Chasing after free checking

Ink pen on check

You've seen the headlines: Free checking is dead.

Analysts began writing its obituary in earnest last year when financial reform blocked banks from charging lucrative overdraft fees. The Durbin amendment, which kicks in this summer, substantially reduces the 1% interchange fees they imposed on debit card transactions.

I'd been bracing for the return of checking fees since my old bank, Washington Mutual, fell victim to the housing meltdown and was subsequently acquired by Chase.

WaMu attracted thousands of customers like me back in the mid-1990s with its audacious free checking with no minimum balance. I loved it and mourned the fall of WaMu. It was small comfort that Chase agreed to grandfather in my free checking. I knew it wouldn't last.

The ax fell Feb. 8 when Chase converted whole hog all of its WaMu accounts into Chase Free Extra Checking accounts, for which it charges a $12 monthly fee unless you maintain a $1,500 balance. Bye bye, grandfather; hello, fee checking.

I decided to inquire about this calves-to-slaughter treatment and visited my branch. The perky Chase rep pulled up my accounts on screen and said no problem, my total on deposit with the bank made me eligible for Premier Checking. She handed me 12 pages of 6-point disclosures, offered me a Dum Dum and sent me home a happy camper.

"Free" checking? Well, not exactly. I'm required to keep $15,000 minimum on deposit that isn't earning bupkis. On the upside, I still get free checks, some variable interest (nearly bupkis) and I'm now entitled to a free safe-deposit box* (I tracked the asterisk nine pages to find that it's a 3-by-5-incher).

Still, if I hadn't asked, I could have been paying a dozen dollars at minimum every month, $144 annually, for the privilege of Chase checking.

Minus gas, I figure I'm up $10 already.

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