Bankrate.com’s senior financial analyst. “But a free checking account is still within reach of the majority of Americans, whether by getting the fee waived through direct deposit or moving to a bank or credit union that still offers free checking.”

Bankrate noted that on top of the 39 percent of free, standalone non-interest checking accounts, 56 percent of such accounts can come without a monthly fee if the account holder agrees to certain conditions, such as direct deposit of a paycheck.

And many small community banks and credit unions still offer standalone free checking, Bankrate said.

The firm’s 2012 checking survey covered one interest-bearing and one non-interest-bearing checking account at 247 banks and savings and loans.

The survey also found ATM fees on the rise. The average ATM fee charged by a bank to a non-customer was a record $2.50, up 4 percent this year. It was the eighth straight year that average ATM surcharges have risen.

And for the first time, all the banks surveyed said they charged non-customers to use their ATMs.

Banks also increased how much they charged their own customers to use another bank’s ATM. That fee rose 11 percent to $1.57 per transaction.

Overdraft fees increased to 1.4 percent to a record high of $31.26. Regulators placed new limits on those fees in 2009 and 2010, including prohibiting banks from automatically enrolling customers in programs to cover checks with insufficient balances.

Banks have been increasing fees in response to tougher regulations spawned by the financial crisis. Higher checking account minimum balance requirements came after financial regulators limited the so-called swipe fees banks could charge to retailers for processing debit card transactions.

Some banks, most notably Bank of America, toyed last year with new monthly fees for debit cards. But a sharp consumer backlash led the banks to reverse course.

Bankrate’s survey found that less than 1 percent of banks charged a debit card fee.

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