How can I reduce my banking fees?
August 8, 2011 8:35 AM   Subscribe

How can I pay less for a checking account and ATM access?

What is the best option for a low cost checking/debit account that will allow me to use a variety of ATMs at low fees?

My current account used to offer free checking, free checks, free overdraft protection, and access to ATMs with no fee from my bank. Now there is a charge for paper statements and using any competitor's ATM costs me $3 *per transaction* (not per use), so I'm quickly racking up fees since I don't feel my bank's ATMs are very convenient.

I don't mind paying a fair monthly or annual charge for an account, but what I don't want is to be hit with a bunch of unexpected fees for all sorts of services, particularly for visiting ATMs. I mean, how else can I access my funds if not through an ATM?

I know there must be some other options out there (for example, credit unions) but I don't really understand how they work or what the charges would be for ATM access. Are there any other options I might consider?
posted by mintchip to Work & Money (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Two words: Credit and Union.
posted by Danf at 8:39 AM on August 8, 2011 [6 favorites]

I use USAA as my checking account. Their other services - savings accounts, car insurance, etc - are restricted to members of the military, veterans, their families, etc, but any old American can get checking. They have no branches; everything's done online. And, crucially, they won't charge for up to 10 ATM withdrawls a month, and they reimburse up to $15 in ATM fees each month. In other words, I just use any old random bar/bodega/bank ATM I want, let it charge me $2, and once a month I'll see the replacement money show up in my account. Checking is free; for that matter my checks were free.

I have no idea about paper statements, since I do everything online, but their customer service is outstanding.

Your other good option is probably a local credit union. From a consumer perspective, a credit union is basically like a bank that's owned by its customers, rather than being run for profit, so they're more likely to to treat you properly and not be complete assholes about everything; still, they're quite diverse in their policies, so you'd want to check out a couple of local ones and inquire about ATM fees.
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:43 AM on August 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

Credit Unions work pretty much like a bank from the consumer end. You'll have to ask about the ATM fees, as they're going to vary. This is my credit union and they have a map of no-fee ATMs. Any credit union (or bank) will have a list of fees on their website.
posted by desjardins at 8:44 AM on August 8, 2011

I have free checking at Wells Fargo, and now that the merger with Wachovia is complete, they have ATMs pretty much everywhere.
posted by COD at 8:48 AM on August 8, 2011

I have free checking through Charles Schwab, and since they have no ATMs, I can use any ATM and they'll reimburse the fees charged by the banks, just like Tomorrrowful's USAA checking account. The drawback is not being able to deposit at an ATM, but you can mail in checks or do the phone camera deposit thing. I've never had a problem with them and have been happy with their service.
posted by Neely O'Hara at 8:52 AM on August 8, 2011

Credit unions work exactly the same as banks, with the one caveat that you have to fit their membership criteria. Some have pretty broad criteria - the one I'm a member of just requires that one lives in a certain county - while some are more restrictive, requiring employment in a certain industry or business. Most CU's also require a small minimum deposit - I have to maintain $10 in a savings account in order to have a free checking account.

My credit union only has three physical branches, but it is part of a CU network that allows me free ATM access at any other CU in town, as well as a whole bunch of ATM's at 7-11 stores, so it's really easy to find a place to get money out for free. A lot of CU's also have arrangements where members of one CU can use the in-branch services of a different CU to deposit money as well.

I'm a big fan of my credit union and would recommend going the CU route if you can. This is a handy-dandy credit union finder.
posted by pdb at 8:54 AM on August 8, 2011

Banking fees like this are the wave of the future, since regulations are cutting down on the other ways banks can charge you. The positive side of this is that these are charges you can expect, rather than unexpected ones (e.g., huge overdraft fees because of the way banks order the transactions.) All those services weren't actually "free" -- they were being paid for with overdraft fees.

The days of free ATMs/refunded ATM fees are soon to be over for all banks, so you should adjust your habits. In the olden days before ATMs, people had to go get cash every week like any other chore. You'll just have to work it into your schedule to go to your branch and use the ATM there. Alternatively, you could pick a new bank with more ATMs near you.
posted by yarly at 8:54 AM on August 8, 2011

I mean, how else can I access my funds if not through an ATM?

I haven't been to an ATM in years. Many many years. I get cash back at the grocery store or Target.
posted by magnetsphere at 8:57 AM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

This depends so much on where you live. I bank with a regional southern bank (BB&T) and I don't have any fees at all. Ask people you know who live near you.
posted by something something at 8:59 AM on August 8, 2011

Ally Bank has an interest checking account and it refunds all ATM fees.
posted by quiet coyote at 9:04 AM on August 8, 2011

Nthing credit union. Credit unions FTMFW!!

