Banks are squeezing customers with historically high fees and penalties, from overdraft charges to account service fees to new surcharges on foreign debit transactions.
But the pressures that have prompted the fee war with consumers started well before the financial meltdown, according to Jo Preuninger, a former management consultant who spent more than a decade in the consumer banking arena.
I asked Preuninger for a little history, as well as some of the tricks of the trade that banks would prefer to keep secret.
Secret #1: For many banks, the most profitable customers aren’t the mass affluent — they’re “Joe Lunchbox.”
In 1999, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act allowed banks, insurers and securities firms to merge, breaking down barriers that had been in place since the 1930s. Following the new law, “if you took all the (deposit) checks written for $10,000 and above, most were written to institutions such as Charles Schwab, Fidelity or Merrill Lynch,” says Preuninger. “They took the best customers. The banks were becoming more like Laundromats, where you put money in for a short period because you still needed to pay with a check or (get cash).”
At the same time, loans provided little profit as interest rates remained relatively low, prompting banks to seek consistent, non-interest income. “The focus was on how banks could not only identify fees they could charge, it was how to do a better job of collecting their fees,” says Preuninger.
Middle-income customers presented the greatest potential to harvest fees. “There’s certainly a customer segment that could be called ‘Joe Lunchbox,’ who expect to be nickeled and dimed,” says Preuninger. “They are managing money from paycheck to paycheck. It’s someone who would prefer to pay an overdraft fee to get their mortgage covered rather than get hit by a mortgage provider with a late fee and a ding on their credit score.”
Last year, overdraft and insufficient-funds charges totaled nearly $35 billion and comprised about 90 percent of banks’ consumer-fee income, according to a study by the consulting firm Bretton Woods Inc. Three-quarters of banks automatically enroll consumers in their “overdraft protection” programs without formal permission, and more than half of banks manipulate the order in which checks are cleared to trigger multiple overdraft fees, according to a Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation study.
“They are going to try to turn the best profit they can, which is why they post in the most attractive way they can while avoiding and minimizing legal exposure,” says Preuninger.
Someone who overdraws a checking account a few times a year should choose a bank with a program that makes it easy (and free) to shift funds from savings to checking to protect against overdrafts.
Secret #2: Banks hope frequent overdraft customers don’t understand the alternatives.
The banks deemed overdraft protection to be a customer service convenience that provides an alternative to payday lenders, says Preuninger. And yet some of those customers might almost fare better with loan sharks. The Bretton Woods study found 80 percent of overdraft fees are incurred by 20 million households, who paid an average of $1,374 in overdraft fees.
These customers should consider ditching traditional checking account in favor of a prepaid debit card, which typically cost $70 to $80 a year ($10 upfront with a $5 monthly fee). Users direct-deposit their paychecks onto the cards (the money is FDIC-insured) and can do point-of-sale transactions and pay bills online. There are no overdraft fees; the purchase is declined if the card is empty.
Secret #3: Those helpful new customer set-up kits, designed to make it easy to switch banks, also try to make the account “sticky.”
“I did a lot of work in customer attraction and retention,” says Preuninger. “The biggest barrier to new accounts was switching. There’s a higher tolerance; a bank may have a lot of long-term customers — that doesn’t mean they love (the service).”
Most banks have a kit to assist customers in switching services. But do it yourself instead. Enter your regular bills in the bank’s online billpay site, rather than signing up with each biller’s website. If your new banking relationship goes sour, the account is more transportable. You won’t have to log into a dozen different biller sites and change the account and routing numbers.
Secret #4: Long-term relationships matter.
“Know what you want in the way of a bank and stay as long as you can because tenure does matter,” Preuninger says. “If you’ve been with a bank three to five years, they treat you differently than if you are there six months. If you direct-deposit your paycheck and have a (savings) relationship, they think of you differently than if you have free checking with $100 in it. Tenure and relationship does matter.”
So if you incur the rare fee now and then, always call customer service and ask (politely) for it to be removed. Emphasize your long-term relationship with the bank and ask for a supervisor if the initial effort fails.
Most customers aren’t profitable until they’ve been with a bank a few years because of the high cost of customer acquisition — sales compensation to branch managers, IT infrastructure, documentation and account setup. “It’s a long time before they break even, especially if they goose it with $100 to you to open the account,” Preuninger says.
Secret #5: Banks want you to enjoy the “advantages” of paying with credit, debit, check and cash — because it will make you more likely to lose track of your money.
“One of most dangerous things going on with consumers is they are not paying attention to the variety of ways they are paying. They are balancing money back and forth because it’s too hard to account for,” Preuninger says. “If you pay seven different ways, you’ve just added complexity to your life. Consumers shouldn’t say to the bank ‘you’re responsible to tell me what I’m doing with my money.'”
But more banks are moving in that direction. PNC Bank, for instance, launched an account called Virtual Wallet that presents account information in calendar form, focused between today and the account holder’s next payday. A “danger day” appears on the calendar in red if the account is at risk of an overdraft. The user can either move bills later in the month, or shift money immediately from the savings portion of the account at no charge (the account does it automatically if the consumer doesn’t). Statements are only available online and the bank charges 50 cents per check for writing more than three a month.
Best bet? Simplify. Get a free checking account with no fees and a low minimum balance requirement, pay major household bills online, and then stick to cash. You’ll think twice about purchases, and avoid getting caught in the widening web of bank fees.