The worst financial fees and how to avoid them

CNN Underscored reviews financial products such as credit cards and bank accounts based on their overall value. We may receive a commission through The Points Guy affiliate network if you apply and are approved for a card, but our reporting is always independent and objective.

Over the last decade, tacking extra fees onto the basic costs of a product or service has become an increasingly popular way for companies to wrangle extra dollars out of customers. Whether it’s traveling with an airline or using your cell phone, there’s a good chance you’re paying more than you have to in fees, and you may not even realize it.

While it’s always important to hang onto every dollar you can, being in a tight money situation — as many folks are right now — is a good reason to take time today to reduce your expenses by rooting out all those pesky fees. And there’s no better place to start than your financial services, because you shouldn’t be spending extra money just to manage your money.

“Checking accounts can charge any number of fees, like overdraft fees if you spend more than you have in the account, ATM fees if you use an ATM for another bank, and monthly maintenance fees if your balance remains under a certain amount,” explained Sara Rathner, a personal finance expert at NerdWallet. “These sneaky fees can really cost you a lot of money in the long run.”

The average monthly maintenance fee on checking accounts is $14.13, according to the latest Money Rates checking account fee survey. That means you could be paying almost $170 annually just for the privilege of having a checking account, and in today’s low-interest environment, it’s highly unlikely you’ll make that up even if your account pays you interest.

But there’s no reason to pay anything just to have access to a basic checking account. The easiest first step is to contact your existing bank and ask them to move you to a no-fee checking account, if they offer one. Just make sure you understand the requirements of your bank’s free account option, which could include different minimum monthly balances and extra costs to use non-network ATM’s.

Related: How to avoid fees when using your stimulus payment debit card.

If your bank doesn’t offer a no-fee account, it’s time to look for another bank, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be one with physical branches. A number of institutions now offer online-only banking options, especially credit unions, and many have basic free checking accounts. Deposits are made electronically and you’ll get free access to large ATM networks when you need cash.

Unless you have a reason to actually go into a branch on a regular basis, one of these online-only options could be an excellent choice.

Now’s the time to decide if it’s still worth paying an annual fee for your credit card.

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Perhaps an expensive travel credit card made sense when you were on the road every month for work. But while credit card issuers have made efforts to expand the “at home” benefits of their travel cards, if you’re not using those perks, you’re just paying extra for the privilege of having a shiny card in your wallet.

While it can sometimes make sense to pay an annual fee for a credit card if you’re using the benefits, too often people lock themselves into a card with features they don’t need, and then just automatically pay the yearly fee without much thought. But this is the time to get off that treadmill, especially if your annual fee just came due.

If you see an annual fee show up on your credit card statement, that’s the best time to act. Most issuers will refund the annual fee if you close or convert a card within 30 days of the fee being charged. You can also call and ask for the fee to be waived — this is known as a “retention offer” and it can be surprisingly successful, as banks don’t want to lose customers when they’ve already paid the marketing and sign-up bonus costs of acquiring that customer.

“Any time you want to negotiate the terms on your credit card, simply call the number on the back of the card and ask for what you want,” advised Rathner. “The worst they’ll say is no, but you may get a yes!”

When you call, explain to the customer service agent that you aren’t using the benefits of your card and are considering closing it, but would be willing to keep it if there was an extra reason to do so. In some cases, you might be offered additional rewards to keep your card open instead of having the annual fee waived — you’ll need to decide if the bonus is worth the cost. Also, the first offer provided by the phone agent isn’t necessarily the only offer, so keep asking if there are other options.

Even if there isn’t a retention offer available for your account, you may be offered the chance to convert your existing card to one without an annual fee. This can often make more sense than closing the account entirely, since you can then maintain the existing credit line for no cost, which helps your overall credit score.

But keep in mind that you won’t have the same benefits on your new no-annual-fee card as you did on your old one. “If you’re switching from a premium card, you’ll lose those high-end perks,” said Rathner. “And if the no-fee card offers a sign-up bonus to new members, you won’t be eligible for it since you’ll be considered an existing card holder.”

If you do end up deciding to close the account and apply for a new no-annual-fee credit card instead, make sure you get one that still earns rewards. One of our favorites at CNN Underscored is the Citi® Double Cash Card, which earns 2% cash back on everything you buy — 1% when you make a purchase, and another 1% when you pay it off — all without an annual fee.

Related: Read CNN Underscored’s complete review of the Citi Double Cash Card.

The Citi Double Cash is a card you can earn rewards with anywhere, which is why we consider it our “benchmark” credit card when comparing cards across the market. But if you’re looking for travel rewards instead of cash back or other perks, you can check out our list of the best credit cards of 2020 for other options.

The fees on your retirement accounts could eat away thousands of hard-earned dollars over time.

The fees on your retirement accounts could eat away thousands of hard-earned dollars over time.

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iStock

There’s nothing worse than working hard to save money for retirement and then having your nest egg eaten away by fees. But that’s exactly what can happen if you aren’t paying attention to what you’re paying for your 401(k) or IRA account.

Even though most retirement plans are required to disclose their fees up front, many people don’t notice or don’t realize how much fees can cost them. In fact, in a 2019 survey by TD Ameritrade, only 27% of people knew how much their 401(k) was costing them.

Check your 401(k) or IRA paperwork and find out how much your plan charges in fees, which might also include transaction fees you pay to make changes to your investments. Even if the percentages are low, it can add up, especially over the decades-long timeframe of saving for retirement.

For instance, if you’re being charged an average of 0.5% in fees on a retirement account, that may not sound like much. But on a $100,000 nest egg, those fees come to $500 a year, which adds up to $10,000 over a 20-year period.

To reduce or avoid fees altogether, ask for commission-free options when it comes to trading, and look for low-cost index funds. And if you have the option to move your retirement account to a bank with lower fees, consider making the effort. This likely won’t be possible if you’re tied to your company’s 401(k) plan, but individual retirement accounts are movable without triggering taxes if you do it correctly.

Related: Is it time to withdraw money or borrow from your 401(k) piggy bank?

Finally, don’t forget that if your retirement portfolio contains mutual funds, you’re likely being charged fees for them as well, and those fees can be insidious because they come in two forms — a sales load and an expense ratio. The former is usually a one-time commission when you buy or sell the mutual fund, while the latter is an ongoing charge for operating and managing the fund.

If you’re considering investing in mutual funds, find out both the expense ratio and sales loads before you invest, and ask for no-load funds with low expense ratios (ideally 0.5% or less). And if you’re already invested in a fund with a high expense ratio, you may want to consider if it makes sense switching to a similar fund with a lower ratio (though keep in mind the cost may not be worth it if there’s also a sales load attached to selling your shares).

It’s easy to lose track of all the fees you’re being charged on your own money. They’re often sliced into small monthly portions that get overlooked, or even baked into investments in a way that isn’t easily noticed. But they can have a drastic effect on your expenses over time.

With so much competition in the financial industry, there’s no reason to pay a fee to get the same thing you can get for free, since there are almost always no-fee options for any financial product you’re considering. So even though it may take some effort, it’s worth the time to sit down and dive into the fees across your banking, credit card and retirement accounts. You may very well find that you can keep more of your own money in your own pocket.

Having money issues due to the coronavirus pandemic? Read CNN Underscored’s previous stories in this series:

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Note: While the offers mentioned above are accurate at the time of publication, they’re subject to change at any time and may have changed, or may no longer be available.

— to www.cnn.com

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