Bank of America Raises ATM Fees: Will the Industry Follow?
By: Brian O'Connell

With their need for $33 billion in cash after the results of its recent financial “stress test,” Bank of America (Stock Quote: BAC) has found one tied-and-and-true way of raising money, by raising ATM fees.

The fee hike, from $2 to $3 per ATM transaction not only forces non-Bank of America customers to dig deeper when they need ATM cash, but it should also trigger a stampede from other big banks to raise ATM fees to raise money for themselves as well.

So far, bank giants like Wachovia (Stock Quote: WB) and Wells Fargo (Stock Quote: WFC) say they’re keeping ATM rates the same. But history shows when one bank makes the jump, the others soon follow. Consider the fact the average bank ATM charges for non-customers was $1.64 in 2006, roughly double the amount from 1998.

Wachovia may claim that it’s keeping its ATM fees for non-customers at $2 or below, but it’s already testing a $3 per transaction ATM fee for non-customers in selected markets. Of the largest US banks, JP Morgan Chase (Stock Quote: JPM) has the lowest, on-average, non-customer ATM fee ($1.50 per transaction in many markets, but not all).

So, if you’re a non-Bank of America customer, and don’t want to spend $3 to grab $20 out of a bank cash machine for gas money, what are your options?

One way is to sign up for a bank account that actually reimburses you for ATM charges from other banks. USAA Bank, for example, reimburses ATM charges of up to $15 per month, with a maximum 10 transactions.

Other options include taking more cash out (and hoarding the money), so you’re not racking up a lot of ATM fees. After all, if you’re a non-Bank of America customer who takes out $30 from a bank ATM, and pays $3 for the privilege, you’ve lost 10% on the transaction. But if you take $300 out, you’ve only lost 1% on the deal.

Or, use a debit card to pay for goods and services. As long as you don’t overdraw from your checking account (and thus incur big overdraft fees), you’ll save on onerous ATM fees.

So what’s the moral of the story? Even as banks raise ATM fees, you don’t have to pay the price, as long as you know how to play the game.

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