'Free' Checking Accounts: Not So Free Anymore

Plus, credit card companies not passing on low interest rates
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 24, 2012 10:06 AM CDT
In this May 6, 2012, photo, a Wells Fargo sign is displayed at a branch in New York.   (AP Photo/CX Matiash)

(Newser) – Free checking accounts were the norm in the 1990s, but not so anymore: Today just 39% of noninterest checking accounts are free to everyone, down from 76% in 2009 and 45% last year, a new Bankrate survey finds. Some banks are doing away with free checking accounts entirely; some are simply adding or increasing other fees; others are making it more difficult to actually get your account for free by increasing the minimum monthly balance required. US bank customers need to keep an average of $723 in their accounts each month to avoid a fee, 23% higher than last year's minimum balance average, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Adding insult to injury, the average monthly fee for a noninterest checking account is at its highest level ever: $5.48. And Fortune has more bad financial news: Though interest rates are lower than they've been in decades, credit card customers aren't seeing any benefit. Low interest rates have helped in many areas, including car loans and mortgage rates, but credit card interest rates have actually increased in recent years and hit an average of 12.06% in May—when the average was 11.94% before the financial crisis. Credit card companies, instead of customers, are the ones benefiting from the low rates: For example, Capital One made almost $4 billion in interest income in the last quarter, a record for the company and $900 million more than the same period a year ago—when interest rates were higher. (Read more banks stories.)

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