7/15/2011 11:30 PM ET|
How to beat annoying bank fees
Unwanted banking charges can appear when you don't expect them, such as ATM balance-inquiry fees or fees for talking to a human. Know what they are and how to avoid them.
Two bank fees get a lot of attention: monthly maintenance charges and ATM fees.
Those charges are pretty easy to avoid, however, by changing your behavior or changing banks. The fees that are really pesky are the ones you don't think to ask about. They often show up unexpectedly and may be tough to shake.
Here are a few to watch out for:
Checks you deposit in your account can bounce, and if they do, all you-know-what can break loose. You may face overdraft charges or rejected transactions because you don't have enough money in your account. In addition, your bank may clip you with a $10 to $20 fee for depositing the bad check.
How to cope: There's typically no way for you to know if a check is good before you deposit it, so this is a "gotcha" that can be avoided only in advance -- by banking with an institution that doesn't charge the fee. Most big banks levy returned-deposit charges, but some smaller banks and many credit unions don't. Switching to one that doesn't charge may make sense if you deposit a lot of checks. If you're charged a returned-deposit fee, ask your bank to waive the fee as a one-time courtesy. Your bank may not budge, but it doesn't hurt to ask. Another option: Cash a check at the issuing bank. But this could trigger a fee, since you're not a customer, and might be inconvenient.
Fees for 'early' account closures
Want to close your account because of excessive fees? Not so fast. Shut a bank account within a few months of opening it and your bank might withhold $10 to $50 from your balance as a so-called early-closure fee. Citibank, Chase, PNC and Wachovia each charge $25. If you were given a bonus or other rewards for opening the account, the bank may try to "claw back" those benefits by charging even more, warns U.S. PIRG, a consumer advocacy group that issued a report last year on bank fees.
How to cope: Before you open an account, ask if there's an early-closure fee and, if so, how many months the account must be active before the fee is waived. Balance the fees you'll pay by sticking with the account against what you'd pay to leave early.
Fees for returned mail
Say you move but forget to update your mailing address with your financial institutions. Banks and creditors typically have "return service requested" printed on their envelopes, which means your statements and other information are returned to them rather than forwarded to your new address. Your bank may ding you $5 each time this happens.
How to cope: "Put your financial institutions at the top of the list of those you notify when moving," said Greg McBride, a senior financial analyst for Bankrate.com.
ATM balance-inquiry fees
Prepaid cards come loaded with so many egregious fees that it's hard to pick just one. You get dinged for "activating" your card ($3 to $9.95), having the card (monthly charges of $2.95 to $9.95), using the card (per-transaction fees of $1 to $2) and reloading the card ($3 to $10).
Still, NerdWallet CEO Tim Chen nominates the ATM balance-inquiry charge as particularly pesky, since checking a bank or gift card balance typically doesn't cost the user money.
"Nearly all reloadable prepaid debit cards have this fee, which typically ranges from 50 cents to $2 per incident," Chen said. "Note that you are charged for inquiring about your balance, even if you don't make a withdrawal."
How to cope: You typically can check your balance for free online. Using the toll-free number to inquire may or may not trigger another fee. Better yet, consider opening a free checking account at a local bank or credit union. Over time, a low-cost checking account will be cheaper than using prepaid cards to manage your spending.
Fees for talking to a human
If you run into a problem that can't be handled by an automated system, you may get dinged for requesting help. Prepaid cards, including NetSpend and Ace Cash Express, charge 50 cents to $1 for live help.
"It's ridiculous that NetSpend and Account Now charge you for a customer-service call, even if you are calling because they messed up your statement," Chen said.
Ask for help from a Bank of America teller and you could pay $8.95 -- that is, if you have one of the bank's electronic checking accounts where you're not supposed to need human help.
How to cope: If you must use a prepaid card, look for reviews online so you can see where the complaints are -- and which cards have lousy or costly customer service. With bank accounts, consider looking for a free account that allows you to talk to a teller now and then if necessary. Such accounts are available, although you may have to expand your search from the megabanks to community banks and credit unions to find them.
Currency conversion charges
Credit card companies like their foreign-transaction fees so much that they're expanding their definition of what triggers the extra charge of up to 3%.
"Increasingly, this is being applied to transactions made outside the U.S., even if it's in dollars and no currency conversion takes place," Bankrate's McBride said. "Also, transactions with foreign entities may incur the charge, even if you're sitting at home when the purchase is made."
How to cope: If you travel abroad or make purchases from foreign retailers (such as online), use a card that doesn't charge the fees.
Capital One has several cards that don't charge the fees, including its Venture, No Hassle and Platinum Prestige cards. Chase's Sapphire Preferred, British Airways, Hyatt and Priority Club Select cards don't impose currency conversion charges, nor does Citi on ThankYou Premier and ThankYou Prestige cards. American Express' Platinum and Centurion cards don't charge the fees either.
Reward redemption fees
As you learned in my recent column "How to beat pesky airline fees," free travel isn't free anymore, particularly when you're redeeming credit card rewards for airline travel. Most issuers charge a fee, ranging from $20 to $50, for these transactions.
How to cope: You may be able to avoid or reduce the charge by booking online rather than on the phone. Elite frequent fliers may also be able to get the charge waived, depending on the program. Otherwise, you might want to look into hotel rewards programs, which are typically far easier to use than the airline version, with no blackout dates or redemption charges.
Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.
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