Citigroup Charges $15 for Checking, Throws in 'Free' Debit

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And the debit card fees keep on coming.

Citigroup Inc., which last week touted its promise not to charge customers for using their debit cards, is skinning the cat another way. The bank is telling some checking customers that it will start charging them $15 per month unless they maintain a balance of at least $6,000.

That decision comes on the heels of Bank of America Corp.'s announcement last week that it will start charging customers $5 per month to use their debit cards. Many other big banks, including Wells Fargo & Co., are testing similar debit card use fees, in the wake of new regulations capping interchange revenue.

Citigroup, the third-largest U.S. bank, said last week that it would not "charge fees that discourage [debit] use or make it unreasonably expensive to take advantage of the tools and services that consumers say are important for managing their finances," according to an email from a spokeswoman on Thursday.

But instead of charging for the debit card, Citigroup is now raising the overall price of the underlying account. Bank of America customers who use their debit cards next year will pay a minimum of $13.95 per month for the most basic checking account — which is still less than what some would pay at Citigroup.

Stephen Troutner, Citigroup's head of banking products for U.S. consumer banking, says the bank's checking accounts will still "be extremely competitive" compared to the rest of the industry.

There are "a number of choices for customers to avoid entirely paying a service fee," he tells American Banker.

There are cheaper options at Citigroup. Troutner said the $15 monthly charges apply only to a checking account product that Citigroup discontinued a year ago, and is trying to phase out. The bank told Bloomberg that the $15 monthly charges apply only to a checking account product that it is trying to phase out. Last month Citigroup raised the fees on its more basic checking account to $10 per month, from $8, unless customers maintain a $1500 balance or regularly use it for direct deposit and online bill payments.

But Citigroup is also raising prices on already-more expensive checking options. The Los Angeles Times reported over the weekend that starting Nov. 1, customers with a "Citi Account" will have to more than double their minimum balance, to $15,000.  Accountholders can currently avoid the $20 monthly fee by maintaining $6,000 in deposits or other accounts, including mortgages.

Many large banks have cut back on perks or added fees to checking accounts that once were free, in an effort to recoup the revenue they will lose from new debit card regulations. The Federal Reserve Board in June finalized rules that slashed the interchange fees merchants pay banks every time their customers buy things with debit cards.

Bank of America and Citigroup unveiled their price increases as the new debit interchange fee caps went into effect on Saturday. The banking industry fiercely protested the rules, which were part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.

Troutner would not discuss the number of customers affected by Citigroup's latest pricing increase, or the number of customers the bank expects to lose as a result, but he says "I'm not preparing for a lot" of customers to leave.

Citigroup and other large banks can offer technology and convenience that smaller institutions and credit unions cannot, he says.

"While I respect all my colleagues in community banks and credit union industry, the reality is that's not a great fit for every customer," he says.

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