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Bye-bye free checking. Hello fee checking.

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Since it abolished its $5 debit-card charge, Bank of America has been testing the checking account fees in Arizona, Georgia, and Massachusetts with monthly charges of $6 to $9 for customers with “Essentials” accounts. Other account options being tested are charging monthly fees ranging from $9 to $25, but they also give customers the chance to get the charges waived if they use a credit card, take a mortgage with Bank of America, or maintain a minimum balance in their accounts. (To see how checking account fees stack up at the five biggest banks, click the chart above.)

 

If checking used to be free, why are the big banks charging now?

The fees mark a sign of stress in the banking industry during a time of historically low interest rates and sluggish economic growth. Plus, the banks got slammed with regulatory rules in 2009 and 2010 that curtailed traditional bank fees, halved what they could charge merchants for taking credit and debit cards, and prohibited them from automatically enrolling checking account customers in services that charged for overdrafts.

Banks need to find a way to make up for the billions of dollars lost in revenue. Bank of America and others tried to do that by establishing monthly fees for making debit-card purchases, but they quickly backpedaled when customers revolted.

After the $5 debit-card fee fiasco, banks are finding it harder than ever to implement changes.

J.P. Morgan consumer banking chief Todd Maclin told investors recently that the bank would like to be able to charge more than $10 to $12 a month, according to The Wall Street Journal, but “in this environment I am not going to rock that boat.” (In the last few months, the bank has eliminated or trimmed other less-common fees for things like account research, copies of documents, and account closures.)   

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