THE BLOG
09/29/2014 09:05 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

Pinch Back at Bank Fees

What little things do you do to pinch pennies and avoid unnecessary spending? Perhaps you take the bus instead of a cab. Or perhaps you walk instead of taking the bus! Do you bring your lunch to work instead of buying it? Do you avoid pricey coffee shops and the lattes they offer in favor of the maybe free, or certainly less expensive, cup at the office?

Everyone has a penny pinching pet peeve, and you're invited to add some comments at the end of this column. But whether you're a millionaire who insists on flying coach instead of first class, or whether you cut the end off the toothpaste tube to get the last drop of product, you probably have your own ways of saving money.

One of the most obvious everyday money hacks is your use of the ATM and your checking account. If you pay attention to the costs, you can save a small fortune in fees and charges - money that could go into savings or paying down your debt. So you get a double benefit from your actions, not only saving money but using those savings to improve your finances.

ATM Fees

Would you walk around the block to get to your own bank's ATM -- even if it is raining? If you're willing to take a few extra steps or drive a few blocks out of the way, you could save a small fortune on a regular basis. The combination of fees charged by both your own bank and the ATM owner, really add up.

A new survey by Bankrate.com says that last year banks raked in around $32 billion in overdraft fees and around $8 billion in ATM fees! Avoiding those fees is easy -- if you're paying attention. And lately, those fees are too large to ignore.

The Bankrate survey says the average fee for using an out-of -network ATM is now $4.35 per transaction! That charge has increased every year, growing 5 percent over the past year, and up 23 percent over the past five years.

If you live in Phoenix, you're paying the nation's highest average fee -- $4.96 per out-of-network transaction -- followed closely by Denver, San Diego, Houston, and Milwaukee, which each average more than $4.65. But every institution in the Bankrate survey charges non-customers for usage, with the most common fee being $3.00.

This kind of fee is money down the drain. And you can easily avoid it. If you find yourself making too many out-of-network transactions you might even consider switching your checking account to an institution that has more ATMs in more convenient locations.

And never make a cash withdrawal for just a few dollars if you have to pay a fee. Remember, this is a "flat fee" -- not a percentage of your withdrawal. So, if you simply must get cash, make it a significant amount. It still costs you money out of pocket but it's a far smaller percentage of the withdrawal! That's a small consolation.

Overdraft Fees

The second easily avoidable fee is the overdraft fee -- something that banks count on for their profits! The Bankrate survey reports that the average overdraft fee set a new record high for the 16th consecutive year: It is now $32.74 for each overdraft!

Not being able to subtract your balances is no longer an excuse for overdrafting -- as you can easily go online to check your balance before paying a bill, or ask for a balance at the ATM before making a withdrawal. If you have automatic bill payment, you need to keep enough money in your balance to avoid those fees.

Having an "overdraft" line of credit at the bank is not really the answer. Yes, they'll extend that privilege -- but at a cost. There is likely to be a fee of at least $15 per transaction for dipping into the overdraft, which is then put on a credit card account that charges very high interest rates if you don't pay it off immediately.

Checking Account Fees

The third category of unnecessary fees is the monthly fee for your checking account. Most are easily avoided if you opt for direct deposit of your paycheck or keep a minimum balance required by the terms of the account or if you have other accounts with the bank, such as an IRA CD.

There are two types of checking accounts, with different fee structures. Those that don't pay interest on the balances, have an average monthly service fee of $5.26, according to Bankrate.

But interest-bearing accounts average monthly service fees of $14.76. Since interest paid on balances is so low, you might want to switch to a non-interest checking account. (The average minimum balance required to avoid fees on an interest-bearing account is $6,211 in the Bankrate survey.)

You can easily avoid paying for checking. Many financial institutions still offer free checking - and the competition is getting crowded now that Wal-Mart plans to offer this type of product. So it pays to check around for the best checking deal.

Better to Pay Attention, than to Pay Fees

Paying a lot of small fees adds up to big profits for banks -- and big costs for you. They make your money disappear as quickly as a grande non-fat latte. And you don't even get a moment's pleasure from the money spent!

To search for the lowest-cost bank products, the most ATMs, the best credit cards, just go to www.Bankrate.com and check out the alternatives.

The banks think you'll keep paying them -- without paying attention. We can prove them wrong. That's the Savage Truth.