YOU MAY HAVE FREE
checking with your bank, but that doesn't mean you aren't paying fees elsewhere.
Where fees were once used as a deterrent from, say, repeatedly bouncing checks or other poor behaviors, they're now big money makers for banks, accounting for 56% of bank income, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Banks earned an estimated $80 billion on fees in 2006. Ten years ago, fees accounted for just 3% of bank income.
Here are five sneaky fees to watch out for:
1. Overdraft Shell Game Fees
If you think one $20 overdraft fee is bad enough, imagine a whole cascade. "Banks are allowed to change the order in which their checks clear," says Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Bank of America, Chase, Citibank, HSBC, SunTrust, U.S. Bancorp, Wachovia, Wells Fargo and others all have policies to pay daily transactions in order from the largest to smallest dollar amount. Their take: Consumers' largest checks are their most important. (Who wants to bounce their mortgage payment?) But Mierzwinski says he and other consumer advocates see it as a way to draw in more fees. "They manage the bounces to get more bounces," he says.
Confused? Say you start the day with $100 in your account. You pay $5 for a latte, then $15 at the dry cleaners, $8 at the drugstore and $25 at the supermarket. At the end of the day, a $100 check you wrote last week clears your account. If your bank doesn't reorder, (e.g., Washington Mutual), you'd pay just one $22 overdraft fee. And if it does (e.g., Citibank, Chase), you'd pay five $30 fees, $150 in all. Worse still, your bank might tier overdraft charges based on how many you have (e.g., Bank of America, Wachovia). In that case, you could pay as much as $175 in fees.
Beyond watching your balance, your best recourse is to open a line of credit or overdraft protection with your bank. That $5 to $10 annually is small change compared to how much you could lose. Citibank charges $5 annually for either overdraft protection or a line of credit.
2. Paper Fees
With banking going digital, the days of getting your cancelled checks back in the mail are pretty much over. Most consumers are OK with the change until they need an old check, say, to prove a charitable contribution during a tax audit. With processed checks saved as digital images (and those only accessible for a year), expect to pay if you insist on paper copies. SunTrust, for example, charges $5 for each check, statement or other item photocopied.
The solution is pretty simple. If you're the type who likes to have paperwork on hand, simply sign up to have copies of your checks sent each month with your statement, suggests Jeffrey Blyskal, senior editor for Consumer Reports' Money Advisor. (Banks are willing to do this for free each month automatically; the fees come in when you're requesting a copy of an older check.) Alternatively, if you still have access to the digital check images stored at your online account, print them yourself. For tax and legal purposes, that's just as good as a paper copy from the bank.
3. Courtesy-Overdraft Fees
"No question, the sneakiest fee is the fee for bounce protection," says Mierzwinski. These so-called courtesy overdraft fees kick in when the bank pays out your check even if it would have bounced. It's similar, but far nastier, than a typical overdraft fee, he says. (Overdraft fees traditionally pay out to both the merchant and the bank for a bounced check; courtesy fees are paid solely to the bank for covering a check instead of bouncing it.) You'll pay anywhere from $20 to $40 per check, depending on your bank, your account type, how much you're overdrawn and your standing as a customer. After that initial fee, you'll pay $2 to $5 per day until you've paid back the bank.
This is another fee that's easily avoided by setting up automatic transfers from your savings account when your checking account would otherwise bounce. You'll still pay a fee, just not as much. Chase, for example, charges your checking account just $10 for an overdraft-triggered transfer from another account. (You also could open a line of credit or sign up for overdraft protection, as mentioned in point one.)
Sidestepping Bank Fees
Your best defense is avoiding bank fees in the first place. But once you've been slapped with one (or more), there's no need to sit back and accept the loss, says Blyskal. Here's what to do:
Appeal in Person
Plead First Offense
4. Point-of-Sale Feesprotection
5. Last-Minute Bill Pay Fees
It's 10 p.m., and you know just where your phone bill is. In a drawer, unpaid and the due date is tomorrow. For an extra $5 to $15, called an expedited bill pay fee, your bank is happy to get the cash there on time. It's a lucrative part of business, says Blyskal. In 2006, banks raked in $1.26 billion from expedited bill pay alone, according to Javelin Strategy & Research, a market research company. The sad part: With these fees, it's nearly as expensive to pay on time as it is to pay late.
To avoid the fee, check out your bank's bill pay policies. Payments set up online are processed electronically, but can take a day or two to process. Citibank, for example, advises consumers to schedule payments at least two business days before their due date. Then set up free payment reminders to help you keep on track.