09/24/2012 12:53 pm ET

Free Checking Accounts Inch Toward Extinction As Cost Of Banking Rises

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, 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.

7 Ways To Avoid Bank Fees