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5 Ways to Avoid Bank Fees

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The majority of Americans pay little or nothing at all for banking services, a new survey from the American Bankers Association found, and the share of those who pay fees has gotten smaller since last year.

Of 1,000 consumers who responded to the annual survey (ABA has commissioned it since 1998), 62% said they pay no fees for things like checking account maintenance or ATM access, and 12% say they pay $3 or less a month in fees. In 2013, those figures were 55% and 12%, respectively. Perhaps even more notable is the share of people paying more than $10 a month in fees: It dropped to 7% from 14% in 2013, representing significant consumer savings.

Think about it: If you pay an average of $10 a month because you incurred an ATM fee or overdrew your account, that would amount to $120 of avoidable spending throughout the year. Sometimes, avoiding fees isn’t as simple as using the right ATM or checking your account balance — banks often require you to follow certain guidelines to take advantage of free services, but if you’re smart about your finances, it’s well worth the effort. Here are a few tips for minimizing or avoiding bank fees:

1. Open a Free Account

Free checking isn’t dead, but there are often some strings attached. Some banks waive maintenance fees if you have direct deposit to your checking account, or perhaps your savings account requires a minimum balance as an incentive for avoiding a maintenance fee.

The lesson here is that free banking exists, but you want to make sure you keep it that way by knowing the terms and conditions of the account.

2. Use Your Bank’s ATMs

If your bank charges fees for using an ATM that it doesn’t operate, you should avoid using them if at all possible. The bank that operates the ATM may charge you a fee, too, and you really shouldn’t have to pay to access your own money. If you bank has a mobile application, it probably has a feature to help you find bank-operated ATMs nearby, and if you happen to be in a location your bank doesn’t serve, consider paying for something at a grocery store with your debit card and use the cash-back function.

3. Take Advantage of Direct Deposit

If you have the option, having your employer deposit your paycheck directly into your account is not only a fast way to get paid, it’s often a way to keep your account fee-free.

4. Spend Only What You Can Afford

If you’ve opted into overdraft protection, you may be charged a fee for spending more money than you have available in your account. These are often significant charges — definitely more than an ATM fee — so other than living with your means for the sake of practicing good habits, do it so you can save money.

To ensure you don’t overspend, you need to check your account activity regularly, which can be as easy as quickly glancing at a summary on your phone or signing up for email or text alerts when your balance drops below a certain level or a transaction clears your account.

5. Shop Within Your Own Bank

If your bank offers multiple products attractive to you, establishing yourself as a loyal customer may help you minimize the cost of banking. A checking account that otherwise requires maintenance fees might be free if you also open a savings account with the same institution. As with all financial products, do your research before committing to anything.

Banking fees can add up to a significant expense if you’re not paying attention, and if you’re not planning on forking over dozens (or hundreds) of dollars to account maintenance every year, you’re jeopardizing your ability to meet your financial obligations. By failing to undertstand where you’re money is going, you’re at risk of falling into debt or struggling to meet savings goals.

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