photo of a blank checkFree checking is getting harder to come by at some of the nation's biggest banks. Recent regulatory changes have forced banks to be more upfront about the fees they charge deposit and credit card customers; as a result, consumers are better able to avoid those fees, which has led to a loss of revenue for banks. And so in an effort to recoup some of those revenues, some have started rolling back what was considered as recently as a few years ago to be practically a birthright: the free checking account.

As this article points out, the biggest changes are coming from the biggest banks. Bank of America, for instance, recently rolled out an account that costs users just under $9 each month if they want the privilege of banking with a real, human teller or getting hard copies of their statements. As a Bank of America spokeswoman pointed out, customers who previously had "free" checking would wind up paying for it via fees, sometimes which they incurred without asking.


While we aren't thrilled about cuts to free checking programs, we do think this is a better alternative for consumers, since they can now shop around with a greater degree of transparency on their side. It's easier to compare apples to apples when you know up-front how much things cost, as opposed to being dinged with a fee buried somewhere in the fine print in the future. And while the media tends to focus on what the biggest banks are doing when it comes to their checking account fees, there is a way to avoid those escalating charges.

Look near where you live, work, shop or worship for smaller, local or community-owned banks. The industry group Independent Community Bankers of America has almost 5,000 bank members and 20,000 locations around the country, so there's likely to be one near a place you already frequent.

"There will be many community banks who continue to offer free checking to their customers as they do today," says Viveca Ware, senior vice president of regulatory policy at ICBA. As for community banks charging for customers who want to get in-person service from a teller as opposed to an ATM, Ware says that's unlikely to ever happen.

"Personal customer interaction is the lynchpin for the community banker because the ongoing relationship is very important for the community banks. That's one way they differentiate themselves from their competitors, is by the personal service they offer," she says. So if you don't want to be nickel-and-dimed for a checking account or for old-fashioned customer service, see if a smaller bank fits your lifestyle.

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