checking

Bankrate.com's checking account survey

The "Minimum balance to avoid fees" is the amount you must maintain. Let it drop below that and you'll pay the monthly service fee. These two minimum balance categories can make it quite expensive to maintain an interest-bearing checking account. Go back to the "APY" column and see if the interest paid is worth the cost of locking up that much money in a checking account.

The next two columns are the fees that bedevil many checking account customers, "Monthly service fees" and "Nonsufficient funds," or NSF, fees. Monthly service fees frequently range from $6 to $12. It's what you'll pay if you don't maintain the minimum balance required to avoid fees. Even if you're paying a fee on the low end of the scale, it's sure to wipe out any interest you earn for the month.

Nonsufficient funds fees are the steepest, most punishing fees you'll see in connection with a checking account. Bouncing just one check can wipe out the interest you might earn in a year. If you occasionally bounce checks, consider applying for overdraft protection. We'll discuss this coverage at length in a separate section but, essentially, you'll pay a much smaller fee for the service and your checks won't bounce -- the deficit will be taken from your savings account or, perhaps, billed to your credit card.

ATM fees

Fees to use an ATM are another thorn in the side. You'll never pay a fee to use your own bank's automated teller machines, so it's important to plan ahead. Keeping an eye on the amount of cash in your wallet can help you avoid having to use another bank's ATM in an emergency. Use another bank's ATM and that bank will charge you a fee and so will your bank. If you withdraw $20 from another bank's ATM you could easily pay $3 in fees. That equates to a 15 percent fee.

Many online banks don't have a network of ATMs and allow their customers to use any ATM. These banks will reimburse customers for the fees incurred when using another institution's ATM.

We'll discuss ATMs and their fees in greater detail in a later chapter.

The "Online access" column tells you whether the institution has online banking, and the final column, "Advertiser comments" gives the bank a little space to share miscellaneous information about the account.

In the next section you'll see why it's now easier than ever to bounce a check if you're not careful. The ever-popular "float" is disappearing, thanks to a law called Check 21.

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