Bank fees: They're back!

NEED TO KNOW
  • Wells Fargo expanding fees on previously free checking accounts
  • Some customers in six states will have a $7 monthly fee
Bank fees: They're back!

Dear Wells Fargo customer, I’m writing to inform you of upcoming changes that may affect your account -- that free checking account you have may now cost $7 a month.

That’s because Wells Fargo, the nation’s fourth-largest bank, is adding that fee to customers in six more states.

It’s not totally new, though. If you’re a Wells Fargo customer who still has a free checking account, that’s either because you were grandfathered in or met certain criteria. The bank hasn’t been giving out free checking accounts to new customers since 2010, and has already been transitioning some of their existing free checking customers over to shiny new (and pricier) accounts.

Where and when?

Watch that inbox, or the mailbox if you’re old-school. If you live in one of those lucky six states, news of winning the fee lottery should show up on your June statement. Those states include Georgia, New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania.

As for whether the fees will spread further, *shrug*. Wells Fargo isn’t telling.

The fine print

Check your account type. The $7 fee applies to customers with Essential Checking accounts. But, remember that asterisk; you may be able to skirt the fee and keep free checking. You either need to keep a $1,500 balance in your account or get direct deposits of at least $500 a month. There’s also the $2 Mother Earth fee discount if you opt for online statements instead of paper ones.

Déjà fee

Do these creeping fees sound familiar? Heck yeah they do! We’ve seen this movie play out, but the plot was slightly different.

Last fall, the country’s biggest banks, including Wells Fargo, rolled out plans for fees on debit card use. Bank of America got the most press for its $5 add-on. Customers flipped, Bank Transfer Day was born, and the banks all said, “Hey, we were just kidding!”

But, even after score one for the consumer, some big banks are still playing the game. The Wall Street Journal reports that Bank of America is joining Wells Fargo and J.P. Morgan Chase in considering new plans to either add fees or more free checking criteria.

What now?

If you’re a bank customer affected by new fees, you have a couple of choices. You can sit there and complain about it, or you can take a stand. That’s what 610,000 of you did in the last few months of 2011. According to Javelin Strategy & Research, that’s the number of Americans who switched banks as part of Bank Transfer Day on November 5. That might seem like a big number, but it's actually only 11% of the number of Americans who switched banks in that period for any reason.

Even if you don’t have a social media-led movement to push you to make change, you can still switch banks. HLN Money Expert Clark Howard loves smaller community banks or credit unions as big bank alternatives. You can find one near you here.

Switching banks is no cakewalk, and it’d be easier if there were more incentives to sweeten the deal (cupcake ATM?). But, ultimately, there’s nothing stopping you from moving your money except you. Your freedom? Still free.

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