checking
Know your banking habits

This leads to one of the keys to keeping your banking costs down. Understanding yourself as a banking customer helps you avoid fees. Unless you bounce a lot of checks, most bank fees aren't going to put a big dent in your weekly budget. But, like so much of our spending, this is money that falls through the cracks. When it's all added up, it matters a lot.

Banks charge all sorts of fees. Some fees you'd be hard-pressed to avoid, but when it comes to checking accounts, most consumers should be able to dodge the bullets.

Balance your checkbook and forget about trying to take advantage of "float" if you want to avoid bounced-check fees. In the old days when all mail went by the Postal Service, you had a few days to fund the account after writing the check. That's gone, but there are some legitimate ways to buy time.

If you don't frequently monitor your account balance online, then keep tabs with an old-fashioned check register. Banks still have them and they may be more convenient for some people. Debit and ATM cards can make it tough to keep track of transactions. Save your receipts -- put them in your wallet or wherever you're sure to see them when you get home and can enter them into your register.

If none of this works for you, then sign up at the bank for overdraft protection. This is not "bounce protection," which you automatically get with most checking accounts. You must sign up for overdraft protection in order to receive it. The Bankrate Basic "Overdraft protection plans" explains both programs.

Avoiding ATM surcharges and fees is easy if you can estimate your cash needs well enough in advance that you have time to use your bank's ATM. If you have to pay a total of $3.50 to take $40 from an ATM, it's akin to paying 9 percent interest -- a big waste.

It's hard to imagine anyone who needs an interest checking account that pays 0.24 percent, especially when the bank wants you to keep thousands of dollars in the account to avoid fees. Some institutions in Bankrate's Online Interest Checking database pay a worthwhile rate and don't require an exorbitant amount of money to stay in the account. You also might consider doing a search for reward checking if you use a debit card frequently.

But for most people, a plain vanilla free checking account will work just fine. Pair it up with a high yield money market account at another institution, link them electronically, and you're set.

For a growing number of people, online banking works great. Setting up direct deposit for a regular check might help you avoid fees, and most online banks have liberal ATM policies that reimburse your account for multiple ATM transactions per month.

You know what works best for you. Find a bank that suits your habits and meets your needs and you won't get caught in the fee trap.

Methodology: Bankrate.com surveyed one interest checking account and one noninterest checking account at the largest banks and thrifts in each of 25 large markets to find the latest trends on checking account and ATM fees. There were 247 interest accounts and 226 noninterest accounts surveyed at 249 banks and thrifts in the top 25 metropolitan areas.

Bankrate.com also looked at 22 checking accounts at 18 institutions offering online accounts and compared them to their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

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