Checking Account Fees Continue to Climb: Poll

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The cost of free checking continues to climb.

To avoid a monthly fee, bank customers must maintain an average balance of $723 in their non-interest checking accounts, up 23% from 2011 and the highest balance in 15 years, according to a survey released Monday by Bankrate.com.

The average monthly service fee on non-interest checking accounts rose 25%, to $5.48, also a record, the review of 477 checking accounts at 247 institutions finds.

In all, 39% of non-interest checking accounts surveyed are available to all customers free of charge, down from 45% last year and below the peak of 76% set in 2009.

Banks have upped automated teller machine and overdraft fees as well.

"Checking accounts that are free on a standalone basis continue to diminish," Greg McBride, Bankrate.com's senior financial analyst, said in a news release. "But a free checking account is still within reach of the majority of Americans, whether by getting the fee waived through direct deposit or moving to a bank or credit union that still offers free checking."

Customers whose accounts fell below their bank's average minimum monthly balance paid fees ranging from an average high of $33.60 in Denver to $28.35 in San Francisco.

The rising fees may test customer loyalty. Overall, 72% of customers say they would consider switching lenders if their financial institution hiked its fees on checking accounts. Among Americans who earn at least $50,000 a year, 81% say they would consider switching lenders in the event of a fee increase.

Though many of the nation's biggest banks have boosted checking account fees in recent months, others have held steady and some have even changed their minds and lowered prices.

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