Think twice before using that ATM: Bank fees are at a record high!

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It's a bad time to be a bank. With jobs failing, homeowners struggling, and inflation putting even basic necessities out of the reach of many consumers, some banks are scrambling just to stay afloat. The government is helping, but even with Treasury Secretary Paulson's massive influx of money, America's financial institutions are having to find ways to ensure a steady income when the economy is rising and falling like a rowboat in the North Atlantic.

One major revenue stream that they've been tapping is fees. According to USA Today, most bank fees hit all-time highs in 2008; for example, consumers using an out-of-network ATM can now expect to pay an average surcharge of $3.43, 13% more than a year ago. By comparison, bounced check fees hit $28.95, 2.5% more than last year, and minimum balance requirements for free or online checking have also gone up considerably.

Luckily, there are a few things that you can do to reduce the subsidy that you, personally, pay to the bank:


Watching Your Plastic

    A Zimbabwean purchases tomatoes in Harare on September 21, 2008 with the Zimbabwe dollar equivalent to 2 US dollars. With prices rapidly rising, even more than once in one day, shopping is a mathematical proficiency test for Zimbabweans. To ensure their survival in an unpredictable, environment shops and service providers quote three different prices for the same item for shoppers buying in cash in the local currency, cash in foreign currency and those using credit cards. AFP PHOTO / Desmond Kwande (Photo credit should read DESMOND KWANDE/AFP/Getty Images)

    AFP/Getty Images

    A Zimbabwean purchases bread in Harare on September 21, 2008 with the Zimbabwe dollar equivalent to 2 US dollars. With prices rapidly rising, even more than once in one day, shopping is a mathematical proficiency test for Zimbabweans. To ensure their survival in an unpredictable, environment shops and service providers quote three different prices for the same item for shoppers buying in cash in the local currency, cash in foreign currency and those using credit cards. AFP PHOTO / Desmond Kwande (Photo credit should read DESMOND KWANDE/AFP/Getty Images)

    AFP/Getty Images

    This handout photo courtesy of the Boston Police Department shows suspect Clark Rockefeller. FBI agents on August 2, 2008 arrested a man accused of abducting his seven-year-old daughter, who was visiting from London, sparking a national manhunt and fevered speculation over the flamboyant fugitive's identity.The Federal Bureau of Investigation in Boston, where Clark Rockefeller allegedly abducted his daughter Reigh Storrow Boss from his ex-wife a week ago, said the fugitive was arrested in Baltimore, Maryland, and the girl freed. Rockefeller is now likely to face charges including kidnapping, assault, and possibly identity theft. However, police are no closer to resolving who the man they have in custody really is. He has reportedly used a number of aliases, including J.P. Clark Rockefeller, Clark Mill Rockefeller, as well as plain Michael Brown. Police at first thought he was about to flee to Bermuda or Peru on a yacht docked in Long Island, near New York. Some reports had him already in the Caribbean. AFP PHOTO/BOSTON POLICE DEPARTMENT/HANDOUT=RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE =GETTY OUT= (Photo credit should read HO/AFP/Getty Images)

    AFP/Getty Images

    LA CANADA, CA - AUGUST 05: Customers shop at a TJ Maxx store on August 5, 2008 in La Canada, California. The Justice Department has charged 11 people with stealing more than 40 million credit and debit card numbers of customers shopping at TJX Companies, which owns the Marshall's and TJ Maxx chains, and other major retailers by hacking into their computers. The information was then allegedly sold to people who used it to steal tens of thousands of dollars at a time from accounts through automated teller machines in the US and Europe. It is one of the biggest identity-theft cases on record. Charges against the suspects, who are from the US, China, Ukraine, Belarus, and Estonia, include computer fraud, wire fraud, access-device fraud, aggravated identity theft and conspiracy. The suspects also accused of hacking into the computers of Barnes & Noble, Forever 21, Sports Authority, OfficeMax, Boston Market, DSW Inc., and BJ's Wholesale Club to steal information. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

    Getty Images

    LA CANADA, CA - AUGUST 05: Customers shop at a TJ Maxx store on August 5, 2008 in La Canada, California. The Justice Department has charged 11 people with stealing more than 40 million credit and debit card numbers of customers shopping at TJX Companies, which owns the Marshall's and TJ Maxx chains, and other major retailers by hacking into their computers. The information was then allegedly sold to people who used it to steal tens of thousands of dollars at a time from accounts through automated teller machines in the US and Europe. It is one of the biggest identity-theft cases on record. Charges against the suspects, who are from the US, China, Ukraine, Belarus, and Estonia, include computer fraud, wire fraud, access-device fraud, aggravated identity theft and conspiracy. The suspects also accused of hacking into the computers of Barnes & Noble, Forever 21, Sports Authority, OfficeMax, Boston Market, DSW Inc., and BJ's Wholesale Club to steal information. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

    Getty Images

    LA CANADA, CA - AUGUST 05: Customers shop at a TJ Maxx store on August 5, 2008 in La Canada, California. The Justice Department has charged 11 people with stealing more than 40 million credit and debit card numbers of customers shopping at TJX Companies, which owns the Marshall's and TJ Maxx chains, and other major retailers by hacking into their computers. The information was then allegedly sold to people who used it to steal tens of thousands of dollars at a time from accounts through automated teller machines in the US and Europe. It is one of the biggest identity-theft cases on record. Charges against the suspects, who are from the US, China, Ukraine, Belarus, and Estonia, include computer fraud, wire fraud, access-device fraud, aggravated identity theft and conspiracy. The suspects also accused of hacking into the computers of Barnes & Noble, Forever 21, Sports Authority, OfficeMax, Boston Market, DSW Inc., and BJ's Wholesale Club to steal information. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

