Bank of America’s New Checking Accounts Offer More Options, and (You Knew It!) More Fees

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In a new pilot program, the biggest bank in the U.S. says it wants to provide customers with more checking account options—and more transparency regarding the fees that come along with each option. “We are trying to provide you choices on how you compensate us,” explained on BofA executive. What’s transparent about that statement is that these changes are all about the bank’s compensation, not the customer’s experience.

As reported by the AP, the new checking account structure involves four tiers of accounts, and the pilot program has been charging monthly fees of $6, $9, $12, $15, and $25 depending on the type of account and level of service selected by the customer. The bank is selling the new structure as a means for customers to have more control, but based on the variety of accounts and fees and fine print that’s been presented, the net result may be more confusion.

Here’s the Washington Post’s attempt at explaining some of the possibilities being rolled out by BofA:

Customers who maintain daily balances of at least $2,000 or who use another product, such as a Bank of America credit card or mortgage, would avoid monthly fees ranging from $15 to $25. And those with the highest account balances become eligible for greater rewards and services. Customers can also choose to pay for services not included in their accounts, such as mobile payments.

I’m sure there are ways that most customers will be able to avoid monthly fees. I’m also pretty sure most customers will occasionally (or regularly) be tripped up by all the fine print associated with avoiding fees. And so they’ll be hit with fees here and there. Which is the point of BofA’s changes. Will customers really be choosing to pay these fees? Or will they be paying because of overlooking some minor detail, like they used their debit card only four times a month, when the rules may have stipulated that swiping the card five times monthly was necessary to avoid a fee?

That’s not one of BofA’s requirements, by the way. Not as far as I know. But other banks have instituted rules along those lines, all of which are intended to increase customer deposits, increase fee revenues, or decrease customer service. Or all of the above. Chase, for example, now requires customers to have a daily balance of $1,500 or to make at least one direct deposit of $500 per month to avoid a monthly fee.

In the big picture, what we have here is a huge annoying game of fee Whack-A-Mole, in which regulators come in to protect customers from sneaky credit card fees or absurd debit card overdraft charges—and then the banks immediately counter with other fees to take the place of those regulated out of profitability.

Fees, in some form or another, will be around, and only a consumer’s diligence and discipline, along with a careful eye and an assumption that the poor and unsuspecting are likely to get ripped off, will save you from paying more than you need to for almost any financial product out there.

Many consumers are demonstrating their disdain for big bank fees: Just look where they put their dollars. In an odd twist, a recent survey showed that big bank customer ratings are improving, and the reason why is that the most disgruntled customers have been closing their accounts. The customers left behind—who are either oblivious or OK with the big banks’ customer service and fees—give higher ratings than the customers who are totally sick of the bank, and so the bank’s overall ratings go up.

Overall, however, small banks and credit unions cream the big banks in customer satisfaction surveys. And with the new changes from Chase, BofA, and others, it’s reasonable to expect that credit union and small bank customers will only feel more satisfied—and that credit unions and small banks will attract more customers period.

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