Bank accounts: Get a fair shake, not a shake-down

@Money August 31, 2011: 5:37 AM ET
Bank account

(MONEY Magazine) -- Got a partner who's constantly changing the rules, takes an eternity to reach on the phone, and lately just isn't paying you much interest?

If the relationship with your bank has you singing the blues, you're not alone.

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Only 37% of Americans are satisfied with their financial institution, concluded an April study by consulting firm ath Power. Among customers of the three biggest banks in the nation, just 27% are happy.

It's no wonder. Banks have been really tightening the screws on checking and savings accounts lately -- raising fees, inventing new ones, and eliminating rewards. Legislation in the wake of the financial crisis cut into banks' profits by curbing overdraft fees and certain credit card charges; the recently passed Durbin Amendment will take another bite, roughly slicing in half the money banks earn from retailers when consumers pay with debit cards. The total estimated hit to revenue by 2013: $38 billion.

"Banks' business models have been irrevocably altered," says Robert Hammer of bank advisory firm R.K. Hammer, "so they're looking at all kinds of ways to make that money up."

Best Banks 2011

In other words, they're looking at you. To see how all this is affecting what you'll pay and earn, MONEY dug into account options at the 20 largest banks, as well as at major regional and online banks, and the least restrictive national credit unions.

The report that follows will help you determine whether your bank is taking advantage of you, and if so, how to find a better relationship. You can also check out a short list of banks that treat their customers right. There are a lot of suitors out there. One is meant for you.

Where's the love?

How has the relationship between banks and their customers changed? The key findings on basic accounts from MONEY's survey:

Standard fees have risen sharply. In 2007, banks assessed their own customers $1.25 on average when they strayed to another bank's ATM, Bankrate reported.

MONEY's 2011 survey found that the same surcharge at the 20 largest banks was at least $2, with some institutions -- Sovereign and Citizens -- charging $3 on certain accounts.

TD Bank, which previously had no surcharge, joined the two-buck pack in March, a change in part owed to "the current regulatory and competitive banking environment," says spokeswoman Rebecca Acevedo.

The survey also found maintenance fees for basic accounts at the top 20 banks ranged from $5 to $15, and averaged $6.49. These fees have been going up as banks "restructure" their checking products, says Alex Matjanec of MyBankTracker.com.

New fees are spreading. Charges for receiving paper statements, often $3 to $5 a month, are not uncommon now.

PNC and BBVA Compass have instituted fees for making certain transactions with a phone rep. SunTrust is hitting up customers for using debit cards; Regions plans to do the same.

More banks will probably follow with debit charges -- per month, per year, or per transaction -- as a result of the Durbin Amendment, says Nessa Feddis of the American Bankers Association.

Free checking is a tougher get. Only five of the 20 large banks MONEY surveyed offered a no-catch free account. This was backed by data from Moebs Services, which found that 39% of big banks offered free checking in 2011, down from 64% in 2010.

"The largest banks were last to jump on the free-checking bandwagon and the first to jump off," adds Greg McBride of Bankrate.com.

While you may have easily skirted maintenance fees before, you'll probably find yourself jumping through more hoops to do so today. Banks have raised the amounts needed for these waivers, so that the minimum balance required at the biggest banks almost always exceeds $1,000, and is often $1,500. When direct deposit is a prereq, the amount can be as much as $500 a month.

Some banks now require a certain number of transactions per month to dodge a fee; Citibank recently changed its basic checking, so you must have at least five.

America's most loyal bank customers

Bank of America is piloting a program in three states -- with plans to roll it out nationwide in 2012 that doesn't offer any way to waive the charge on basic checking.

Spokesman Don Vecchiarello attributes the shift to the economy and legislation: "Some of the services we provide result in costs to us; now we have to pass those on to consumers."

Perks are passé. Over the past decade, banks began offering rewards for using debit. But with swipe fees now basically halved, those extras are going away. Chase, Fifth Third Bank, SunTrust, Wells Fargo and USAA axed their basic debit rewards programs this year.

Interest rates vary widely. The average rate on savings accounts nationwide is 0.17%. Citi, Chase, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America are all paying no more than 0.1% on basic savings -- but with less overhead, online banks can offer better terms.

