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Opinion

Take your money and run

Bank of America's $5 per month debit card fee is just the tip of the iceberg. Big banks are starting to charge fees for what used to be basic services. In protest, switch to a community bank or credit union. It's more convenient than camping out with the Occupy Wall Street protesters.

By Jim Sollisch / October 21, 2011



Cleveland

Hello, you’ve reached Mammoth Bank, where you always get what you pay for. We have a special today. Transfer money between accounts for just $5. Make 2 transfers and there’s no fee for the third. Press 1 to take advantage of this special offer. Otherwise please listen to our menu of services.

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Press 2 to check your balance. A $1 fee applies. Press 3 to request a copy of your last statement for $19.95.

Press 4 if you want to sign up for our bill-paying service. The one-time fee is just $14.95, and you start saving on stamps immediately.

Press 5 for our mailing address. There is no fee for this service.

At any time, if you’d like to talk to a live customer service representative, press 6. Then press 1 to confirm that you accept the $5 per minute fee. Or you can press 7 to get help from our free automated system. We are experiencing extremely high call volume for free help at this time. Please be advised that your wait time is approximately 16 hours and 4 minutes. There are 789 callers ahead of you.

This may well be the future of big banking in America. As almost every man, woman, and child in America knows by now, Bank of America is going to start charging a $5 monthly fee in any month a customer uses his or her debit card. And they’re not the only ones. Chase and Wells Fargo are testing $3 monthly debit card fees in certain markets as well.

But wait, there’s more. Some banks already charge a fee if you forget to change your address. Each returned monthly statement will cost you between $5 and $25, according to a CNN Money report. Of course, it’s easy to avoid this fee at some banks because they’ve simply stopped mailing paper statements ...unless you’re willing to pay a fee. And some banks are starting to charge a termination fee to close your account.

The way things are going, that termination fee may be the best money you ever spend. Pay the fee and run from those big banks like you’d run from a guy in a ski mask. Run right down the street to a regional or community bank. You’ll find they can handle just about all your needs, provided you’re one of the 99 percent majority, to borrow a phrase from the Occupy Wall Street folks. Chances are you need a bank for a checking and savings account, occasionally a loan, a credit card, and maybe for online bill paying. Most regional banks and credit unions offer all these services. So just about any bank can do 99 percent of what 99 percent of us need.

Of course, it’s inconvenient to change banks. A recent article in the New York Times points out that online bill paying is a service that seems to handcuff people to a bank. It’s difficult to change banks, but certainly manageable with a little determination and righteous anger. Another reason people stay with the big banks is for the convenience of free ATMs when they travel. The question is, “How much do you travel?” Maybe a few ATM fees over the course of a year will turn out to be a better deal than $5 fees per month and the knowledge that you’re feeding the fat cats.

And even if you spend half a Saturday switching your online bill paying accounts, it’s a less inconvenient way to show your outrage than sleeping in a sleeping bag in a park outside Wall Street. (Not that you shouldn’t do that, too). And it may be more effective.

If you want to get a big bank’s attention, you have to use the only currency they understand: money. If enough of us take our money away, they’ll notice. In fact, that’s where these fees came from in the first place: Starting October 1, a new regulation reduced the fees banks could charge retailers to process debit transactions. So they turned to the 99 percent, where everyone seems to be turning today when money dries up. (States like Ohio, where I live, have decided that the best way to balance the budget is to gut collective bargaining and require teachers and firefighters to pay more for their benefits).

I say let the big banks fight over the 1 percent while the rest of us take our money to credit unions and community banks in neighborhoods where none of the streets are named “Wall” and nobody got bailed out.

Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising.

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