4 places you can still find free checking

Are growing bank fees frustrating you?

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Are growing bank fees frustrating you?

The banking landscape has changed dramatically over the past few years. Banks are dealing with new financial regulations, and consumers are receiving notifications that their checking account terms may be changing. As banks adjust their business models, many consumers worry that free checking will be part of the past.

“The availability of free checking has been cut in half in the last two years,” says Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate’s senior financial analyst. “However, it’s not going away completely.”

Traditional, no-strings-attached free checking may not be on as many banks’ product menus, but that does not mean that all consumers are paying more for checking accounts.

A September 2012 survey from the American Bankers Association shows that 59 percent of all bank customers have managed to avoid paying any bank fees. The survey included a pool of 1,000 respondents.

If your monthly statement is frustrating you with growing bank fees, here are four ways you still can obtain free checking.

Become a credit union member
Become a credit union member

Being a credit union member can pay off when it comes to your checking account. The 2012 Bankrate Credit Union Checking Survey shows that 72 percent of credit unions surveyed offer free checking programs.

Pat Keefe, spokesman for the Credit Union National Association in Washington, D.C., says that credit unions are not-for-profit and do not need to accumulate profits for shareholders. Instead, Keefe says, credit unions work to offer financial services such as checking accounts at the lowest cost possible.

Keefe says the nation’s not-for-profit institutions also view free checking as an opportunity to compete with banks in the hopes of turning checking account holders into new members.

Look at local or community banks for free checking
Look at local or community banks for free checking

“Many community banks are using a number of creative solutions to continue to offer free checking,” says Viveca Ware, senior vice president of regulatory policy of the Independent Community Bankers of America in Washington, D.C. “I don’t see free checking disappearing from the community-bank landscape anytime in the near future.”

While some community banks continue to offer traditional, no-strings-attached free checking, others have added small hurdles in order to remain free of bank fees.

“Some banks may have a minimum balance requirement, but it’s nothing astronomical,” Ware says.

Ware says that some community banks will waive any bank fees for meeting other simple requirements such as arranging direct deposit or receiving electronic monthly statements.

In addition to offering free checking services, many small banks continue to help account holders avoid other fees normally charged by large banks, says Nessa Feddis, vice president, senior federal counsel and retail banking expert for the American Bankers Association in Washington, D.C.

“Small banks have created surcharge-free ATM networks to help their customers easily access cash without paying for it,” Feddis says.

Go online to save on checking
Go online to save on checking

Some banks have adopted an online-only business model, which translates to cost-saving benefits for account holders.

“Without the expense of a branch network, online banks are able to provide more cost-competitive offerings like free checking to consumers,” McBride says.

While online banks do not offer thousands of in-person retail branches and ATM locations, today’s banking climate makes the Internet an equally convenient place for personal finance management.

“Online banks are beginning to make sense for more and more consumers. People are less dependent on branch access than they ever have been,” McBride says. “If you are comfortable with online and mobile banking and rarely visit a branch, an online bank can make a good fit for your financial lifestyle.”

Think big, as in big banks
Think big, as in big banks

While the nation’s biggest banks have made headlines with rising fees, plenty of account holders at the financial giants have continued to keep the costs of their checking accounts at zero. The four biggest U.S. banks by total assets — JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo — will waive any monthly checking account fees for maintaining a minimum balance of $1,500. These big institutions also will waive fees for monthly direct deposits between $250 and $500.

Some big banks focus on more than your checking account when offering fee deals.

“More banks are focusing on relationship banking,” Feddis says. “Even though your checking account may have a small balance, having other accounts at the same institution can often help waive your fees. The more relationships you have with an institution, the more likely you’ll qualify for special deals or waived fees.”

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