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Finding a new bank is a task many consumers dread, thanks to the big changes such a move can bring to their financial lives. Now that banking is so thoroughly integrated into consumers' activities, it can be daunting to consider jumping to a new institution, even if it offers clear advantages. Because of such complications, many consumers choose to stay with their current bank despite high costs and other hassles.

There is plenty of competition in the banking industry, and it is now undergoing many changes to address new regulations. Banks are doing a lot to hang on to their customers, while also working to bring in new clientele. One unfortunate result of these changes: confusion among consumers about where it's best for them to do their banking.

The laws have changed the way banks can do business, and, in order to keep profits growing, banks are now charging more for their services. If you don’t keep up with the changes at your bank, your finances can suffer.

How often do you read your monthly bank statements and match them up with your checkbook? Many people ignore this task, so charges for services may jump without them realizing it. The same is true with the notices banks send out about service-charge increases. Customers often don't even open the envelopes, let alone read what's in them. To avoid being hit with unnecessary fees, you should read every disclosure your bank sends out and ask questions about anything you don't understand.

If you do decide to jump to a new bank, there are things you can do to smooth out the process. Here are five steps to help you sort through the issues:

No. 1. Know what you have. You need to be aware of the services you are receiving from your current bank and how much you are paying for them. Sit down with your bank statements and other account information to see where you stand. If you are confused about any recent changes the bank has instituted, speak with a bank manager if you can so you are clear about the services you use and how much they cost.

No. 2. Start your research. You should already be keeping an eye on the competition to know where to find better rates and the most cost-effective services. If you don't already know what else is out there, it's important to start researching interest rates, available services and costs at other brick-and-mortar banks, online banks and credit unions. Compare the services you already use, and explore what other banking options are out there. Keep notes and use online comparison tools to find the financial institutions that best meet your needs.

No. 3. Schedule a negotiation. In many cases, you can successfully negotiate a better deal with your current bank, avoiding the hassle of changing accounts altogether. Schedule an in-person meeting with the manager of your local branch or contact a representative who has the power to negotiate with you by phone. Go in to the meeting prepared to demonstrate both what you are getting from your bank and what other institutions are offering. If the manager feels you are willing to leave the bank for good, your negotiations stand a better chance of success. Your current bank may or may not offer to give you what you ask for, but you'll never know until you try.

No. 4. Investigate other institutions. Before signing up at the next bank or credit union that appears to offer a better deal, make sure to get a feel for the overall company. You want to ensure that customer service is helpful, available and easy to reach. Ask bank representatives questions and see how they handle the answers. If your gut feeling is that the institution will be hard to work with, keep looking. Despite all the automation and technology available today, there still needs to be some personal connection in banking, especially if problems arise.

No. 5. Plan out the switch. If your current bank is unwilling to make the changes you've asked for and you know you'll be transferring your accounts elsewhere, don't make the switch until you are prepared. Make a list of all the activities on your current accounts that will need to be updated, such as automatic deposits, withdrawals and bill-pay services. Don't close your old account until you have established the new one and are assured everything has cleared. Many banks already have established procedures for closing out old accounts to ensure everything is in order. Know the rules so your transfer doesn't become a nightmare. Contact anyone who uses your current bank account and alert them to the switch well ahead of time. This could include your employer, creditors and any other entities that require your bank account information.

The better prepared you are for changing banks, the easier the process will be for you. If you don't plan the process carefully, you could set yourself up for problems with creditors, charges for late bill payments and missed payroll deposits. In a worst-case scenario, you might not even have access to your own money.

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