bank check with pen

Free Checking Account? How to Avoid the Fees

If you’re looking to open a checking account, you may be overwhelmed by the options available to you. And each option not only has its own benefits—it also can have its own drawbacks and specific charges.

Free, basic checking accounts often offer the simplest choice, perfect for individuals new to banking or who want to simplify their account management. But even free checking accounts can have some fees associated with services or account misuse—which can add up if you aren’t careful. In this post, we’ll explore the benefits of free checking accounts, providing expert tips on how to make the most of this no-nonsense financial tool, while avoiding hidden charges.

Understanding Free Checking Accounts

Free checking accounts are simple, no-frills accounts meant for individuals who need a basic bank account for depositing funds, making purchases, and paying bills.

Free checking accounts have no monthly maintenance or service fees, as long as follow certain parameters. For most free checking accounts, this means that you have a low opening deposit and minimum balance requirement (at F&M Bank of Virginia, our Basic Checking Account has an opening deposit of $10, with a minimum balance requirement of $0).

Free checking accounts usually come with a free debit card, which you can use to make purchases and at ATMs to withdraw money, deposit money, transfer funds between accounts, or check account balances. Free checking accounts also usually have free e-statements—but may charge a small fee if you wish to have your statements mailed to your home. You can also view your e-statements, balance, and transaction history through your bank’s app or online banking portal.

Unlike premium checking accounts and money market accounts, which have higher balance requirements, free checking accounts usually don’t offer earned interest.

Checking accounts are a standard offering at most financial institutions, and can range in benefits, features, and costs

The True “Cost” of Free

As we mentioned above, as long as you follow basic parameters, free checking accounts can truly be free. However, there is no such thing as no-fee banking—all banks charge fees for some services or types of account misuse. That’s why it’s important to understand the fine print of your free account, to be sure you don’t accidentally rack up avoidable charges.

Common fees can include:

  • ATM charges. At F&M Bank, we don’t charge fees when you use our card at other ATMs—but other banks or ATM providers may. There is no transaction fee when you use an F&M Bank ATM.
  • Foreign transaction fees. If you use your debit card at ATMs or for purchases abroad, you may be charged a fee.
  • Overdraft and overdraft protection fees. If you withdraw or make a payment that uses more funds than are available in your account, you could be charged a fee for each day your account is overdrawn. Overdraft protection may help you avoid some fees (like returned checks), but will still charge you for each day your account has a negative balance.
  • Minimum balance fees. Some banks may have a minimum balance requirement for their free checking accounts. If you go below this balance, your account may be charged a fee or a monthly maintenance fee. F&M does not require a minimum balance.
  • Account inactivity fee. If you don’t use your account for a prolonged period of time, you may be charged an inactivity fee. You will usually be notified by mail before this happens.
  • Paper statement fees. Many banks today offer a number of free ways to view account statements and transactions, including online banking and mobile apps. However, charging a small monthly fee for mailed paper statements is common. At F&M Bank, our paper statement fee is $2 per month.
  • Card replacement fees. If you lose your debit card, you may be charged a fee to replace it.
  • Direct deposit or transaction requirement fees. Some banks require a certain number of direct deposits or monthly transactions to waive monthly fees. At F&M, we do not have any direct deposit or transaction requirements for our Basic Checking Account.
  • Returned or stopped check fees. If you overdraw your account with a check, or are forced to stop a check you’ve written, you may be charged a fee for these services.
  • Check ordering fees. Some accounts may come with a small amount of free checks to get you started. Once you use them up, you’ll need to order more.

Reading the details of your account can help you familiarize yourself with any potential fees, so you can reduce your out-of-pocket charges and enjoy a low-cost checking account experience.

Strategies to Avoid Fees

In addition to being aware of potential charges, there are some things you can do to help ensure that you won’t be hit with unexpected fees. Here are a few checking account tips to avoid fees.

To avoid overdraft or minimum balance fees:

  • Check your balance regularly and before large purchases.
  • Set up automatic transfers from your savings when your account drops below a certain threshold.
  • Set up alerts to notify you when your account gets low.
  • Stay on top of regular automatic payments to ensure they don’t overdraw your account.

To avoid ATM fees:

  • Check out our Locations page to find an F&M branch ATM.
  • Carefully read the screen at out-of-network ATMs for fee details before proceeding with your transaction—or avoid them altogether.
  • Use cashback at checkout when using your debit card.

"Free" checking infographic

The Future of Fee-Free Banking

With recent technological advancements, banks can offer more and more offerings and account management tools—without the extra charges.

Using free digital banking, you can manage accounts efficiently and quickly, anywhere you go. Checking balances, transferring funds, or setting up alerts is simple and convenient using your bank’s mobile app or logging in to your account online. The more insights you have into your account, the easier it is to avoid incurring fees and overdraft charges.

Bank websites, with blogs, digital tools, and other financial literacy resources, allow financial institutions to provide their customers with easy access to financial educational materials. Customers can stay informed, learn tips for successful financial management, and utilize tools like mortgage calculators to help you navigate your financial goals successfully.

Need to send a payment? Online bill pay can help you send checks for free, through your banking app or online banking portal, avoiding the cost of checks and postage.

While all these perks can help you better manage your finances, it’s important to recognize that no app or website can replace the benefit of one-on-one assistance. At F&M Bank, we are proud to offer the best of both worlds: robust digital tools and dedicated, in-person service at your local brick-and-mortar branch.

Upgrade from Free Checking

Free checking is a wonderful, simple account option to facilitate your money management. But when you’re ready for an account with even more perks, there are many additional options out there.

As you upgrade from free checking, you can experience additional perks in features, including cash back, ATM fee refunds, and even interest on your balance. For instance, our Cash Back Checking Account offers cash rewards each month, with use of your debit card. And our Cash Back Plus Account also offers cash back—plus earned interest.

However, it’s important to note that with more perks, there may be more terms and conditions, including maintaining a higher minimum balance or having a certain number of transactions each month. Always be sure to read requirements to verify that it will be simple for you to meet them and avoid potential fees. To compare our accounts, their perks, and terms, check out our Compare Checking Accounts page.

Free Checking at F&M

At F&M Bank, we strive to offer banking products that meet your needs—wherever you are on your financial journey. Our Basic Checking Accounts provide a simple, free option for money management, with free online and mobile banking, free debit cards, free financial advisor consultations, and free e-statements. And when you’re ready to move on to a premium account, we have several options to choose from.

Stop by one at one of our locations in the Shenandoah Valley to learn more about our checking account choices, or open an account online today!