If free checking accounts were animals, they'd be on the World Wildlife Fund's list of endangered species.
According to a new survey from Bankrate.com, only 39 percent of banks today offer non-interest checking accounts free of charge on a stand-alone basis, down from 45 percent of banks last year and 76 percent in 2009. Bankrate recently surveyed 247 banks in 25 cities across the United States.
As banks continue to search for new ways to boost profits as regulation, low interest rates and a sluggish economy have put the brakes on making easy money, consumers are getting slammed with higher ATM and overdraft fees.
The survey showed that ATM fees have inched up over the last year; the average cost a bank charges a non-customer is $2.50, though in many metropolitan areas it's even higher. Denver has the highest average ATM surcharges in the country, with banks dinging non-bank customers $2.80 on average, according to the survey. Overdraft fees also continue to creep up, rising 1.4 percent from last year for an average cost of $31.26.
The banking industry has said that it costs several hundred dollars per year to operate a checking account, making free services unprofitable. But consumer advocates worry that the higher cost of maintaining a checking account will push more poorer people out of banks altogether.
Some consumers can still find a way around paying for a checking account, but that has a different cost in the form of a minimum balance requirement, which has jumped to $723, a 20-percent increase over last year, according to the Bankrate survey. Many banks also waive a maintenance fee if customers use direct deposit.
The last bastion for truly free checking may be with credit unions, community and online banks, according to Greg McBride, senior financial analyst for Bankrate. More than 70 percent of large credit unions still offer free checking according to another survey published earlier this year by Bankrate.
Keeping close tabs on your account, getting instant balance updates and transferring money between savings and checking accounts could all help save you on surprise bank fees.
Schedule regular stops to an in-network ATM to get cash so you're not caught in an emergency. An out-of-network ATM can add an additional $4.07 in fees per visit, according to a survey from Bankrate.com.
Banks push overdraft protection as an extra service because they can make a hefty sum in fees, charging an average more than $30 per item. Instead opt out of the service even if you cannot spend beyond the balance of your account.
No in-network ATM in the neighborhood? One way to get fee-free cash is to make a purchase and get cash back. This could save you a couple bucks as long as you were planning to make that purchase in the first place.
To meet the minimum balance requirement, link savings and checking accounts. Often banks will waive a monthly maintenance fee on a checking account with a minimum balance from these two kinds of accounts.
Many banks waive a monthly maintenance fee on a checking account if the account has regular direct deposits made to it.
Free checking that doesn't have strings attached -- such as a minimum balance requirement -- is still available at many credit unions and smaller or online banks. To find a free account, search and compare credit unions' and banks' costs, rates and fees at consumer resource sites, including NerdWallet.com, FindABetterBank.com or DepositAccounts.com.