bank fees rising costs

How to Handle Rising Fees From Banks, Utilities and Retailers

If it seems like you’re getting financially squeezed from all directions, that’s no figment of your imagination.

Bank fees on the rise, utility rates are about to increase and even membership fees at places like Costco are going up. Why is all this happening now, and what should you do?

Let’s look at each area separately.

Bank Fees

On the banking front, financial services reform and recent federal regulations capping debit interchange fees mean banks are going to lose tens of billions of dollars in revenues. To make up for those lost dollars, they’re rolling out a range of charges and fees on everything from debit card use to checking accounts.

For example, Citibank just announced that starting in December 2011, it will impose a $20 monthly penalty fee on customers whose account balances fall below $15,000. The move follows other recent fee announcements this year by Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Chase, and a host of other banks too.

3 Ways to Avoid Debit Card Fees and Rising Checking Account Fees

Fortunately, there are at least three ways to escape escalating debit card fees and rising checking account fees.

1. Switch to credit cards.  

Credit cards generally haven’t been subjected to the type of fee hikes we’re now seeing with debit cards. But caution: make sure you pay off your balance each month to avoid racking up debt.

Recommendation: Get online and comparison shop for the best credit card deal available. Go to a free site like CardRatings.com, which can help you find a credit card based on your credit rating and spending habits. I like CardRatings because they’ve done all the work for you in terms of analyzing credit card offers – including the good and the bad – and they give you independent evaluations and reviews of everything from travel cards to student credit cards to cash back cards and more.

2. Consider a prepaid card.

With so much upheaval in the banking world, I expect prepaid cards to grow in popularity tremendously over the next year or two.

This is a great option for those who want to store money simply by loading cash – or even their monthly paychecks – onto a prepaid card and using that card to pay bills or to make purchases online and in stores. A prepaid card doesn’t require a credit check or a checking account. And you can use it to keep track of your overall budget and spending.

Recommendation: Check out RushCard.com for a good prepaid Visa RushCard that’s low in fees, offers easy online money-management tools, and gives card users freebies, like a healthcare card that saves you money on medical costs and prescription drugs.

3. Switch banks.

Lots of people fed up with big banks are talking about switching banks. That’s an option, although I think you should evaluate your overall relationship with an institution and think about whether or not you’re being well-served before simply pulling your money out in reaction to one event or one fee.

If you do decide to make a switch, you can change to a local bank, try an Internet bank, or even consider a credit union. If you’re a saver or a retiree on a fixed income, it’s especially important to make your money work hard for you, so you want to find a bank that offers good, FDIC-insured savings accounts and other products like certificates of deposit.

Recommendation: To track down and compare the highest yielding savings accounts and find good deals on CDs, visit MoneyRates.com.

Utility Rates

Now let’s talk about utility rates, which are expected to surge in the coming months and years because dozens of utilities nationwide are already seeking state regulators’ permission to issue rate hikes ranging from 2% to more than 20%.

There are three main factors driving the increase in utility rates:

1. Utilities are upgrading their outdated infrastructure and old systems.

2. Utilities face additional government and environmental regulations, requiring utilities to meet clean energy standards and create pollution controls. All of that regulation is costly to comply with.

3. There’s also rising power demands by consumers who are doing everything from logging onto the Internet more often to stepping up use of household appliances and gadgets.

Unfortunately, rising utility costs are ultimately going to get passed onto consumers.

The good news is that you can slash your utility rates by implementing small, but cost-effective, changes around the house.

Unplug appliances like your coffee maker, blender, or toaster when you’re not using them to save 10% on your energy bills. Invest in some fluorescent bulbs, which save money over the long haul compared to high-watt bulbs. And even consider taking more showers instead of baths to shave up to 50% off your hot water costs.

Retail Membership Fees

If you’re a person who likes to shop at discount membership clubs, you should know that after missing Wall Street analysts’ most recent earnings forecasts, Costco announced it is raising its membership fee by 10% to $55 starting November 1, 2011.

BJ’s also implemented a roughly 10% membership hike earlier this year, raising its fee to $50 from $45 in January 2011.

How can you lessen your membership bite?

  • Split the cost of a club membership with a relative or neighbor.
  • Make sure you redeem coupons issued by warehouse clubs.

Sure they often have great prices, but Costco and BJ’s aren’t always the best deal in town. Your membership gets more valuable, though, when these retailers sometimes offer coupons to discount higher-priced items. Failing to redeem those coupons for merchandise you’ve bought is leaving money on the table.

  • Consider buying food and household items elsewhere.

I personally enjoy my Costco and BJ’s memberships, especially since I’ve learned when to use them – and when not to. But if you’re not getting as much value out of your club memberships, or if you’re buying in bulk and wasting food because it spoils before you can eat it, you may be better off simply shopping at a grocery store.

The bottom line is that even though fee increases are increasingly taking a toll on Americans’ budgets, you don’t have to just sit there and take it. You can always make smarter money moves, evaluate your options, or even vote with your wallet and decide to take your business elsewhere.

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