7 On Your Side: Does free checking still exist?

May 16, 2012 8:10:39 PM PDT
A few weeks ago Seven On Your Side's found a man who opened a checking account that was free for life. That was until his bank was swallowed up by other banks. That man's free checking was reinstated, but 7 On Your Side decided to see free checking existed anymore.

This is sure harder to find. Bank websites typically have 10 or 12 pages listing potential charges. Checking account fees have gone up about 40 percent on average since 2010, however there are ways you can still dodge those fees.

A photo of the legendary baseball player Joe DiMaggio is up for sale on eBay. Back in 1970, it was a free gift for opening a bank account.

"They used to give way toasters at banks sometimes to get you in," said Robert Whitten of San Francisco.

Whitten remembers the bank promotions of the 1970s. You may recall we told you his story last month. He was a teenager living in Virginia when he snapped up an irresistible offer.

"If you signed up now, you got free checking for life," said Whitten.

He did sign up and true to promise, his account stayed free all these years, until his bank was swallowed by a lot of other banks and finally landed at Bank Of America.

"They said, 'Yes, you did have free checking for life, but that expired,'" said Whitten.

Whitten's free checking account suddenly began costing $14 per month.

"They were dinging me these service fees that they had started doing to all the free checking for life customers," said Whitten.

Seven On Your Side asked Bank of America, "What about the free for life promise?" And the bank did look way back in time and it did restore his free checking. But what about the rest of us?

"There's been a notable decline in the availability of free checking accounts over the past couple of years," said Greg McBride, a senior financial analyst at BankRate.com.

McBride says free checking is harder to find since new federal regulations took effect over the past two years. Banks lost billions when new rules curtailed overdraft fees and debit card swipe fees.

"Instead, what banks are doing is instituting either a minimum balance requirement or just a monthly fee," said McBride.

At Bank of America, a no-frills checking account costs $12 per month. At Wells Fargo the cheapest account is $7 per month. Chase Bank charges $10. However, all three banks will waive the fee with a $1,500 minimum balance or monthly direct deposits.

"For low income depositor, it's really a bad time to be at a big bank," said Joe Ridout from Consumer Action.

Ridout says many consumers can't afford to keep up with minimum deposits. However, Seven On Your Side found there is still such a thing as free checking without the hurdles.

"You can find dozens of places that will give you free checking in the Bay Area, either through community banks or credit unions," said Ridout.

We found a few right off the bat: Sterling Bank offers a "freedom checking" account with no fees, Circle Bank offers "circle free checking", The Golden1 Credit Union also has a free no strings checking account, as does Gateway Bank.

"And with Seven On Your Side by golly, I've got free checking for life. At the moment," said Whitten.

Many banks big and small also offer free online banking.

Banks that offer free checking:
Sterling Bank
Golden1
Circle Bank
Gateway Bank and Trust
Great Western Bank


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