4 ways to 'Occupy' your finances

December 13, 2011

By Lynnette Khalfani-Cox | Money Rates Columnist

As Occupy Wall Street enters its third month, you may still be reluctant to grab your tent and join the masses camped downtown. But maybe--just maybe--you've noticed that some of the protester's grievances are similar to ones you've had in the past.

The Occupy crowd has complied a laundry list of complaints against the financial services industry, taking stands against rising bank fees, high credit card interest rates, predatory lending and more. If you share their complaints--or just want to squeeze a better deal out of your bank--here are four ways you can revolutionize your finances.

1. Avoid fees by switching banks

If bank fees are burning a hole in your wallet, switching to a community bank or credit union can be a potent way to fight back. On November 5 alone, 40,000 consumers joined credit unions as part of Bank Transfer Day, according to the Credit Union National Association.

Perhaps you've stayed put with your bank, though, because you're too busy or you felt like transferring accounts would be too much of a hassle. Although transferring your accounts takes some effort, there are ways to streamline the process.

"The process of switching banks is not complicated," says John Rosenfeld, executive vice president at TD Bank. "We even package it for new potential customers through a service called 'concierge.'"

"One of our employees will sit down with a new customer and go through the process of opening a new checking account," Rosenfeld says. "Once opened, the employee will also switch all account activity for the customer from their old bank to us. In all, the process takes about 20 minutes."

2. Ditch your high-interest credit cards with a balance transfer

Although Balance Transfer Day, which took place on December 11, came under fire for alleged ties to a credit card website, swapping your high-interest cards for one with a 0 percent balance transfer offer can still pay great dividends.

And doing so may be even more tempting in the new year since credit card issuers are expected to continue rolling out a slew of credit card offers with new rewards, according to Curtis Arnold, founder of CardRatings.com.

"If you've got a high credit score and a solid income, expect major banks to line up at your mailbox like bargain-hungry shoppers on Black Friday," Arnold said in a recent review of the best credit cards of 2011.

3. Avoid predatory lending through careful mortgage shopping

Since the subprime mortgage crisis first gripped the nation in 2007, many people, including Occupy protesters, have decried abuses in the mortgage industry, such as the predatory mortgage lending that took place during the housing boom. The Federal Reserve found in one study that African-American women were three times more likely to get subprime loans than their white counterparts who had similar credit and financial standing.

But regardless of your race or sex, if you're in the market to buy a home or refinance a mortgage, you'll do well to compare mortgage rates online, a process that can help identify which lenders are really able to give you the best deal.

4. Get your own free money

Another major criticism Occupy protesters have leveled against Wall Street banks is that they got a $700 billion federal bailout with taxpayer money, but have since been reluctant to lend that money to consumers or to pay it back through better interest rates on deposits.

Well, there's a way you too can get "free" money: from the matching contributions offered by many workplace retirement plans. Joining your company's 401(k), 403(b) or 457 plan is a great way to earn more for your retirement without having to save more.

Although most large companies offer such plans, only about 55 percent of employees take advantage of them, according to the Employee Benefits Research Institute.

Whatever your feelings about the protesters in the streets, there is nothing wrong with asking your bank to do more to make you happy. This isn't a revolutionary idea, but it can still lead to a radical change in your financial outlook.

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