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Exclusive   Fall 2006: Checking study
  STATISTIC: Bounced check fee hits $27.40. It's a fee-for-all in the  
  checking world, Bankrate's survey shows.  
   

Bankrate's fall '06 checking study: Fees rise again

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Noninterest accounts bearable
Noninterest accounts are the place to look. More than 60 percent of noninterest accounts surveyed have no balance requirement or monthly service fee, two key markings on the trail toward finding free checking accounts.

There is good news on the ATM front. Although surcharges cost more, banks are increasingly cutting their own customers a break on certain accounts by eliminating fees when using someone else's ATMs. As a result, the percentage of banks assessing other-banks'-ATM fees fell for the third consecutive survey, plunging to the lowest level yet, 77 percent. Ironically, the waivers on these fees popped up only on interest accounts, so you can bet that more often than not, the break comes with a downside -- a sizable balance requirement.

The results of the Bankrate.com checking account survey can be summed up this way -- consumers continue to encounter stiffer fees and higher balance requirements. Fortunately, there are several lines of defense.

How to avoid those fees
To avoid bounced-check charges, consumers must be very diligent about recording transactions in their check registers, particularly routine purchases made with debit cards. And with the prevalence of online account access, it is feasible to reconcile your account balance before writing a check or making a payment that could potentially overdraw the account. Signing up for overdraft protection, ideally linked to a savings account, is a low-cost way to avoid the embarrassment of bounced checks.

There is no need to maintain a large balance in a low-yielding checking account when so many accounts come without balance requirements or fees. So what if they happen to be noninterest accounts? Who is going to sweat about missing out on an average yield of 0.34 percent?

Instead, devote your excess savings to a high-yield savings or money market account where you preserve the ability to access money when needed, but earn substantially higher returns than those offered in checking accounts.

While more banks are permitting customers to go to another bank's ATM without charge, those transactions don't come without a cost. ATM surcharges are higher and more prevalent than ever, and even the "deal" some banks give by allowing free nonbank-ATM withdrawals requires maintaining a large balance in a low-yielding checking account. By settling for average interest earnings of 0.34 percent instead of the 5 percent returns available in a savings or money market account, an account holder forfeits more than $100 per year in interest earnings on a $2,500 balance.

It takes a lot of ATM withdrawals to make up for that, and you'll still have a hard time avoiding surcharges. Instead, it pays -- literally -- to manage your ATM withdrawals more proactively. Plan to take money out of only your bank's ATM, planning ahead so the withdrawal can take place in the normal course of a workday or weekend when you'd otherwise be near your bank's ATM. This sure beats waiting until you're really in a pinch for cash, then having to make the withdrawal on another bank's turf.

To find the best checking account in your area, compare using Bankrate's search engine.

You can also search on Bankrate for checking account offerings available at Internet banks.

Bankrate.com's corrections policy -- Posted: Oct. 30, 2006

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 RESOURCES
Fall '06 checking study: fees, minimums
Fall '06 checking study: ATM fees
Fall '06 checking study: online checking
 TOP SAVINGS STORIES
Winners and losers: Certificates of deposit
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