Study finds checking account costs rise, fewer are available for free

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The cost of consumer checking accounts at U.S. banks and thrifts hit new highs during the first six months this year, according to the latest survey of 100 banks by MoneyRates.com.

A twice-yearly report from the personal finance website said average monthly maintenance fees and overdraft protection fees rose. The survey, released Tuesday, also recorded increases in the minimum deposits required to open an account and to qualify for a waiver of the monthly fees.

The availability of free checking accounts, defined as those with no monthly maintenance fees, continued to decline. The percentage of free accounts dropped to 28 percent, down from 36.6 percent at the end of 2012 and the lowest share of all checking accounts since the survey began in 2009.

The average monthly maintenance fee rose by 15 cents to $12.69 during the first six months of 2014, meaning it costs the average consumer more than $150 a year just to keep a checking account open, MoneyRates said.

The California company surveyed the 50 largest banks that offer retail consumer deposit services, along with a sampling of 25 additional banks with $5 billion to $10 billion in deposits and 25 banks under $5 billion in deposits.

The survey did not address accounts at credit unions, which consumer advocates say are often a good alternative for cost-conscious consumers. Michael Moebs, a banking cost consultant in Illinois, said nearly two-thirds of credit union checking accounts do not charge monthly fees.

Not surprisingly, large banks with extensive branch systems to maintain generally have higher checking fees. Institutions operating over the Internet are more likely to have free checking, said financial analyst Richard Barrington, a MoneyRates spokesman.

The survey showed that 58 percent of Internet checking accounts are free of maintenance fees, compared to just 25 percent of traditional checking accounts.