It’s easy to take a checking account for granted. It provides a fast, seamless and convenient way to spend and manage your money. But that doesn’t mean all checking accounts are created equal, especially when it comes to the costs associated with them. “How much does it cost to open a checking account,” you ask?
That really depends on the fees you’re charged for your checking account activity. No matter the amount, losing money to fees isn’t the only toll a pricey checking account can take. There can also be a psychological burden.
“The less you have to worry about checking account fees, the better it is for your financial and mental health,” says Emily Guy Birken, author of the book “End Financial Stress Now”.
A cognitive bias known as loss aversion plays a role here. In short, “we feel the pain of loss more keenly,” Guy Birken says, “than we would feel the joy of gaining the same amount of money.”
That makes checking account fees a “double whammy: You’re out the cash, but you’re also kicking yourself for losing it,” Guy Birken explains. Such a combination can be a real confidence kicker for someone who’s working hard to keep their balance in the black.
If you’re wondering, “How do I avoid checking account fees?” there’s actually some good news. A little knowledge can go a long way toward paying fewer fees, keeping more cash in your account and maintaining financial sanity.
Ask yourself the following questions to avoid checking account fees:
How much does it cost to open a checking account?
If you’re wondering how much it costs to open a checking account, know that it can vary, sometimes greatly, based on where you open your checking account. Many financial institutions will let you open an account at no cost. It’s only later that fees could start piling up.
“If you carry a small balance in your checking account, fees can have a huge impact and can eat away at your balance significantly,” says Brian Hanks, a certified financial planner who works with dentists in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Guy Birken agrees. “Millennials and those making under $30,000 tend to be hit the hardest,” she says.
Monthly maintenance fees cost checking account holders an average of $13.24 per month or $158.88 per year.
Do checking accounts have fees I won’t see coming?
Potentially—depending on where you bank. That’s why if you want to avoid checking account fees it’s important to do your research and understand what fees are associated with an account before opening one.
That said, when do checking accounts have fees, exactly? Here are three common fee-inducing moves checking account holders can make, as well as how to avoid them:
Scenario 1: A monthly maintenance fee caught you by surprise
Monthly maintenance fees are not uncommon and should be considered if you’re trying to avoid checking account fees. They cost checking account holders an average of $13.24 per month or $158.88 per year, according to a 2018 bank fees survey by MoneyRates.com.
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Pro tip: Some banks will waive the monthly maintenance fee if you keep your account balance above a predetermined minimum. The average minimum balance to waive a checking account maintenance fee has jumped in recent years, from about $4,013 in February 2013 to $11,845 in March 2018, according to the same MoneyRates.com survey.
While you can do research to find an account with a minimum balance you’re comfortable with, you can also consider opening an account like Discover Cashback Debit, which has no monthly fees for maintenance or monthly balance requirements.
Scenario 2: You spent from your account but were short on cash
If you’re asking “do checking accounts have fees?” consider what will happen if you overdraw your account, or spend funds that are not available. Many banks will charge an overdraft fee if you write a check (and sometimes swipe your debit card) for an amount that exceeds your checking account balance. According to a 2017 Bankrate checking account survey, the average cost of an overdraft fee is $33.38.
Pro tip: Your bank may allow you to opt in for overdraft protection, which means your bank will automatically transfer money from a linked account to cover the checking transaction that would put your balance in the negative. While some banks do still charge a fee if you use overdraft protection, Hanks says it does come with benefits, like helping you avoid an uncomfortable moment if a check bounces or a transaction is declined.
You can also avoid checking account fees from overdrafting or using overdraft protection by carefully monitoring your balance using online and mobile banking.
“The less you have to worry about checking account fees, the better it is for your financial and mental health.”
Scenario 3: You used an out-of-network ATM
Out-of-network ATM fees are on the rise, averaging $4.57 as of March 2018, according to the MoneyRates.com survey. Use the ATM a few times a month—or a few times a week—and those costs can quickly add up over the course of a year.
Pro tip: Getting familiar with your bank’s list of in-network ATMs, and using them exclusively, is an easy way to avoid checking account fees. “Most banks offer an ATM locator either on their website or through their mobile app,” Guy Birken says, noting that there are also financial apps available to help you locate no-fee or in-network ATMs to help you avoid ATM fees.
“Don’t forget the option of buying something small at a grocery store and getting cash back,” she adds. “It will feel better to spend a dollar and get some breath mints and your cash than spend $3 to $7 in fees with nothing to show for it.”
Why should you avoid checking account fees?
For most people, getting hit with fees a few times a year won’t be what derails their overall financial plan. Even so, jumping through hoops to avoid checking account fees from eating away at your money may not be the best use of your time and energy.
“If you can’t feel as though your money is safe in your checking account without constantly keeping an eye on it,” Guy Birken says, “it can cause you additional (and unnecessary) stress.”
While it might not be possible to avoid all fees, there’s value in doing your research to understand the fees that are connected to your account and how much you will be charged. It’s also possible, and worthwhile, to find a bank that clearly spells out the fees associated with its checking account so there are no surprises.
Using an account with fewer fees could make you feel like you have a leg up on your financial strategy. This may bring you the confidence boost you need to take your financial goals to the next level.