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Outlandish Fees You Can Bank On
by Marc Eisenson

Thanks to an ever-growing laundry list, banks now rake in over $15 billion in nuisance fees, every year. With commercial bank profits of $48.8 billion in 1995, and savings institutions reaping a 19.9% earnings increase, banks could afford to absorb most of these petty charges ... or at least to bill customers fairly for any increased costs they might incur. Instead, we pay as much as 900% over what it costs our friendly, neighborhood bankers to perform these menial bookkeeping chores.

A 1995 survey by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) reveals that over the past two years, most bank fees have increased at a rate that's at least double the rate of inflation, while the average monthly balance requirement to avoid fees rose 30%.

PIRG also reports that bounced checks are big business, accounting for 12% of bank profits. Some banks intentionally clear large checks first -- to drain accounts and bounce yet more checks.

You can bank on it

Although banks typically charge $15 to $25 for rubber checks, the Center for Study of Responsive Law (Nader's Raiders) estimates an actual cost to the banks of only $2.68 ... that means they're earning a return of 460% to 830%.

Edward Mrkvicka, Jr., author of The Bank Book, and a former bank president, has even grimmer news: If you have several overdrafts on the same day, you may get stung for each one. But while your bank's cost to process them won't increase, their profits sure will ... by up to 3,600%. Now that's a profit margin!

Even if you never bounce checks, you could still get hit for $5-$10 a pop, as the innocent depositor of someone else's bad money habits. Or let's say that a few times a week, you use an ATM machine that isn't part of your bank's network. You could be kissing $300 in transaction fees goodbye, every year.

And that's trifling compared to the hundreds ... or even thousands ... you might be shelling out to banks for loan and credit card interest. Take heart, though. There are lots of ways to beat the bank.

Here are two dozen of our best banker's secrets:

1. Shop around! Don't assume all banks are alike ... they aren't. Banking surveys show that larger banks typically mean larger fees -- and we've certainly found that to be true in our neck of the woods. We also find that savings banks tend to have lower fees (along with better interest rates) than their commercial competitors.

So be sure to check out a variety of banks and credit unions before you sign on for credit cards, CDs, checking accounts, car loans, mortgages, or any other services. Then check again, periodically ... to make sure you're still getting the best deal.

2. Born free ... and still free. Try to find a local bank that still offers truly free checking -- with no minimum balance required and no fees whatsoever. If you can't find that, consider an interest-bearing "NOW" account. But beware. The fee charged when you drop below the minimum balance could wipe out the piddling interest you might have earned ... and then some.

3. Would you switch to save 40%? Non-profit credit unions charge fewer fees than banks. When they do charge a fee -- it's usually lower. Up to 40% lower, according to a recent study by the Consumer Federation of America and the Credit Union National Association.

What's the downside? Location and eligibility. There's not always a credit union nearby that you can join. To find out if there's one that'd work for you, call 800-358-5710 for the correct number to call in your state.

4. Love those loopholes. Ask whether you can get checking fees waived if your paychecks are direct deposited. Seniors often qualify for no-fee checking, free traveler's checks, and complimentary safe deposit boxes.

5. Hi Joan. How's your grandson? Develop a relationship with your bank manager. Pesky fees can be waived for good customers who ask ... or complain. Don't be bashful. It's your money.

6. Some still have real people. Assuming your bank doesn't charge for the "privilege," deal with a teller when you need cash. Because it's time consuming and less "convenient," maybe ... just maybe ... you'll use less of it. When you must get cash from a machine, use your bank's ATMs whenever possible -- to avoid building up a slew of $1-$2 "foreign" ATM charges. And think carefully about your ATM usage even with free machines. It's too easy to overspend when money is so readily available.

7. Whoops! If you have overdraft "protection," be sure to pay off what you owe. Banks will not automatically deduct that loan from your checkbook, just because your balance is high enough to repay it. Why should they, when they can keep extracting up to 18%? When some banks dip into your overdraft account, they transfer amounts in multiples of $100 (even if you owe only pennies!). You could be paying interest on $99.95 you didn't even need to borrow! And unless you specifically tell them to pay off the overdraft, you could be paying that interest forever.

8. Like a rubber ball .... Don't bounce checks! You'll pay dearly -- from $15 to $25 for each one the bank can't clear because of "insufficient funds."

9. Just say "no!" when your bank charges you for a "deposit item returned." Why should you pay a fee (in the neighborhood of $5-$10) because someone else's check was no good? It may not help this time, but if we all complain regularly, maybe they'll stop punishing the victims of other people's bad money management.

