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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 funds

The 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 fees

Why 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?

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Other fees

Run down our list of the most common checking account fees and you’ll find plenty that can be avoided with some planning — counter checks, account closed early, early withdrawal fee for CDs, teller fee and inactive account to name a few.

Unavoidable fees

Some, such as a fee for a safe deposit box, are unavoidable. Some services you might be able to find cheaper elsewhere. Check printing and money orders are two that come to mind.

Get the schedule

Ask for a copy of the bank’s fee schedule before opening an account. Don’t get caught off guard by fees. Know if your bank charges a debit card fee every time you use the card. If you want to pay bills online, shop for a bank that offers the service for free. The tricky thing for consumers today is that checking accounts have many options — not like years ago when your biggest decision may have been the color of the checks.

Bankrate.com can help you get started when researching checking accounts. You’ll find fee data on hundreds of checking accounts from across the country — categorized geographically so you can check institutions in your city. The data includes:

Debit cards at a glance
  • Minimum amount required to open an account
  • Minimum amount required to avoid fees
  • Monthly service fee
  • NSF fee
  • Fee charged to use another bank’s ATM
  • The surcharge fee

What happens when a bank erroneously charges you a fee? You might think it should be easy to have the situation corrected. Not always. In the next section, we’ll show you how to complain and win!

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