Also, like magnetsphere, if I know I'm going to need cash, I'll just get cash back when I buy something at the grocery store.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 9:04 AM on August 8, 2011

I have a hard time believing that the banks have any customer at all after the bailout. I don't like them. Find a good credit union.
posted by snowjoe at 9:13 AM on August 8, 2011

I would not part with USAA voluntarily. However if I had to I might consider PNC, who I deal with via a business account and have found very accessible.

But seriously, USAA. The only possible downside is if you deal with a lot of paper checks and run your account down to the wire. They provide postage-paid deposit-by-mail envelopes which are, to me, more convenient than even ATM deposit. But it takes 2 days for the funds to get there & be processed, so if you're down to $4 in your account this can be an issue.

If you're like most people, however, and 99% of what you deposit is via electronic transfer then it won't be a problem.

If you're in the DC area you even have an office you can walk into now at the Pentagon Row shopping center.
posted by phearlez at 9:29 AM on August 8, 2011

Thirding USAA, for the reasons stated above, and just want to add that if you qualify for their Deposit@Mobile or Deposit@Home services, you can deposit checks using your smartphone or scanner. Very convenient!
posted by Pants McCracky at 9:37 AM on August 8, 2011

I don't feel my bank's ATMs are very convenient
Depending on the credit union, it is likely that this will still be the case if you switch to one. I love mine, but there aren't a lot of their ATMs around. I can use other credit union's ATMs, but it varies on when they charge me or my CU does. Sometimes neither one does.

You want to use "a variety of ATMs", but I doubt you will be able to do that for free. Take note of the ATMs you use most often and what bank owns them, if any. Go to that bank and get the details on their checking accounts. However, if you are using ATMs that don't belong to banks, you will not be able to use those for free unless there is an account that will reimburse you for ATM fees. It is a rare perk but I have heard of it in the past.

Also, can you cut down on transactions by only using the ATM for cash and doing everything else online (balance checks, transfers, etc)?
posted by soelo at 9:40 AM on August 8, 2011

I have an ETrade checking account that refunds all of my ATM fees. I like never having to worry about finding my bank's ATM.

OTOH, it's an online-only bank, so if you want a bank with actual branches, where you can go in and interact with a real person, ETrade is not for you.

Also, if you receive many checks (I rarely do.), you'd probably want to steer clear. Depositing checks is a pain because they have to be deposited by mail.
posted by zen_spider at 11:06 AM on August 8, 2011

Where are you located? What are your banking needs? How much money do you typically keep in your account? USAA is great but they aren't a great solution for everyone (for example, if you have to deposit a lot of checks but don't have a smartphone, or have lots of branch needs like withdrawing small bills/coins or getting money orders).
posted by phoenixy at 11:07 AM on August 8, 2011

I too would like to express that you investigate a local credit union.
posted by BuffaloChickenWing at 11:33 AM on August 8, 2011

ING Direct has a checking account they keep trying to get me to sign up for. ATMs are in weird places, like bars and drugstores, but seem to be pretty convenient for places that I've lived. I use ING for savings but not checking -- they frequently offer bonuses (like $50 or so) to sign up for their checking account, and you make a little interest off the money in your account.
posted by jabes at 1:01 PM on August 8, 2011

Nthing USAA for convenience, good customer service, and they do allow non-military people to have savings accounts (insurance etc is restricted).
posted by tangaroo at 2:40 PM on August 8, 2011

What ATMs do you tend to use? If they are from a particular network or bank, see if you can get an account with that bank for free.

ING Direct has been bought by Capital One, so it may go to hell, but their checking and savings are super easy and they give you free ATM usage for I think the AllPoint network, which you can find in WaWa and places like that. It takes a couple of days to transfer funds between them and another bank though, so you'd need to plan ahead and/or keep some money in there.

Do you have a Discover card? If - and only if - you are sure you can handle it, a lot of places will let you get cash back if you pay with Discover, and that money isn't treated as a cash advance. This ONLY makes sense if you pay off your ENTIRE Discover balance in full every month. It also makes it easier to spend money because it seems less real when Discover is giving you "free cash".

Grocery stores and some places like Target will give you cash back if you pay with a debit card. And that's safer in my mind than most ATMs, and fee free. Take a look at where you pass by or spend much time and see where there's a grocery store or whatever where you can duck in and grab cash.

Don't use cash, or get a certain amount out once (for free) and use that for two weeks. I'm not being snarky, either AmEx it and pay it off at the end of the month or keep a small stash of cash at home.

Banks are going to be looking for ever more ways to tack on fees, so I don't think this is an issue of just one bank. Oh, and I have a credit union in additional to a regular bank, but it's not convenient. You should look and see if it might work for you though.
posted by mrs. taters at 5:40 AM on August 9, 2011

You should get Ally. They will reimburse you for all the ATM fees you rack up within the United States. They pay interest on checking and have higher rates on their savings accounts too. Really good customer service. The only people I wouldn't recommend Ally to are people who need to deposit cash because you can't do that.
posted by oreofuchi at 1:37 PM on August 9, 2011

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