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Friday, 10 December 2010

Why I'm two-timing my bank

By Stacy Cowley

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- On most financial matters, I'm ruthlessly logical. I'm also not particularly frugal -- I'll pretty cheerfully drop $5 for a magazine that catches my eye or $50 on dinner out. My daily Starbucks habit is exactly the kind savings gurus constantly warn against.

But a $2 ATM fee sends me off the rails into frothing, ranty irrationality.

It's not the upfront $1.50 or $2 fee you get charged at the ATM for using one not owned by your bank. I don't love those fees and I think they're too high, but they're at least grounded in some basic supply-and-demand principles. The ATM owner has costs associated with running their machine; I wish to use the service it supplies; I pay for that privilege. I get it.

It's the back-end fees banks charge their own customers for using rivals' machines. It costs my bank absolutely nothing when I go use someone else's ATM to take money out of my own bank account -- so why on earth should I shell out $2 or $3 a throw to my bank, on top of the $2 or so I'm paying the ATM owner? It's punitive and reprehensible and I hate it with the burning heat of ten thousand fiery suns.

So I opted out and announced, my freshman year of college, that I would only bank with places that charged no fees whatsoever for having an account -- including no fees for using rival ATMs.

That ruled out every actual bank I could find in all of New York City. No Citibank. No Bank of America. No Chase. No Banco Popular.

Instead, I ended up with a small Internet-based bank called Security First Network Bank. It had no branches anywhere, but I didn't care -- when I needed cash, I went to an ATM, paid my $2, and cheerfully enjoyed the total absence of back-end charges on my monthly bank statement. All went swimmingly for about five years. Then my little Internet bank got bought and went out of business.

After a solid month of moaning and mourning, I finally got my act together and found a new bank: NetBank, which once again met my "no fees, and especially NO ATM FEES" rule. NetBank and I were very happy together for many years.

Then the FDIC shut them down. I'd gotten the foreboding sense that bad things were imminent for my beloved bank, but it's still a shock to wake up one Saturday morning, try to log on, and instead find out that your bank has shuffled off to the Failed Bank Graveyard.

So I once again went bank shopping, once again declared that "NO ATM FEES" was a 100% non-negotiable rule, and signed on with the only major bank I could find that fit the requirement: Washington Mutual.

We know how that ended.

At this point my CNNMoney colleagues declared me the bank Grim Reaper and demanded advance warning before I transferred my account anywhere else and potentially killed that institution off, too.

I was beaten down and defeated. I'd been through more banks than boyfriends. Is it me? I wondered. Am I asking too much? Should I just give in, stay put, settle? After all, Chase -- which took over my WaMu account -- promised to keep the WaMu terms in place for the foreseeable future.

And for a year or so, they did. But then one day late last year, while idly opening mail and going over my bank statement, I spotted the dreaded, feared, much-loathed line: a $2 charge labeled "NON-CHASE ATM FEE."

My husband says my yelp was so loud and pained his first thought was that I'd accidentally amputated something.

So I once again started the hunt, weary and resigned, slogging through dozens of bank websites and scouring the fine print. I found two "NO ATM FEES" finalists -- USAA and Charles Schwab Investor Checking -- and decided to roll the dice with Schwab. I opened my account, transferred in money, and prepared to give Chase the boot.

But a sneaky thing happened along the way: I got seduced by Chase's accessible charms. With the exception of my short-lived WaMu account, I'd always banked with obscure and remote institutions. I'd never before had a bank with branches nearby and ATMs on almost every block. It was ... kinda fun. After so many years of paying upfront ATM fees every time I wanted cash, it felt like a luxurious novelty to use a Chase ATM and pay nothing.

Luxurious right up until the moment I got caught at a baseball ballpark without a Chase ATM, and got slapped with upfront fees as well as that pernicious back-end extortionary $2 fee to Chase.

After that, I started making sure I always had a few hundred stashed in my Schwab account. A pattern developed: If I was near a Chase ATM, I used my Chase card; if I wasn't, I used my Schwab account.

I thought this arrangement was a temporary indulgence, a fleeting thing I could enjoy until I stopped procrastinating and picked a bank. And then one day, the obvious lightning-bolt hit: I didn't have to choose. Schwab has no monthly account maintenance fees, and Chase doesn't either so long as I keep direct-depositing paychecks. I could two-time my banks and keep up a relationship with both of them!

I've been at it almost a year now, and so far, swearing off bank monogamy is working out brilliantly. I love the thrill I get from having my main bank and a second on the side -- it's like a little extra bit of security (could I have Failed Bank PTSD!?), knowing I can dash off at any time into the arms of the other suitor.

I haven't paid Chase an ATM fee in 11 months. Schwab refunds the up-front ATM fees I pay on my withdrawls. At a time when many customers loathe their megabanks, I'm feeling gloriously content about mine.

But, Chase, a word of warning? Just try slapping me with any kind of monthly maintenance fee and I'm running out the door for good with Chuck.

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