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Cheaper banking? You have to shop

Often, when a business raises its prices, customers start looking elsewhere to see if they can't find a better deal somewhere else. But not in banking. Here, ''inertia,'' or the tendency of people to stay put, seems to have more power than the marketplace. Despite rising fees and charges for checking accounts, monthly statements, and automatic teller transactions, most retail banking customers are reluctant to change banks and shop around for cheaper charges. Part of the reason is convenience: If your present bank is a block away, you probably aren't going to walk an extra half a mile to save 5 cents a check.

Still, the controversy over fees and charges at the nation's banks and savings-and-loans is rising as fast as some of those fees. In Congress, House Banking Committee chairman Fernand J. St Germain (D) of Rhode Island has complained that in five years, the cost of banking services has more than doubled, to over $180 a year.

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Among the charges bank customers now face are fees ranging from 15 to 50 cents for every check they write, fees for transferring money from one account to another, $1 to $5 monthly maintenance or ''statement preparation'' fees for checking or NOW accounts, fees for returned checks that can run from $5 to $30, fees to find out what the balance in your account is, and fees to withdraw or transfer money from an individual retirement account (IRA).

While the fees have changed dramatically, so have the minimum balances needed to reduce them. There have been frequent complaints from bank customers that minimum-balance requirements have gone up as much as 10 times with no notice beyond an extra piece of paper in the monthly statement. One bank in Florida, for example, came under heavy criticism when it raised its minimum-balance figure from $500 to $5,000.

On top of all this, when you open a checking account, you now have to know what kind you want. Rainier Bank in Seattle, for example, has at least four such accounts: one that pays interest, one that does not, one for people who write lots of checks every month, and one for those who only write a few. Each has its own minimum-balance requirements or flat monthly fees.

Many of the now-costly services were once free or provided at a nominal charge. But that was before banks began paying market rates of interest on a majority of their deposits. Since 1979, the American Bankers Association (ABA) says, the percentage of deposits earning below-market rates fell from 48.2 to 28 .9. And banks are now paying some type of interest on 85 percent of all deposits , notes Bill G. Prince, chairman of the First City National Bank in Lufkin, Texas, and a member of the ABA's banking advisory group. In 1960, banks paid interest on only about 20 percent of their deposits, he said.

Whether you think these fees are fair or too high is no longer the point: They are here to stay. Bank customers who are bothered by them will have to shop around among the banks in their area for the lowest fees or maintain a minimum balance to eliminate or reduce many of them.

Trying to maintain a minimum balance, however, can also lead to confusion. One bank might require $300 in a combination checking-savings account that earns just 51/2 percent interest. Another may ask for at least $1,000 in some combination of savings certificate-money market deposit account.

A good deal, if you can find it, is a bank or savings-and-loan that will let you count money in an IRA or money market deposit account toward the minimum-balance requirement. This way, you are getting close to a market rate of interest on your money, while enjoying free checking.

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For example, if a husband and wife work and both have made their full $2,000 annual IRA contributions since these accounts became universally available in 1982, they may have deposited as much as $12,000 by now. They could put $1,000 or $2,000 of that in a bank IRA to get free checking. The rest could be put anywhere else they liked, because not all of their IRA money has to be with the same institution; in fact, it should not be with the same institution, especially as the account grows.

Your bank may also let you count a money market deposit account, with its $2, 500 minimum balance, or a certificate of deposit toward the minimum needed for free services.

How well you do by shopping around may depend on where you live. Although bankers say they want to compete, they don't want to be any more competitive than they have to be, so banks in the same city often have very similar minimum-balance requirements. There may not be any banks in your area that let you count the IRA, for example, while just about every bank in another city may permit this.

So until banks - either on their own or through legislation - simplify and clarify minimum-balance requirements, customers who want to reduce or eliminate fees are going to have to learn to shop around, ask pointed questions, read those little notices in their monthly statements, and watch out for inertia.

References to investments are not an endorsement or recommendation by this newspaper.m

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