Just how much do big banks charge you in fees?

Did you know that the three biggest banks in America — Chase, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo — made more than $6 billion from ATM and overdraft fees in 2015?

Besides being frustratingly hard to understand, bank fees also disproportionately affect the poor. People who earn less than $30,000 a year are nearly twice as likely to have paid an overdraft fee and nearly one in three people without a bank account report high or unpredictable account fees as a reason for not having an account.

Given the prevalence of bank fees, we decided to investigate how bank fees affect our own customers: people that rely on Penny to keep track of their finances.

We looked for bank fees in five thousand checking and savings accounts across the four biggest banks in the US. With this data in hand, we computed the median fees paid per year for accounts with at least one fee. Because a small subset of bank customers pay the vast majority of fees, we chose to illustrate the impact on those particular customers.

The chart shows that Bank of America account holders with at least one fee paid a median of $105 in fees per year.

Our analysis showed that the majority of Bank of America’s fees (70%) come from “monthly maintenance” fees, also known as minimum balance fees. For example, Bank of America’s Core checking account has a $12 monthly minimum if your average balance falls below $1,500, you don’t enable income direct deposit, and you’re not signed up for their rewards program.

Most banks have similar programs, but Bank of America stands out in deriving the majority of its fee revenue from monthly minimums. In contrast, most other banks make more money from overdraft fees. In fact, overdraft fees netted Chase, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo a combined $5.1 billion in 2015.

To visualize the distribution of fees charged, we broke them out by type, including overdraft, membership, monthly minimum, and ATM fees. We combined membership and monthly minimum fees since the two often overlap.

Overdraft fees accounted for 71% of the total fees collected. With their relatively small dollar values, ATM fees came in at just 6%.

Next, we turned our attention to the prevalence of fees within each bank. Put another way, how likely is it that an average person gets charged a fee by one of these banks?

73% of the Wells Fargo accounts we looked at have been charged fees in their lifetime.

Why does Wells Fargo fall so much higher than the rest? We found that Wells Fargo customers more frequently withdrew money from out-of-network ATMs than customers of other banks did, racking up ATM surcharges along the way.


Luckily, it’s not all bad — our analysis surfaced several banks with generous fee policies. Two banks stood out in particular: Capital One 360 and Simple, both of which charge no minimum balance, account maintenance, or overdraft fees. If you often incur fees, one of these might be a better place to put your hard-earned money. You could also consider a high interest savings account, an easy way to earn a little extra on your deposits.

On a broader level, US regulators have been slowly rolling out changes to protect people from these kinds of fees. In 2010, they forced banks to get consent before charging fees for debit card transactions that overdraft. In 2015, they forced banks to disclose how much money they were making in fees (see the $5.1 billion number above). Later this year, they’ll propose rules that limit the impact of overdraft fees, especially on the poor.

In the meantime, you may need to flex your power as a consumer and pick a bank that keeps your money, without taking your money.


Written with from the team at Penny. If you enjoyed this, don’t be shy about returning the ❤!