Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to checking accounts. You must be aware of fees if you want to avoid them.
For most consumers, a free checking account is the best place to start. You won't have to worry about maintaining a balance or sticking with a preset number of checks that you're allowed to write each month. Some banks give you free checking if you set up direct deposit for a check that you receive on a routine basis -- a payroll or government check.
Some institutions might require a certain minimum balance for free checking. If you can live with those stipulations then there's nothing wrong with signing up. One of the best ways to avoid fees is by finding the account that's right for you.
But there are plenty of fees that can be charged in conjunction with a free account. The upside is: practice good checking habits and you'll avoid many of them.
Nonsufficient fundsThe nonsufficient funds, or NSF, fee is one of the most expensive fees you'll encounter. Good management of your checking account will keep you from overdrawing. Develop a system so you won't forget to deduct ATM or check card debits. If you have a joint account and are concerned that the other user may have less than perfect bookkeeping skills, apply for overdraft protection at the bank. The bank will link your checking account to another account you have with them and will deduct overdrafts from the other account. You'll pay a fee for the service, but it's a lot less than an NSF fee.
ATM feesWhy tolerate paying ATM fees? Make a point of visiting your bank's ATM and getting enough cash to cover you until the next time you can get to the machine. You may not always have enough cash on hand for a dire emergency, but do you really need to use another bank's ATM for a night out?