Gordon Powers

Everyone hates bank fees, mainly because they dislike paying for the privilege of accessing their own money. And 'virtual banks' and other smaller financial institutions fighting for market share have been busy trying to capitalize on these feelings of resentment.

ING Direct recently launched a new Twitter application which lets you tweet your mounting fees and keeps track of how much you're spending every two weeks on bank fees. It's also a spot to voice your thoughts on whether bank fees in general are too high.

If you don't have a Twitter account, you can log in via a guest account at FeeTweeter.fairfees.ca and blast away. The Fee Tweeter stream also displays Tweets from other users bellyaching about their fee experiences.

Opting for a more traditional medium, Surrey, B.C.-based credit union Coast Capital Savings recently sent staffers wearing "I love fees" T-shirts out onto the streets, encouraging people to sign a giant greeting card congratulating the big banks for the billions of dollars in fees they charge annually and touting a Web site that cheekily offers caps, T-shirts and baby bibs with messages such as "Fees forever!" and "Honk if you love fees!"

Clearly, the battle has begun. Not sure where to wade in to take advantage? Try the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada's Cost of Banking Guide. It will provide you with a list of packages or accounts that best fit your banking profile. Just enter your typical minimum monthly balance and the number of ATM withdrawals, cheques you write, etc., and it will suggest packages that might offer some savings. Some banks will waive some fees if you have a certain type of account or a high average daily balance, for instance.While these packages may reduce your overall costs, they certainly won't cover everything. Here are problem areas to watch out for:

1. Insufficient funds. The advent of ATMs and debit cards has made it much easier to bounce overlooked cheques, triggering hefty overdraft fees — often as much as $40 per item. Watch your balance, particularly if you're using a joint account. If you or your partner simply can't get things straight, arrange for overdraft protection. Generally around $3 a month, a full year's coverage costs less than the fee for just one NSF cheque.

2. Debit card denial. Chase Bank in the United States recently instituted a $1 fee if a debit card transaction is denied more than two times a month due to an insufficient balance in your account. Expect the same fee to soon show up on this side of the border.

3. Returned items. If a cheque deposited in your account bounces, you're charged a fee — often about $5 per item — for being silly enough to accept it in the first place. If you can, pass this cost back to the person that stiffed you. And be more discerning when accepting cheques in the future.

4. No-fee accounts. All the big banks have special no-fee accounts for the very young and the fairly old, as well aslow-fee accounts for students. Otherwise, you're looking at flat-fee options that include a set number of transactions. Several online competitors, like President's Choice Financial and ING, offer no-fee accounts with no limit on the number of transactions, and no minimum balance requirement. Of course, they don't have those handy corner branches either, in case you want to do something other make a deposit.

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5. ATM costs. If you use an ATM that doesn't belong to your bank or doesn't have at least a reciprocal agreement, expect to get dinged twice, once by your bank and again by the competitor. Figure on an extra $1.50 if you use an ATM from a competing bank and twice that if you visit the private label machines at the local bar. If you use an ATM twice a week as most people do, that's easily a couple of hundred dollars a year, so use your own bank's ATMs whenever possible. If your account package allows for a limited number of transactions, use them wisely. Withdraw one large amount rather than making several potentially chargeable trips. Or get some cash from the local store. Many retailers will allow you to add as much as $100 to a reasonable debit card purchase, which will then be given back to you in cash.

6. Closing costs. Dormant accounts usually start to cost you about $20 annually after two years of inactivity. If you don't need them, close them. At the same time, most banks will charge you a $15-$20 fee if you close an account within 90 days of opening it. So, if you do see yourself changing your mind about where to bank, be sure to wait awhile.

The bottom line: The banks are trying to protect their businesses against a recession, so watch for unexpected fees. And if you don't agree, ask for a break. No financial institution advertises that it's willing to waive fees, but some of them will do so if pressed.