Bank of America Set to Overhaul Account and Fee Structures

man walks past bofa atm machine - bank of americaWe've learned not to get too excited around here when a bank executive says they're "very excited" about a new rollout or offering. As it turns out, we were right to hold onto our hats when it came to Bank of America's conference call earlier today. The behemoth bailout recipient says it's overhauling its checking account options, and the results could mean more of us are paying fees.

BofA executive Susan Faulkner spoke about the need for change in the face of "a new economic reality." While other big banks have made changes and implemented new or higher maintenance fees on accounts, as our sister site Daily Financepoints out, BofA's sheer size -- roughly half of us have some kind of relationship with the bank -- makes these changes significant. Faulkner wouldn't say, when asked, how much revenue the bank expects to earn by implementing these changes, but analysts have said that banks stand to lose a bundle from restrictions on overdraft and interchange fees, so it's clear that they have to make up that shortfall somewhere.Bank of America will divide its checking account customers into four categories, with four different types of accounts. Faulkner told reporters that "most of our customers" would fall into the category the bank is now calling "enhanced." This lets a household have two accounts -- helpful for budgeting -- and will cost around $15 a month, although that fee can be avoided if a user deposits $2,000 a month, keeps a balance of $5,000 or uses their Bank of America credit card a certain number of times per month. The bank is also heavily promoting the online-only banking product it rolled out last year, which costs $8.95 a month if a user decides they want to speak to a teller.

For the non-computer-savvy among us who want a simpler product, Bank of America is rolling out a single-account option called "essentials." At $9 a month, Faulkner called it "affordable," but we're betting that many of the bank's customers who opt for this (probably seniors on a fixed income), will think otherwise about paying $108 a year for their checking account. Finally, Daddy Warbucks types will be able to access a "premium" account, intended for those with higher balances and/or a mortgage with the bank. For users who have $50,000 in their Bank of America account or related Merrill Lynch brokerage accounts, BofA will enroll them in a new rewards program called "platinum privileges" that will offer them perks like a dedicated customer service number.

Bank of America is rolling this out as a pilot program to new customers this month in Arizona, Georgia and Massachusetts; it'll start coming to the rest of the U.S. in the second half of this year. If you're a Bank of America customer, read through any material the bank sends you in the coming months very carefully.

Fortunately, it's still possible for many customers to avoid monthly fees, but you have to be savvier about how you use your account to do so. If none of the fee-waiver options -- savings, direct deposit or credit card use -- are an option for you and you don't want to pay a monthly fee, you have a little bit of time to experiment on your own and see if you're comfortable with an online-only banking relationship.
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