08/01/2012 11:51 am ET Updated Oct 01, 2012

Take Charge Before Your Bank Charges You

Some of the nation's largest banks are making broad changes to fees and policies to make up for lost revenue due to regulatory pressures. And they're not alone. Small banks and credit unions also seek ways to add to the bottom line and stay afloat.

Even though checking was never really "free," the cost of operating these accounts is being spread across a broader consumer base in a variety of ways. Gone are the days of one-size-fits-all banking. Fees for services and features are being unbundled leaving consumers with an "ala carte" menu of choices and options, including charges for services that used to be a given like seeing a teller. With 90 percent of American adults having check accounts, according to a recent Pew study, it's more important than ever to compare and understand your banking options.

It is important to emphasize that checking accounts still are safe and secure places to carry out financial transactions without worry of theft or loss. Keep in mind though, that many financial institutions view these accounts as stepping-stones to more sophisticated product offerings such as credit cards, loans and mortgages.

So if you're a young adult, college student, or previously "unbanked," understanding your needs and priorities is paramount to picking the account option and bank that work best for you. Making those selections are not always easy, as fee schedules and polices can be hard to find and tricky to understand.

The Pew study recommends some beneficial changes in this regard, such as summarizing fees and policies in a standardized format to make comparisons easier. The study found, for example, 12 different terms for "overdraft fee," or the amount you pay if you don't have enough money in your account to cover a withdrawal or charge. Pew's efforts to get financial institutions to agree on some standard terminology would give consumers a leg up in their decision-making.

Other fees that may be new to some include additional or "extended" fees if an overdraft is not repaid in a timely manner. Other changes to be aware of are monthly service fees and/or higher minimum balance requirements, charges for paper statements and eliminated/scaled-down rewards programs.

If you are considering opening a checking account or thinking about changing banks, be sure to:

Review all fee schedules and policies.

This may not be as straightforward as you might think, so if you can't find them and/or don't understand them ask for more information. If you're still not sure after reviewing and discussing the details, then the account is probably not right for you.

Consider your needs and priorities.

Do you really need a bank with branch locations, or would an online, potentially less costly alternative with mobile banking options and 24/7 access work better for you? Be prepared to pay a little more for convenience if personal interaction is important to you.

Compare, compare, compare.

What is this account likely to cost you on a monthly/yearly basis given your lifestyle and spending habits? Figure out whether you can realistically meet the minimum required to avoid fees such as minimum balances and/or direct deposit of your paycheck. For some, tying up $1,000 or more each month may not be sustainable, so seek alternatives such as no minimum balance accounts or perhaps a prepaid debt card. While you will have to pay something (they are providing a service after all), find an account that is most affordable and convenient for you, and one that won't whittle away your hard-earned cash with fees that are easily avoidable.

Modify your habits.

You may find the best way to avoid fees is to change the way you manage your money. If you frequently withdraw cash at any ATM for example, save money by using your financial institution's ATMs or those within your network. Also, you might try reducing cash transactions with online bill pay options.

Monitor your account.

Once you weigh your priorities and find a banking solution that meets your needs, be sure to watch your monthly statements, online or paper, to see if you are incurring fees to your account. If you do incur fees, call your bank and ask for solutions to avoid the penalties in the future. After all, as with any relationship, communication and discussion between you and your bank is important to ensure your needs are met.