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How to find a better checking account

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Monday, October 22, 2012 - 12:01 am

Quick. How much are you paying every month just to have a checking account?

And for ATM fees?

If you're not sure, it's time to find out.

Checking account fees have soared over the past year as banks try to boost profits. Depending on your situation, it may be time to jump to another bank.

The average monthly service fee on checking accounts that don't pay interest is now a record $5.48, a 25 percent increase over last year, according to Bankrate, a financial data publisher.

The fee for using an ATM outside a bank's network rose to $2.50, a 4 percent increase.

Overdraft fees, which you'll pay if there's not enough money in your account to cover a check or debit card payment, rose to an average $31.26, up 1.4 percent.

If you're paying hefty fees, you don't necessarily have to switch banks, says Greg McBride, a senior financial analyst at Bankrate. Ask your bank if there is anything you can do to get your fees waived. Some banks will give you free checking if you set up direct deposits into the account or maintain a minimum balance in your accounts.

If that's not possible, it might be time to explore other options.

Decide what you want

You need to look for a bank that suits your specific needs. Sometimes that means sticking with a bank that charges a checking account fee.

“It's not all dollars and cents,” says Kevin Kautzmann, a certified financial planner at EBNY Financial in New York.

If you think you'll need to sign up for multiple products, such as a mortgage or a car loan, you have to decide whether you want a bank that offers all those things or use multiple banks. Bigger banks have more branches. But if you want to get to know the people who work at your bank, a smaller one might be right for you.

Shop around

Several websites enable users to search for checking account offers in their area. NerdWallet.com and Bankrate.com lay out the fees that could be charged and also lists any rules, such as direct deposits or minimum balances that you need to follow in order to qualify for free checking.

Consider credit unions

“All my clients who switched to credit unions have nothing but good things to say about them,” says Kautzmann.

Credit unions, which typically offer free checking accounts and have large ATM networks, cater to a specific group, such as employees of a certain company or residents of a specific neighborhood. “Most people qualify to join a credit union, you just have to find one you qualify for,” says Bill Cheney, CEO of the Credit Union National Association. You can search for a credit union near you at www.CULookup.com.

Explore internet banks

Online banks such as ING Direct and Ally Bank do not charge monthly maintenance fees or require a minimum deposit.

ING Direct and Ally also pay interest on their checking accounts, which is hard to find at brick-and-mortar banks. ING Direct offers a 0.19 percent interest rate on balances under $50,000 in their checking accounts.