Fees are up. It costs more to open an account. Interest rates are so low they aren’t worth chasing.

Those are some of the key findings of the Fall 2003 Checking Account Pricing Study, Bankrate.com’s semiannual look at the consumers’ must-have banking account. The findings are based on checking account data Bankrate researchers gathered on 490 accounts from the top 10 institutions in the 25 largest markets. The study includes one interest-paying and one noninterest checking account from each institution, wherever available. The accounts selected are the ones that can be opened for the lowest minimum deposit. The study also includes 29 online accounts from 18 institutions.

Here’s a look at the key findings:

Average yield: Previous studies have shown that interest-bearing accounts aren’t worth it, and the current low-interest rate environment hammers home that point. The average checking account yield has fallen to an all-time low of just 0.27 percent — exactly one-fifth the rate that was being given to consumers five years ago.

Average minimum to open interest-bearing account: If you want to have an account that pays interest, be prepared to fork over more money to open the account. The minimum to open and earn interest is up to $495. Five years ago, it was $347. This is the first of two ways that interest-bearing accounts force you to tie up more money to earn little benefit. The other is that you must keep more money in the account to avoid monthly fees on interest-bearing checking accounts.

Average minimum to open noninterest account: Forgo that pittance of an interest rate and you can open an account for far less. The average minimum to open a noninterest checking account is $59.49 — less than an eighth of the average cost to open an interest-bearing account.

Average minimum to avoid fees in interest account: You have to park a lot of money to earn interest and avoid monthly fees. Bankrate’s survey finds you have to keep $2,258 tied up in an interest-bearing account to avoid being dinged by monthly fees. That’s up sharply in the past year — in the fall of 2002, the service-charge cutoff amount was $392 lower.

Average minimum to avoid fees in noninterest account: Banks are making it easier for consumers to avoid monthly service fees on checking — all they have to do is switch to noninterest accounts. With interest rates on checking accounts averaging just 0.27 percent, not much of a sacrifice. Those who do have to keep just $245 in the bank to avoid the monthly fee. The steady lowering of this number since 2000 reflects the increased number of banks offering free checking accounts.

Average bounced check (NSF) fee: The cost of a rubber check bounces ever higher. This fall, it has climbed to an average of $25.80 among the 490 accounts Bankrate surveyed in the top 25 U.S. markets. When Bankrate first surveyed checking accounts five years ago, the average was $21.57.

Online access availability: It’s a wired world. More than 19 out of every 20 checking accounts let consumers access their information online. A full 96 percent have online access, compared to 56 percent just five years ago.

Average monthly service fee, interest-bearing accounts: Keeping a checking account is becoming an ever-more-expensive proposition. The average monthly service fee now stands at $10.86. Pay that every month and you end up forking over more than $130 a year for the privilege of handing out your own money via check. It is the ninth time in 11 surveys that banks have increased the average monthly service fee.

One note: Bankrate has changed the methodology of collecting service fee data. In previous surveys, this item also included any fees charged for the return of canceled checks. Now it includes only the service fee. If anthing, the previous surveys overstated the cost the service fee.

Average ATM surcharge: When ATMs were first introduced, banks encouranged their use by offering them at no charge. Those days are long gone. Now, you’re hit two ways. If you use your card at another institution’s ATM, that institution charges you a surcharge. The average ATM surcharge crept higher again in this survey, up three cents to $1.40. It was $0.89 when Bankrate conducted its first checking survey five years ago.

Average fee to use another institution’s ATM: In addition to the other bank charging you for using their ATM, your own bank gets a piece, too. The average fee that your bank charges you to use another bank’s ATM fell slightly in this survey, from $1.30 to $1.29.

Percentage of institutions with ATM surcharges: It’s getting slightly easier to find a bank that won’t charge users a surcharge: 92.8 percent surcharge now, compared to 93.2 percent six months ago. However, just five years ago, only 68.4 percent surcharged.

Annual surcharge estimate — in billions: Due to the decrease in institutions with ATM surcharges, Bankrate’s estimate of the total national surcharge amount we pay each year barely budged. It stands at $2.105 billion, up a paltry $1 million from last year — but more than $1.1 billion higher than five years ago.

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