Nearly any way you slice it, checking accounts became a little more expensive in the first half of 2012.
That's the principal finding of the latest MoneyRates.com Bank Fees Survey, a semi-annual study that examines banking costs across the country to reveal trends in checking account and ATM charges. The latest data, which MoneyRates.com collected in July, suggest that the fee environment worsened for bank customers in virtually every way possible in the first half of the year.
However, the results also indicate that consumers still have several options for combating these costs. The following are some notable trends in bank fees -- and what consumers can do about them.
Compared to the end-of-year 2011 Bank Fees Survey, average checking account fees rose in every major category tracked:
Previous surveys have tended to show more of a mixed bag, with some fees rising and others falling. But the latest survey shows a comprehensive trend toward checking accounts becoming more expensive.
While the trend toward higher fees seems decisive, it is by no means universal. The average fees in the survey varied widely between different sizes and types of banks.
The average monthly maintenance fee was $13.88 at large banks (those with more than $25 billion in deposits), while it was only $9.87 at small banks (those with less than $5 billion in deposits). At medium-sized banks, the average monthly maintenance fee fit in between at $11.17. The average minimums to open an account and to qualify for a fee waiver were higher among the large banks surveyed too.
The results also indicate that small banks are much more likely to offer free checking. There was no monthly maintenance fee at 45.8 percent of the accounts at small banks in the survey, whereas only 21 percent of the accounts at large banks were free of those fees.
Fee structures also differed greatly between primarily online banks and traditional branch-based institutions. Two-thirds of online checking accounts were free of monthly maintenance fees, compared to just 34 percent of those offered by traditional banks. The online banks that do charge monthly fees also tended to charge lower amounts than traditional banks, and their average account minimums, overdraft fees and ATM fees were lower too.
Here are four tips to help you avoid the jump in charges:
While this survey suggests a clear pattern toward rising fees, you can still buck this trend by doing your research. Comparing fee disclosures takes some work, but when it leads to saving month after month, the effort is likely to prove worth it.
To track these trends, the Bank Fees Survey uses the MoneyRates Index, which includes the 50 largest banks in the U.S. plus a similar number of smaller banks. This sampling is meant to be representative of the national banking environment.