How to get rid of those annoying bank fees

Recently, on the way to take my son for a haircut, I suddenly realized I was out of cash—and the adorable 80-year-old barber who cuts our kids’ hair doesn’t accept credit cards. We were already running late, so I stopped at the ATM in the nearby pharmacy rather than head across town to our bank’s ATM.

That momentary convenience cost me nearly $7. The out-of-network ATM charged me $3.50 and my bank took another three bucks.

I’m hardly alone in paying for the privilege of accessing my own money. According to a 2023 Bankrate survey of checking fees, 27% of Americans with a checking account pay fees on a monthly basis.

But just because banking fees can eat up your money doesn’t mean you have to accept it. Here’s how you can lower your banking costs.

ATM Fees

While the nearly $7 I spent on the convenience of a nearby ATM is higher than usual, Bankrate has found that, as of 2023, the average cost of using an out-of-network ATM is an eye-watering $4.73. This cost is actually two fees: a $3.15 surcharge levied by the ATM owner and another $1.58 charged by your bank.

ATM fees are unlikely to go away, even with the declining demand for ATMs as our economy becomes increasingly cashless. This just means that it’s more expensive for banks to operate and maintain them. And since ATM use is optional and higher fees in this domain are less likely to alienate customers, banks have no problem passing the ATM maintenance costs onto the consumer.

How to Cut This Cost

Start by asking your bank to waive an occasional out-of-network fee. While there is nothing you can do about the ATM owner’s surcharge on a withdrawal, your bank may be willing to waive its portion of the fee . . . if you ask politely.

Obviously, this won’t work if you make a habit of out-of-network ATM withdrawals. But I was able to call my bank’s customer service line and request that the $3 charge be dropped. As a loyal customer of nearly a decade, the bank was willing to meet my request.

For future cash emergencies, there are only a couple of options available for avoiding this fee. Using the ATM locator within your banking app can help you pinpoint the closest fee-free ATM. But, if you need cash quickly and don’t have time to drive to your bank’s closest ATM, consider making a small debit card purchase and requesting cash back. In general, stores do not charge for cash back, which means this option is practically free. Even if you don’t want a candy bar or soda, at least it’s better than incurring an ATM fee. And hopefully, your options of what to buy will be better healthier or more useful.

Monthly Maintenance Fees

Maintenance fees are one of the most irritating banking charges facing modern consumers. Usually described as “monthly service charges,” these are essentially the price of keeping an account open—and they add up to more than $1 billion in annual revenue for the U.S. banking industry.

Noninterest-bearing checking accounts are less likely to charge these fees than interest-bearing accounts, but they’re not immune to the fee structure. Bankrate found that the average monthly fee for a noninterest account was $5.31 per month in 2023, while the average fee for an interest-bearing account was $15.33.

How to Cut This Cost

Most checking accounts with monthly maintenance fees offer consumers a number of ways to have the monthly fee waived. These generally include maintaining a minimum daily balance, having a minimum monthly direct deposit, or making a minimum number of monthly charges using your debit card.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much else consumers can do to avoid monthly maintenance fees. When the bank where I have my business checking account increased the minimum-daily-balance requirement several years ago, my choices were to either accept the new terms or find a new bank.

As with ATM fees, an occasional monthly maintenance fee can be waived during a month when your daily balance slipped. Simply call and ask for the waiver, and you’re likely to get it. And just like with ATM fees, don’t make a habit of it. Another option, for salaried employees, is to have your company set up direct deposit of your weekly or bimonthly paycheck.

Or check around for a bank that doesn’t charge monthly maintenance fees. Online banks are an option since these institutions are more likely to offer basic checking accounts with no monthly fees.

Overdraft Fees

When the mental tally of your bank balance isn’t in sync with your actual balance, it is beyond easy to overdraw your account. Thankfully, it’s illegal for your bank to charge you overdraft fees without your consent—unlike in the bad old days prior to the 2010 law banning that practice.

But just because you agreed to overdraft fees (usually gussied up in language that makes it sound like convenient overdraft protection) doesn’t mean you can’t be blindsided. To start, the average overdraft fee in 2023 was $26.61. This is the lowest it has been in 19 years—but that’s little comfort to anyone who has the $26-plus insult added to the injury of overdrawing their bank account. Just one overdraft a month could cost you nearly $320 per year.

Also, overdraft fees are not the only way your bank can charge you if your account balance dips below $0. Opting out of overdraft protection only means your debit card will be declined if you try to make a purchase when there isn’t enough money in your account to cover it. But recurring payments or online payments may still leave you vulnerable to non-sufficient fund (NSF) fees, which are very similar to overdraft fees. Consumers cannot opt out of NSF fees, as they’re usually part of your account agreement, and you’ll typically be charged an NSF fee for each transaction until your account returns to the black. This is different from overdraft fees, which most banks limit to three per day.

How to Cut This Cost

Most of the advice on dealing with overdraft fees often boils down to “Have you tried just not being poor?” But there are things you can do to negotiate or avoid overdraft fees, including asking for them to be waived.

Just like other bank fees, your overdraft fees can be easily waived by a customer service rep. If you have an occasional overdraft, this may be your best bet.

It’s also a good idea to revisit the overdraft service agreement provided by your financial institution. You have the right to opt out of overdraft protection, but opting out only applies to certain types of transactions: specifically, debit card transactions. Recurring payments, checks, and ACH payments can still overdraw your account, which will result in NSF fees even if you’ve opted out of overdraft fees.

A common solution is to link a savings account to your checking account as overdraft protection. This service may also be described as “overdraft protection” by your bank, but be sure you are aware of the difference. When you link your savings account, if your checking account dips below $0, the bank will automatically transfer money from your savings account to cover the overdraft. Traditional overdraft protection, on the other hand, is a short-term loan from the bank. Under traditional overdraft protection, the financial institution is fronting the necessary money and you must pay a fee and interest.

Linking your savings account uses your money, rather than the bank’s money, so there’s no interest charged. Additionally, while there is usually a fee for this kind of automatic transfer from savings to avert an overdraft, these fees are usually $10 or $12, rather than close to $30 or more. The best way to avoid an overdraft or NSF fee is to keep an eye on your balance. Setting up text alerts or push notifications for when your balance drops below a certain dollar amount can help you avoid the problem of overdrafts altogether. If you know when your balance is below $200 (or whatever amount you choose), you’ll be more careful of your spending.

There’s No Need for Fees

Banks seem to have all the power in this relationship. We can’t exactly opt out of the banking system, while the banks get to set the fee schedules and penalties. But it is possible to avoid, negotiate, and reduce your fees, even within the unfair rules of our current banking system.