6 Ways You Can Still Get Free Checking

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Banks want to earn about $100 a year from your checking account by charging you fees for a service that used to be free. Here's how you can avoid paying.

What do free checking accounts and the polar ice cap have in common? Both are endangered.

Free checking accounts are increasingly difficult to find and to keep. Banks figure on earning $85 to $115 in fees annually from each account, writes The New Yorker in a recent article about the banking difficulties of low- and moderate-income people. Banks are imposing lots of new fees and charges to replace revenue they lost when Congress set limits on overdraft fees and debit card swipe fees, the fee stores pay for each debit card transaction.

Hard as it is to see a cherished freebie bite the dust, it’s worth understanding that checking accounts often cost banks more than they earn. “The more accounts a bank has, the more they lose,” says USA Today.

Here are six ways to have a free checking account:

1. Maintain a minimum balance

Many banks require you to keep an average daily minimum amount in the account in order to qualify for free checking.

NerdWallet’s review of checking account fees and conditions to waive them at five big banks – Wells Fargo, Bank of America, U.S. Bank, Citibank and Chase — says:

Thresholds for free checking vary, but average about $5,800. So if you happen to have $3,000 stashed in one bank, and $3,000 in another — and are paying for your checking in each — consider closing one account and merging the money into the other. Shazaam! You’re over the $5,800 limit, and entitled to free checking.

2. Sign up for an automatic payroll deposit

Banks also may offer free checking for accounts into which you have a regular payroll check automatically deposited. Each bank has its rules for the types of deposits and minimum amount to qualify.

3. Divorce your bank 

If your bank’s rules aren’t working for you, turn on your heel and leave. First, though, find another bank. If this takes some searching, stick with it. Keep trying until you find the terms you need. Ally Bank, for instance, still offers no-minimum free checking. Read customer reviews for pros and cons.

This video offers help on how to switch banks.

4. Try a credit union

One solid alternative is a credit union. They don’t have shareholders demanding increasingly large profits. Rather, they’re owned by members. Their mission includes keeping costs low, which should mean lower costs for customers.

“Even if few banks offer no-strings-attached free checking anymore, the majority of credit unions do,” says DailyFinance.

Here’s the lowdown on credit unions. Locate a credit union near you.

5. Try a small bank

Free checking can still be found at most small banks, says USA Today. These are called “community banks,” a category that includes financial institutions with assets of $10 billion or under, says the Independent Community Bankers of America. Most community banks are much smaller than that, the trade group says. These banks usually are locally owned. Locate one near you.

6. Bank online

Search for online alternatives. Two examples:

  • NerdWallet likes PNC’s Virtual Wallet. Once unconditionally free, new rules require a $500 average daily balance or a $500 monthly direct deposit.
  • The popular ING Direct is no more. But Capital One 360 succeeded it in a merger and offers free, interest-paying online checking.

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