Consumers are forking over record-high bank fees

Better have some extra money around because you'll need it to pay ever-higher bank fees. The cost to access your money through out-of-network ATMs and overdraft fees has hit record levels, according to an annual survey released today.

Consumers now pay an average of $4.52 per transaction to use an ATM network that their bank isn't part of, an increase of 21 percent over the past five years. These levies include both the costs consumers incur from the ATM operator and their own financial institution. Fees for bouncing a check have surged 9 percent since 2010 and now average a record $33.07.

Bankrate found that just 37 percent of noninterest-paying checking accounts are "completely free," the lowest level it has found since it started these surveys in 1998. That trend has been little changed in recent years. Free checking accounts hit a peak of 76 percent in 2009.

Another 58 percent of noninterest checking accounts can become free if consumers meet certain requirements such as having direct deposits. Consumers who can't get a waiver from the fee are socked with an average monthly service charge of $5.86, an increase of 11 percent since last year.

"The most important thing for consumers to know is that all of these fees are completely avoidable," said Greg McBride,'s chief financial analyst, in a press release. "Shop around for a bank or credit union that fits your lifestyle so that you can keep more of your hard-earned cash."

You can get around ATM fees by using apps that list the machines that are in your bank's network. Many retailers also let consumers use a debit card to get cash back when they make a purchase, which is a lower-cost alternative to ATMs.

Worries about banking fees have scared away some consumers from the banking system entirely. A 2013 survey by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. found that 7.7 percent of U.S. household were unbanked and another 20 percent were "underbanked," meaning they had an account but also used alternative financial service such as check-cashing stores.

"The overdraft fee does in particular," contribute to people begin unbanked, McBride said in an interview. "That's unfortunate because although the overdraft fee takes a big bite, I would argue that it's easier than ever to avoid. With 24/7 online and mobile account access, there's really no excuse for having your head in the sand and not knowing what your available account balance is before initiating transactions."

Consumers should also sign up for email and text alerts when their account balances get below a certain level, McBride said. And he advises linking your savings and checking accounts so that one can replenish the other in the event of a shortfall. That's a less costly alternative than overdraft protection.

Bank fees do vary somewhat by location. Here are the five most expensive cities for ATM fees and overdraft fees:

Highest average ATM fees

1. Atlanta $5.15
2. New York $5.03
3. Phoenix $4.88
4. Miami $4.84
5. Milwaukee $4.78

Highest average overdraft fees

1. Milwaukee $34.79
2. Atlanta $34.57
3. Baltimore $34.55
4. Denver $34.50
5. Phoenix $34.35

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.