The banking and credit card reform laws were supposed to help us – and they did in many aspects – but one of the unintended consequences is that banks are making up for the lost revenue sources by creating new ones… fees, fees, and more fees!
I just closed my brokerage account from BoA/Merrill Lynch because they started charging a $50 “maintenance fee” twice per year – when I opened it years ago, I remember it was advertised as something that would always be free… not anymore! I also closed one of my credit cards from American Express that started charging an annual fee. However worse yet is being charged for a checking account, since that is something so essential to our lives and historically (at least in recent history) we’ve all become accustomed to not paying for it.
Fortunately though, we don’t have to be stuck paying these fees. When it comes to checking accounts, there are a few different ways to weasel out of them which I will discuss below:
#1 – The direct deposit trick
The exact rules vary by bank but with many, if you have direct deposit setup, your checking account fee will be waived. But what happens if your employer doesn’t offer direct deposit or you are self-employed?
Well I found a trick that has been working great for me so far. I have a brokerage account (different from the one I closed) and it allows me to setup automatic withdrawals or deposits. I have arranged for it to direct deposit $1 every month into my BofA checking, thus meeting the direct deposit requirement to get free checking. I’m going on year 3 or 4 of using this technique and so far it’s worked beautifully! However please note that some banks require a minimum amount for direct deposits to qualify.
#2 – The waiver for multiple linked accounts
With some banks, if you have multiple account types – i.e. checking, savings, and/or brokerage – you will automatically be exempt from checking account fees.
For example with Charles Schwab bank, in order to get free checking you have to have it linked to a Schwab brokerage account. Don’t have a need or desire for a broker account? No worries, because the rules don’t actually require that you use it or have money in it. So basically, you could just open up a broker account and never use it.
#3 – The minimum account balance waiver
The most common and well-known technique to get free checking is to maintain a minimum account balance. If you can afford to do it (usually $1,500 to $5,000 depending on the bank) then the fee for your checking account is waived. However if money is tight right now and this isn’t an option, then I would recommend one of the other four strategies.
#4 – Use the bank’s debit or credit card
Some banks offer to waive the checking account fees if a certain number transactions are made each month using an affiliated debit or credit card.
For example, you would normally be paying eight bucks a month for the basic account from Citi. However if you use the account’s debit card for at least five transactions per billing cycle, then the fee will be waived. Of course the drawback to this is that you may be missing out on travel rewards or cash back rewards you get with your credit card, but Citi doesn’t have a dollar requirement on the debit card purchases, so if you prefer just use it for five small purchases (and your preferred card for everything else).
#5 – Switch to a credit union or smaller bank
Last but not least, if you don’t want to play these games with your big bank, then you should think about switching over to either a community credit union or a regional bank. Because they’re the underdogs in the banking world, they are usually much more likely to offer free checking accounts (and without any hoops to jump through). I know switching banks can be headache because you might have your online payments all setup with your existing account, but just remember, making the switch may save you around $100 to $150 per year in fees!