    Getty Images

    LA CANADA, CA - AUGUST 05: Customers shop at a TJ Maxx store on August 5, 2008 in La Canada, California. The Justice Department has charged 11 people with stealing more than 40 million credit and debit card numbers of customers shopping at TJX Companies, which owns the Marshall's and TJ Maxx chains, and other major retailers by hacking into their computers. The information was then allegedly sold to people who used it to steal tens of thousands of dollars at a time from accounts through automated teller machines in the US and Europe. It is one of the biggest identity-theft cases on record. Charges against the suspects, who are from the US, China, Ukraine, Belarus, and Estonia, include computer fraud, wire fraud, access-device fraud, aggravated identity theft and conspiracy. The suspects also accused of hacking into the computers of Barnes & Noble, Forever 21, Sports Authority, OfficeMax, Boston Market, DSW Inc., and BJ's Wholesale Club to steal information. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

    Getty Images

    This July 21, 2008 photo shows the golden arches of McDonald's at a truck stop in St. Cloud, MN. Nearly half of Americans are saving less, and nearly a quarter have reined in their spending on food and healthcare as soaring petrol prices bite into household budgets. "Forty-five percent of respondents have been putting less money into savings accounts; 24 percent have cut back on essentials like food or healthcare; and 17 percent have charged more expenses on credit cards -- all troubling trends," according to the Auto Pulse survey, conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

    AFP/Getty Images

    This July 21, 2008 photo shows fuel prices displayed at a truck stop in St. Cloud, MN. Nearly half of Americans are saving less, and nearly a quarter have reined in their spending on food and healthcare as soaring petrol prices bite into household budgets. "Forty-five percent of respondents have been putting less money into savings accounts; 24 percent have cut back on essentials like food or healthcare; and 17 percent have charged more expenses on credit cards -- all troubling trends," according to the Auto Pulse survey, conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

    AFP/Getty Images

    This July 21, 2008 photo shows fuel prices displayed at a Tesoro gas station in Bismarck, ND. Nearly half of Americans are saving less, and nearly a quarter have reined in their spending on food and healthcare as soaring petrol prices bite into household budgets. "Forty-five percent of respondents have been putting less money into savings accounts; 24 percent have cut back on essentials like food or healthcare; and 17 percent have charged more expenses on credit cards -- all troubling trends," according to the Auto Pulse survey, conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

    AFP/Getty Images

Only Use In-Network ATMs
While this sounds obvious, a surprisingly large number of consumers consistently use out-of-network ATMs. If you often find yourself at a foreign ATM, one solution would be to find a new bank that better suits your needs. When my wife and I were searching for a bank about a year ago, we looked at the street corners and convenience stores where we usually get cash and decided that we needed to get an account at Chase, as it has ATMs everywhere we are. On the other hand, when we lived in Southwest Virginia, Wachovia was a much better deal.

When Given a Choice, Choose "Credit"
When I'm checking out in my local grocery store, the cashier always gives me a choice of "credit" or "debit." This means, essentially, that I can choose to run my card as a credit card or as a debit card. I am always amazed when the person in front of me chooses debit, given that he or she can expect to pay at least one fee (and possibly two) for doing so. The usual excuse is that choosing "credit" means that the customer will be asked to supply a piece of identification, which is kind of a pain in the neck. On the other hand, if someone on the street offered me $5 to look at my Driver's License picture, I don't think I'd hesitate to whip it out.

You know, assuming the guy wasn't a total weirdo.

Get a Patron
When I opened an account at Chase, the service was decent, but not great. However, when my wife opened a new account after a wallet-stealing incident, the service massively improved. This time around, her boss set up an appointment with the Chase branch near her work, where her company did its banking. Rather than the bare-bones service that I received, my wife was treated like royalty and, in the following months, the people at the bank have bent over backwards help us out. While this could be merely coincidental, I don't think it's hurt that the folks at Chase now know that my wife is connected to a million-dollar account.

If you have a rich friend, a well-established boss, or just an acquaintance who is friendly with a certain bank, you might try to wrangle an introduction to his or her banker. Personal relationships never hurt, and they could save you a lot of money.

Don't Overdraw Your Account
Imagine this: you walk into a Starbucks, buy a venti pumpkin chai, and pay with your credit/debit card. Although you wisely choose credit, which means that you won't have to pay withdrawal fees, you aren't aware that your last paycheck hasn't cleared yet. Since it will only overdraw you by a few pennies, your bank lets the transaction go through, and you leave, pumpkin chai in hand. A few hours later, you stop by an ATM to grab some cash, only to realize that you are currently overdrawn and now owe $29 in fees. A victim of sneaky banking and a sugared caffeine addiction, you gnash your teeth and curse the cruel gods of finance.

It's surprising how many people don't know their account balances. If possible, sign up for online banking, as it makes checking account balances as easy as logging in to a website. In addition to letting you know if that big rent check has gone through, easy access to your balance will keep you from getting stuck with massive fees. It's one thing if you end up getting overdrawn paying your rent, but nobody needs to pay $35 for a pumpkin chai!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He's probably paid enough fees to put at least one banker's kid through college.

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