by Matthew Perry
(last updated February 21, 2009)
Well, no, this doesn't mean that you can walk in to your bank and tell them they have to charge you less. It just doesn't work that way. What we mean by reducing bank fees is reducing how many of them you have to pay. Reading the fine print and paying attention to your account balances can save you lots of money, a little at a time.
Fees should never take you by surprise. By law, banks are required to provide all the information on all the fees you'll have to pay before you are liable for those fees. However, whether or not you read the provided information is up to you. Skimming your agreements can result in not seeing the small print—literally. Banks (and not just banks; most businesses) purposefully make information that customers find unfavorable hard to find, or at least easier to miss. For example, a commonly overlooked fee with savings accounts is a minimum balance; some banks will automatically close your account if it drops below a specified minimum, and others will charge you a fee.
ATM fees can be even sneakier than fine print. If you use an ATM owned by a different bank, you will have to pay a fee normally between one and two dollars. Customers are generally notified of the exact cost at the very end of the withdrawal process, which means that they would rather accept the fee, even if it's higher than expected, rather than beginning the entire process again at another ATM.
The fees you're probably the most eager to dodge are those for bounced checks and overdrawn accounts. These are usually some of the highest 'incidental' fees, and they take effect at bad times, too. Both occur when you have less money that you think you do, so you try to use money you don't have.
Paying attention to your agreements and your assets should protect you from most unexpected fees, but you'll have to scope out specific banks for yourself to see how much fee-danger you're in. If your big bank turns out to be too much of a minefield for you, you may consider changing to a credit union—because they're non-profit organizations, they tend to have fewer fees and to be more up front with those they do have.
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