ON THE MONEY: Free checking update

  • Posted: Sunday, December 9, 2012 12:28 a.m.
    UPDATED: Sunday, December 9, 2012 9:18 a.m.

Remember those halcyon days of yore when virtually every bank was offering totally free checking? Well, for at least three major banks in Aiken, those days are over. Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Regions Bank have recently placed strings on their “free checking” accounts. In the case of Wells Fargo and Regions Bank, you must maintain an average balance of at least $1,500 per month or, and this is a big or, have at least $500 of direct deposits to your account each month. So, if you have your paychecks or Social Security checks direct deposited, you would pay no monthly fee for checking; otherwise, you must pay a monthly fee of $7 or $9 at Wells, depending on how want your statements sent to you each month. At Regions Bank, the charge would be $10 per month if you fail the other requirement.

Bank of America has a similar arrangement: if you have at least $250 direct deposited to your account each month or maintain an average balance of at least $1,500 per month, you will pay no monthly fee. Otherwise, the charge will be $12 per month.

However, in the case of Wells Fargo, you must also pay a $2.50 transaction fee, plus any fees the other ATM vendor charges, each time you use your ATM card at a non-Wells ATM machine.

Bank of America attempted to levy a $5 monthly debit card fee this year but dropped it after customers revolted. Wells Fargo, SunTrust and Regions Bank have recently announced that they will be charging debit card fees for certain accounts. In the case of Wells Fargo, these charges are not scheduled to apply in South Carolina next year.

Recent federal regulation capped overdraft fees and certain levies on credit cards. The Federal Reserve this summer limited what banks could charge merchants when consumers swipe a debit card. Merchants previously paid on average 44 cents per debit transaction, which was built into their cost of goods. Under the new rules, interchange or swipe fees for banks with more than $10 billion in assets are capped around 25 cents. All of these changes have cut into bank profitability.

But for the moment, smaller banks have not followed in the footsteps of their larger competitors.

The two best deals that I was able to find in Aiken were Southern Bank and Trust and Vista Bank. Both offer totally free checking, with no minimum required balance (you must open a new account with at least $50, however). Both provide debit cards with no extra fees, and Vista Bank will actually reimburse you for any ATM charges that you incur when you use your debit card at a non-Vista Bank ATM machine.

Security Federal and SRP Federal Credit Union both require $100 to open an account and neither charges you for the use of a debit card. SRP does require you to maintain at least a $200 balance for one business day; otherwise a monthly fee of $5 is levied.

First Citizens Bank simply requires $100 to open an account, and after that, there are no monthly checking account fees and no charges for debit card use.

I apologize if I have overlooked any bank, but the point of this column is that all of us will eventually be paying more for banking services in the future, unless we elect to confine out banking activities to the internet. Like it or not, those days are fast approaching.

Got a financial planning question for Greg? You may email him at greg@lifesolutionsonline.net.

Greg Roberts is a certified financial planner with 35 years of financial and estate planning experience.

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