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Banking for the Almost-Rich: A Look at Premium Checking

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- It may be easy to lash out at a bank each time it adds another surcharge to a checking account product, but in many respects the impact regulatory changes have had on financial institutions has less to do with the fees themselves and more to do with how they can be avoided.

Take, for instance, Wells Fargo's (WFC) recent expansion of its $7 monthly checking account fee. Account holders can easily bypass the charge by maintaining a $1,500 minimum daily balance or making direct deposits of $500 or more each month.

Bank account holders maintain their elite status and get better treatment by keeping combined deposits, investments and installment loans totaling, on average, between $15,000 and $75,000 at one bank.

The idea here is to make sure each customer maintains a certain amount of money with the financial institution, and it speaks to a larger trend within the banking sector.

"Banks are not making money off of lower-tier checking accounts, so they're moving towards relationship banking," says Alex Matjanec, co-founder of MyBankTracker.com. "To get the full experience at a bank, you need to have more than one account with them."

Enter premium checking accounts, which entitle their holders to additional services, fee waivers, better rates and other discounts in exchange for linking more than just a monthly paycheck to the account. Instead, account holders maintain their elite status by keeping combined deposits, investments and installment loans totaling, on average, between $15,000 and $75,000 at one bank.

The products are designed specifically to get consumers who are on the edge of being considered "affluent" by the bank to do more of their business with the financial institution they're already with.

"These accounts are targeting the 10%," says Stephanie Wei, vice president of deposit products at NerdWallet, who recently put together a comprehensive roundup of the requirements and benefits associated with each premium checking product offered by all the big banks.

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