Bank fees: just when you thought they couldn't get any sneakier

Over the years, I've been hit by every bank fee imaginable: overdraft fees, non-sufficient funds and, of course, I've been ensnared in the vast matrix of ATM fees. I'm not proud of this. I think it just comes with the territory, when you're a freelance writer, or freelance anyone, and you're not paid regularly. Sometimes there are cash flow problems.

We had one last weekend, as my wife discovered when she tried to take out $20 out of our bank account. She was denied. (One of the lovely side benefits of blogging about personal finance is getting to shred myself of any humility. Yes, that's right; our account had less than $20 in it.) As it turns out, my wife tried to take the $20 from an ATM that wasn't part of the ATM network that our bank belongs to, and so a message flashed on the screen reading: "You're broke, and now move on, so we can get a customer with deeper pockets than you."

(Well, maybe those weren't the exact words, but you get the idea.)
What the ATM didn't tell my wife is that it was charging her $1.50 for trying and failing to get money out of our account.

Now, I know $1.50 is a puny amount, and as it turned out, earlier this week, I was finally paid by a magazine I write for, and so it's not like I desperately needed the cash. Still, there's the principle of the thing. So I called my bank teller and brought up the $1.50.

"Oh, your wife must have asked for your bank balance," the teller said when I called, a couple days after occasionally stewing over this injustice.

"No," I told her. "It charged us for--wait, you charge if we're checking our bank balance? Er, never mind. My wife tried to get money from the ATM, she was denied, and we were still charged. In other words, even when we don't get our money from the bank, we still have to give our money to the bank."

Even the teller sounded surprised when she found the fee on her computer reading: Non-[Name of My Bank Goes Here]-ATM Denied Fee. "I didn't know we were doing that," she admitted.

As it turned out, the teller refunded our $1.50. I think there's a lesson there, that if you see you've been saddled with a bank fee, and especially if it's low and indefensible, it's worth calling the bank on it.

Not that I'm resting easy, mind you, or even planning on spending my buck fifty on the vast array of products that I can now get, like a pack of chewing gum and--well, chewing gum. I have no doubt that the bankers who are inventing new fees to offer customers are plotting new ways to get my $1.50 and more, nickel and dollaring me with $2 and $3 fees. Nobody's tried to charge us for walking past an ATM that isn't our bank's network without using it, but just you wait...

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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