a piggy bank stuffed with cash - lower your bank costsEveryone knows that if you want to save money, banks are a great place to sock it away. But if you're not saving enough these days, you might want to look at how you're using your bank and what your banking habits are costing you.

After all, you can save money simply by reducing your banking costs.

We've written a lot at WalletPop in the past about banks overcharging customers and what you can do about it, but with the new year coming, all of us could probably use a refresher course on how to save on banking costs. So here it is: five steps for saving money at your bank without spending a dime.Examine Your Bank Statement. Sure, it's very basic advice, but we have to start somewhere, and according to Mark Schwanhausser, a senior analyst at Javelin Strategy & Research, a study that the firm did in November this year found that 19% of American consumers weren't monitoring or managing their money in 2010, more than double the 8% who had given up on managing their money in 2009.

Schwanhausser is sympathetic: "This reflects a natural anxiety over difficult economic times and a sense of lost control. But the answer isn't to ignore the problem."

So review your bank statement every month, and check your bank account's balance more often than that. In fact, I'd argue that you should be visiting your account online every day to make sure there's nothing amiss. Even if you aren't spending much, there's always that remote chance that someone has your debit card number and is living it up somewhere, draining your account.

Beyond the unlikely but possible identity theft scenario I just mentioned, if you're not scrutinizing your finances, you may not notice that you're paying a monthly maintenance fee for your checking account, or that you've been paying an average of, say, $10 a month in ATM fees. The first way you're going to start reducing your bank costs is to figure out where you need to plug the leaks.

And if you really study that bank statement, you may notice far more leaks than just your banking costs. Maybe you're spending far more on fast food than you would have guessed, or maybe those three shopping sprees spread out seemed fine at the time but in retrospect are the reason you had almost no cash left the last few days of the month.

If you'd like to do more than just look at your paper or digital bank statement every month, Schwanhausser suggests using a personal finance management site like Mint.com (which is free) because these type of sites can help identity what he calls "your unconscious spending."

Free Checking Still Exists. Not only does it exist, it's abundant. While a lot of banks are getting rid of it (according to an August 2010 study by Moebs Services, an economic research firm, 11% fewer banks offer free checking than they did a year earlier), plenty are keeping it. If you can't find a bank in your area that offers free checking, you're probably not looking hard enough.

When you find a bank with free checking, make sure you understand their rules regarding this "free" account. "Watch the fine print," warns Jacqueline Sgro, executive vice-president and chief lifedesign officer at Fidelity Bank in Central Massachusetts. "Some banks offer free checking; however, they may require a daily or monthly average balance, or they may require a certain number of debit card transactions to avoid a fee." If you do your homework, you should be able to find a bank that still offers free checking with no minimum balance requirement, debit card transactions, and no per-item fees or minimums.

Go Online. Taking your banking activities online is another option if you're looking to cut back on banking costs. And chances are, you don't have to leave your bank entirely -- you just have to agree to bank in person at a bank branch less often. For instance, Schwanhausser points out, "Banks are increasingly offering free checking on the condition that consumers primarily bank online or at ATMs, pay bills online, turn off paper statements and turn on direct deposits."

And if you're lucky, not only will you save money, you might make some in the process. Alex Matjanec, a spokesperson for bank comparison site MyBankTracker.com, says, "For the past year, banks have offered consumers a small bonus -- $5 to $20 -- to switch to eStatements." Not all banks, of course, but if yours is one of them, then, according to Matjanec, "If the consumer chooses not to switch, they not only miss out on the bonus, but they're also now forced to pay a monthly fee to receive paper statements."

Which takes us back to reviewing your bank statement or simply monitoring your online bank account: Are you paying fees for paper statements? Is that something you really want to pay for?

Ask About Lowering Fees. If the fees are set in stone and you can't get rid of them completely, you might still be able to get the bank to lower them, suggests Bentley University finance professor Marcia Cornett. "Generally, one bank will be willing to match another bank's lower fees to keep a good customer," says Cornett. "Don't hesitate to ask your bank to lower your fees or match a competitor's fees. The worst that can happen is that your bank says it can't change your fee structure."

Ditch Your Bank and Join a Credit Union. As I've mentioned previously on WalletPop, credit unions are known for having lower, more consumer-friendly fees than banks. Community banks are often safe bets for less punitive fees as well. They're also known for offering better terms on loans, and while this is a stereotype, you can generally get loans easier at a smaller bank or credit union in part because there's less red tape to cut through.

Finally, if your bank account is pretty fat, realize that you're probably the most at risk for losing money to your bank. After all, odds are that most of the people who watch every penny recognize when their bank is killing them on fees and are way ahead of me and doing most, if not every one of the things that have been suggested here. It's the people who aren't paying attention because they have more than enough money who are probably losing money to their bank for no good reason.

Geoff Williams is a regular contributor to WalletPop. He is also the co-author of the book Living Well with Bad Credit.

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