Discover, Ally, and American Express all advertise rates of 1% or more. The difference between the worst yield (0.01%) and the best (1.15%) amounts to $105 this year on a $10,000 balance.

Relationships matter. Almost every bank surveyed had some kind of package deal offering better terms to customers who have several accounts there, including credit cards, mortgages, and auto loans.

Customers with multiple accounts are more profitable over the long term, says Sherief Meleis, head of retail banking at consulting firm Novantas. Simply having both checking and savings can buy you maintenance-fee waivers, extra debit rewards, or ATM fee reimbursements. This can also hurt you, however: Fifth Third is hitting certain checking customers who have just one account with a monthly fee.

Assess your partner

So how do you know when your banking relationship has gone sour?

If you're paying a maintenance fee -- or painstakingly watching your account to avoid one -- that's a red flag. Racking up ATM fees is another one; you can find a bank with more accessible machines or one that reimburses "foreign" ATM usage.

If maintenance fees are the main complaint, threaten to dump your bank before actually doing so. Ask to speak to a branch manager, and explain why you want to leave. Banks want to keep -- and grow -- their share of the most profitable customers, the mass affluent. So the rep will look for scenarios that could cost you less, says BillShrink co-founder Schwark Satyavolu. "This puts the burden back on them."

Bankers MONEY spoke with confirmed that they sometimes have the authority to waive fees. Short of that, ask whether there are other accounts that would be a better deal for you. Your employer may have an arrangement with the bank, for example. Also, many banks offer no-cost packages for students or seniors. (And while you may not think being 55 qualifies you as a senior, many banks do.)

See, too, if keeping a certain amount in savings would help you avoid fees. Just make sure the interest you'd forfeit elsewhere won't exceed the checking fees you're paying.

Get back on the market

Before you stuff your dough under the mattress, remember that there are 15,000 banks and credit unions in the U.S. Use these tips to find a better partner:

Figure out your banking personality. As a rule, if you travel a lot, you're best served by a national bank that has a vast number of ATMs or by an online bank, most of which reimburse ATM fees. The latter will typically offer better terms, but it's a good match only for those who don't use a branch as part of their monthly routine, says Richard Barrington of MoneyRates.com.

Hoard a lot of cash? Even if you're not comfortable ditching branches for your checking, you may want to take advantage of the rates at online institutions for savings -- at least for balances exceeding what you need to maintain free checking.

Worried about your finances? Ask the Help Desk a question.

If you normally bank close to home and personal service is important to you, a credit union or community bank could be a fit. Surveys have found higher customer satisfaction at these smaller institutions, as well as more consumer-friendly account terms.

For example, 79% of credit unions and 71% of community banks offered free checking in 2011, vs. that 39% of large banks, reports Moebs.

Narrow your choices. Contact those institutions where you have loans or credit cards to see whether you're eligible for deals there. Find community bank options via MyBankTracker.com, Bankrate.com, or FindABetterBank.com; credit unions at findacreditunion.com. Be sure any banks you consider are FDIC-insured (NCUSIF for credit unions) and earn at least three stars on Bankrate's Safe & Sound scale, a sign of financial stability.

Assess fees to decide. Once you have a short list, you'll need each account's fee schedule, which details charges for all transactions and is useful for comparison. Despite banks being required to disclose it, an April study by the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group found that only 38% of branches provided this on first request. So be persistent; if you're told it's online, ask for a direct link.

How to handle a breakup

Some 58% of consumers believe switching banks is too much of a hassle, reports a forthcoming study from consulting firm cg42. But that doesn't have to be true.

Get organized. Transferring direct deposits and bill payments can make the move tricky. Banks that are courting deposits sometimes offer "switch kits" to help you catalogue the transactions you need to move.

Otherwise, review your account statement to make a list of bill pays and deposits; for the latter, don't forget investment income, pension, and Social Security (ssa.gov/deposit).

Shift over. Normally, you wouldn't begin a new relationship before ending another, but with banks, that's the game you have to play. First open and fund the new account, leaving just enough cash in the old one to cover pending payments and fees for the next two weeks. Stop using that account. Then, change your direct deposits and automatic payments.

Say goodbye for good. Once everything is cleared, close the account. You may be able to do this over the phone, but put it in writing too. Simply state that you want out; no need to say why you're moving on.  To top of page

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