Remember when putting cash in the bank was a good way to save money? Now banks are asking customers to pay more money to keep their cash there.
Under pressure from costly new regulations, a weak economy, and near-zero interest rates, banks across Massachusetts and the country have come up with new and creative ways to squeeze profits from their depositors. Many, including Citizens Bank, charge customers extra to receive printed statements. Others, such as the community bank Salem Five, whack customers with a fee for closing relatively new accounts.
The newest round comes from Boston-based Sovereign Bank, which is adding new fees and cranking up some existing ones. The monthly charge for Sovereign’s no-frills “Classic Checking” account is doubling to $10. The minimum balance needed to avoid that fee is rising to $750 from $500 starting next month. Want to check your balance at another bank’s ATM? That will be $2, please.
“It’s horrible, just horrible,” said Joseph Zito, a puppeteer from Nantucket, who became a Sovereign customer when it took over his local bank, Nantucket Bank, in 2004. “They take wherever they can.”
Bank of America tried to sock its customers with a $5 a month fee to use debit cards, scuttling the plan after a huge public outcry. But it found other ways, charging customers who have eChecking accounts as much as an additional $12 a month if they use a teller for something they could do electronically.
“Banks have a large revenue gap to fill,” said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst for Bankrate.com, a financial website, “and fee-based income is what is being used to fill that gap.”
For its part, Sovereign says the bank is committed to working with customers to find the right account to “minimize service charges.”
In most cases, banks are permitted to raise fees or create new ones if they clearly disclose them to customers. A Bankrate.com survey last fall found just 39 percent of non-interest bearing checking accounts nationwide remained free — down from 76 percent in 2009, while monthly maintenance charges, ATM surcharges, and other tacked-on expenses continued to climb.
In November, TD Bank, the fourth largest retail bank in Massachusetts, increased the cost of using other banks’ ATMs by 50 cents, to $2.50 per transaction (on top of any fees the ATM owner might charge); boosted the monthly maintenance fee for some basic savings accounts by $1 to $4; and raised the charge for noncustomers to use coin-counting machines to 8 percent of the total from 6 percent. TD Bank said it offers ways for customers to avoid fees.
Rockland Trust, one of the largest community banks in the Boston area, boosted its overdraft fee by $2 to $35 this month, similar to what many big banks charge.
Sovereign is also increasing its overdraft fees, to a flat $35 (from $5 a day up to $45). Even some cash-strapped college students will take a hit. Sovereign is lowering the maximum age to qualify for its free student checking from 25 to 22.
Helen Palmer, 58, a medical assistant from East Bridgewater, is among the Sovereign customers whose no-frills checking account fee will double to $10 from $5. She said she will probably move her account as a result. Many local community banks and credit unions still offer checking without monthly maintenance fees.
“That’s a lot — $10,” Palmer said, adding that the minimum balance is too high for her to avoid the fee. “I’ll probably end up canceling because I’m not going to pay $10 a month.”
On the other end of the spectrum, high-end accounts that come with extra benefits face steeper requirements to avoid fees at Sovereign. For instance, its premium account requires a minimum balance of $20,000, which increased in 2011 from $15,000, to avoid the $25 monthly fee.
Among the perks: The checks an account holder writes from that stash are free.