Bank of America to Offer 'Free' Online Checking Accounts

Last Updated Jul 15, 2010 11:53 AM EDT

Bank of America said this week it would roll out a new checking account that is free -- as long as account holders don't go inside the bank. If they use a teller or ask for a paper statement, they'll be charged $8.95 a month.

This is not so bad. Banks have been expected to raise fees like crazy in an attempt to regain income they are losing as new rules will prevent them from cashing in big time on debit card overdrafts and credit card nuisance fees. But an online/ATM-only free checking account is actually a useful consumer service. I actually can't remember the last time I went inside my bank. And Bank of America says these customers will be allowed to talk to bank tellers and officials about other banking business; they just won't be able to use the teller for most deposits and withdrawals.

The essence of what's happening in banking now is this: Instead of ill-informed (and less well-heeled) consumers subsidizing the moneyed and the wise, folks will have to start paying for the services they use. So instead of hapless 20-somethings paying stupid amounts of overdraft fees on their debit cards when they buy lattes, people who need paper statements might have to pay for them. Instead of confused or unsophisticated credit card users getting tricked into paying high fees for late payments or going over the card's credit limit, those savvy credit card users who have been paying their balances in full every month and cashing in big rewards might have to start paying annual fees or getting fewer rewards. It may seem annoying, but it also seems more fair.

Of course, that doesn't mean you personally have to start paying more for your checking account. You'll just have to learn to adjust to the new approach. Banks will still want to keep their biggest, best customers happy, so most will continue to offer truly free checking (paper statements, tellers, and all) to those who maintain minimum balances. Here are some other ways to stay one step ahead of your bank:
  • Think about moving your money. The bank that worked for you in the last era may not be the best choice going forward. You may even find yourself happier with a credit union, online-only bank, or brokerage firm bank. Comparison shop at sites like Findacreditunion.com and CheckingOptions.com to find the best deal for you.
  • Count the ATMs. As more transactions get shunted to ATMs, you'll want to make sure you can get to one wherever you are. Look for a bank that offers a broad network of teller machines, or that will at least rebate you out-of-network fees when you use other bank's ATMs.
  • Learn to love the net-based bank. It is the wave of the future. Some banks, like USAA (for military families), already offer customers the option of scanning checks and depositing them online. Once you've got it set up, internet banking and bill paying is streamlined, easy, and accessible wherever you and your computer, phone, or iPad are. And really, who enjoys going to the bank and standing on line, anyway?
Photo by Neubie on Flickr.
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