ATM fees are no tiny surcharge: they're now nearly 5% of every $100 you withdraw.
For the 11th year in a row, ATM fees have hit a record high in Bankrate.com's annual study of checking accounts throughout the U.S. The average total cost of an out-of-network ATM withdrawal is now $4.69, up 2.6% from $4.57 last year.
Granted, an ATM isn't charging you a fee that high, but you bank is punishing you for using another bank's ATM. The surcharge the ATM owner shows you on the screen now averages $2.97, up from $2.90 last year and rising for a whopping 13 years in a row. The average fee a bank charges customers for going outside their ATM network is now $1.72, up 3% from last year.
"When it comes to ATM and overdraft fees, a little advance planning can go a long way," said Bankrate.com chief financial analyst Greg McBride. "Knowing where you can make free ATM withdrawals and monitoring your available balance to avoid overdrafts are as close as your smartphone."
However, there are elements of ATM fees that are beyond your control. If you live in Pittsburgh, for example, your average combined ATM fee is a whopping $5.19. That's higher than New York ($5.14), Atlanta ($5.05) and either Cleveland or Washington, D.C. ($5.11). Meanwhile, if you're in Cincinnati ($4.30), Seattle ($4.29), San Francisco ($4.23), Milwaukee ($4.19) or Dallas ($4.07), you're getting a far better deal than much of the rest of the country.
By comparison, just 2.5% of all accounts assess a fee on debit card transactions at the point-of-sale. Those fees range from $0.35 to $2, and only for transactions that require a personal identification number (PIN). PIN-debit transactions.
If geography isn't a pressing factor, there's no need to remain mired with those fees. If you're happy with your bank, give them a call and see if they'll waive their out-of-network fees. If you aren't, or moved away from a place where your bank has branches, shop around. Online banks often lack an out-of-network fee and will cover $15 in surcharges each months. Community banks have larger networks of ATMs to choose from and do what they can to tamp down on out-of-network fees. However, one of your best options may be a credit union.
Not only do 84% of credit unions offer free checking accounts, but 98% are either free or free with direct deposit. Most importantly, just 64% of credit unions charge an ATM fee for going outside the network. Of those charging, $1.50 is the most common fee (versus $2.50 at banks).
"Don't discount credit unions in your search for a good checking account," McBride says. "Credit unions have made great strides in offering broader ATM access and more free accounts to their members."
The broader problem comes from unbanked individuals, according to finance site NerdWallet. Nearly one-third of households that don't have a bank account say the main reason is that they don't have enough money. The average post-tax income of such households is just $17,359. Meanwhile, the ATM fees from the accounts they're able to get are atrocious.
"Poverty in the United States is a vicious cycle with many contributing factors," says Devan Goldstein, a banking expert at NerdWallet. "Basic money management may seem easy to those who grew up outside the cycle, but lack of low-cost, low-friction access to the right products and services can make it much more difficult to stay on the right track financially."
According to NerdWallet, the average annual cost of not having a bank account is $196.50 for people who use a prepaid debit card that features direct deposit. That figure jumps to $488.89 if the card doesn't offer direct deposit. Prepaid cards typically have either monthly fees or per-transaction costs, along with ATM withdrawal fees. With more than 9.5 million unbanked households in the United States, the aggregate annual cost to these families is between $1.9 billion and $4.7 billion.
The median monthly fee for those prepaid accounts is $4.98, while the median out-of-network ATM fee is $2.50. However, NerdWallet notes that there are better options available. If you have had a check bounce or closed an account before paying a bank fee, some financial institutions offer second-chance checking accounts that eliminate the need to use check-cashing services and money orders, the latter of which cost unbanked consumers about $17 per year. They can be used to re-establish a clean banking history and, eventually, a savings account to help you build and better manage your emergency fund. You'll need to provide proof of identification, and may be asked to make an initial deposit of anywhere from $10 to $100, but it's a fine way to stop being charged just for being down on your luck.
"The fact is fees are continuing to go up, but they are avoidable," says McBride. "Customers are not hostage to fees."
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