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Free checking accounts not free anymore?

January 13, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
A new wave of bank fees is starting to hit consumers across the country, this time right in their checking accounts. What's behind these new fees and how can you avoid them? The American Bankers Association says the new fees are justified, but not all banks are charging them. In fact, free checking isn't going the way of the dinosaurs just yet, but customers will have to do a little more research to find it.

Music teacher Phil Johnson has the "checking-account blues."

It all started when Johnson got a surprising letter in the mail from his bank that informed him: "My free checking account that I've had for years is no longer free and they're going to charge me $10 a month and give me no further service than they have in the past," said Johnson.

People like Johnson and others across the country are getting the same bad news: Their non-interest checking accounts that used to be free will start to cost them.

Greg McBride, a senior financial analyst at Bankrate.com, predicts we should get used to this reversal of sorts.

"This is a turnaround from the trend we've seen in recent years and it's likely to continue in the years to come," said McBride.

Bankrate found that in 2009, 76 percent of banks offered free checking, but in 2010 that number dropped to 65 percent.

"The factors that are impacting free checking are hitting institutions of all sizes: large banks, small community banks and credit unions," said McBride.

Why the disappearing act on free checking? The banking industry says banks are now losing money because of economic tough times and new laws that limit overdraft fees and debit card fees it can charge.

"Checking accounts are like any other products or service, whether it's cable or telephone or television, and there are costs associated with providing those services, and those costs have to be recovered in some ways," said Nessa Feddis, vice president, American Bankers Assoc.

Johnson's bank, like others that are now charging for checking, says the only way he can avoid paying a monthly fee is to meet certain requirements -- in his case, he must maintain a minimum daily balance of $1,500, have a monthly direct deposit of more than $500, or pay more than $25 in fees per month. All of which is out of tune for the music teacher.

"I've been a good solid customer for four years. I'm never a guy that, you know, writes bounced checks or overdraws, none of that kind of stuff. I cost them very little money," said Johnson.

Some banks are offering customers offers of $50 or $100 to open a new checking account, but be sure to factor in the monthly fees that bank charges you so you don't lose money in the long run.