10. "Help! I need somebody." Be careful when you ask the bank for help. You may get charged a "research fee" of $15 to $25 an hour for assistance in balancing your checkbook or locating copies of a wad of checks you've misplaced. Even if you need a copy of just one check or checking statement, don't expect the bank to make a copy, gratis. You'll probably be asked to pay a "photocopy" charge.

11. Watch out for "The Penalty Phase." Make an early withdrawal on some bank CDs, and you could lose not only the interest that's accrued, but some of the principal. (Really!) If you might need the money before the maturity date, be sure to pick a bank that won't pick your pocket.

12. Don't use safe deposit boxes like storage sheds. Annual fees at one bank we surveyed ran from $20 to $115, depending on the size of the box. So consider which papers and valuables really need to be in there. (Not the only copy of your Will, since the box may be sealed on notice of your death!)

Be sure to take good care of the key, or you'll be charged a "drilling fee" to the tune of $75-$150, just to get the box open. And don't expect the bank to reimburse you, if Bonnie and Clyde withdraw your stamp or baseball card collection. If you store valuables in your box, you might want to take out a low-cost insurance policy on the contents.

13. Fee ...or free? It's your choice. Call up and ask your credit card issuer to waive the annual fee. And while you're at it, ask to have your interest rate lowered. Lots of lenders will switch you to a lower rate card, especially when you remind them of all the other cards out there offering low rates and no annual fees ... many of which are sending out pre-approved applications. If that doesn't work, ask for a supervisor -- and go through the litany again.

14. I know I left it somewhere! Don't lose track of your accounts -- or you might find your money dwindling away. Perhaps you've forgotten about that small savings account you opened a while back. The bank can declare it "dormant" (if there's been no activity for, say, a year) -- then deduct a $5 fee, monthly!

15. But elephants ... and states ... never forget. If you've forgotten about money on deposit with a bank or utility company, it eventually gets sent to your state ... which will let you know it's holding your money, and return it ... but only if you ask. See our Issue #3 for the details.

16. It's only paper! Don't buy checks from your bank -- they're way too expensive. You can get them for about half the cost from one of several companies. (See "Cheap Checks" in our Issue #12.) Everyone here has been using cheap checks for years ... both business and personal ... with nary a problem.

17. When lost is better not found. Think twice about "stopping payments" on lost checks. With fees averaging around $15, it rarely pays on small items. And it's probably unnecessary on checks to legitimate businesses who'll return a duplicate check, once the first one surfaces from the post office's netherworld.

18. Don't pay an "admission" fee! Are you paying 20% to give the bank your money? Some banks charge a dime to take and/or sell you a roll of 50 pennies. Next time you organize the spare change on your dresser, ask your bank to waive the fee, find a bank that doesn't have a rolled coin fee, or see if a friendly local business person wants some change.

19. Need a money order? Your neighborhood post office sells them for 85 cents -- versus $3 at most banks. But some lenders will issue free bank checks, if you maintain an account with a minimum balance.

20. And to compound the confusion. Beware ... even when a bank seems to be offering you the highest rate of return around. Depending on how the interest is calculated, it may not be as high as it sounds. Is interest compounded daily? Quarterly? To compare rates, make sure you get the APYs -- annual percentage yields.

21. Ask and ye may receive ... or avoid. When you apply for a mortgage, ask which closing costs can be waived or reduced. As we detailed in our Issue #11, costs for items ranging from legal fees to surveys can be shaved.

22. Pardon me, but ... Also ask the mortgage officer how you can get the escrow account requirement dropped. (These accounts generally pay a pitiful rate of interest.)

23. Don't be late! A late payment fee on a loan could cost you $15 or more. If that doesn't seem like very much, consider that the lender could be earning some 600% -- over the paltry amount it costs the bank to bill you for the fee. What's worse, a record of that late payment could make it to your credit report, where it may get in your way of getting credit -- at least low cost credit -- for the next seven years.

24. First and still the best! Don't forget the original "banker's secret" -- you'll save a fortune on bank interest by adding your pocket change to your mortgage payments. Ditto for car loans and credit cards. (I explain it all in my book on pre-paying, The Banker's Secret.)

The Pocket Change Investor
The Secrets to Getting Ahead -- Even If You Have a Pile of Credit Card Bills, Hefty Mortgage Payments,
Loans Out on a Clunker or Two, & a Bad Case of the "I'm Tired of Living Payday to Payday" Blues.

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Reprinted from The Pocket Change Investor © 1996, Marc Eisenson & Nancy Castleman

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