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Slices of Life - Free doesn't always mean free

August 30, 2013
Jill Pertler - Columnist , Traer Star-Clipper

There's no such thing as a free lunch - or free checking. Not anymore.

You may be familiar with free checking. He was a mainstay of the 1980s and 90s - following on the heels of free love from the 1970s. Free checking was a favorite act for many and a perfect combination of talent and showmanship. He provided us with a place to stash our cash and a checkbook, which we used to retrieve said cash at a later date. Free checking enjoyed a peaceful existence in our homes. We figured the relationship would last forever.

Then, along came regulation, which is basically a 50-cent vocabulary version of rules. Regulation cracked the whip on freedom, making it practically an endangered species. I've never been a big proponent of rules, unless they pertain to an early bedtime for my kids or a tax credit for moms who drive minivans.

I don't pretend to understand regulation. It's sort of like an elephant in the room. Big and cumbersome, but not something anyone wants to talk about. Let's just say it changed the way banks do business. Regulation regulated the "free" right out of "freedom," leaving us with "dom," which when spoken out loud sounds a whole lot like another word, but that's just my observation.

Oh sure, plenty of banks claim to offer free checking, but be wary of illusions. There's almost always a price tag on the free sticker. Many consumers may be unaware of the costs of free checking because free can be a relative term - like your great aunt Sophie who smiles to your face but then talks behind your back. Some things aren't what they seem.

Nowadays, most free checking comes with numerous stipulations - a.k.a. "strings attached." In other words, to qualify for free checking, one must often jump through more hoops than a circus poodle.

To further complicate matters, the hoops at one financial institution are different from the hoops at the bank down the road. One place requires me to swipe my debit card many times each month. Failing to do so incurs a service charge, making free checking anything but. Another bank allows only a limited number of debit card swipes before charges kick in. If I forget which bank is which - a distinct possibility - I'm like a tightrope walker without a net. Banks are serious about their finance charges. They are not clowning around.

Some financial institutions require a minimum balance - approximately equal to half your annual income plus the age of your oldest child. Other hoops require you to have two separate accounts, with a regularly scheduled transfer from checking to savings (or vice versa; I can never keep that one straight). I've yet to figure out how the bank benefits from me transferring $25 from one account to the other each month when my money's already in their vault anyway. I'm certainly not a numbers person, but this one is like a trapeze artist, swinging way over my head.

For the most part, the nice bankers will try to help you meet their stipulations in the manner that causes the least pain. It's like they're saying, "Climb into the cannon, put on this clown nose, juggle these bowling pins and I promise you won't get hurt." I appreciate their efforts, but I'm questioning why they created rules that don't make sense in the first place. Why not get rid of them? (The rules, not the bankers.)

Free checking has become an oxymoron of sorts. Or maybe the word itself is a typo. Perhaps the free is supposed to be fee, or maybe the "R" is silent - like in February. Either way, things have changed and those of us opposed to change miss the good old days when free was free and if you wanted to experience the chaos and confusion of a three-ring circus, you bought a ticket; you didn't visit your bank.

Jill Pertler is an award-winning syndicated columnist, playwright and author of "The Do-It-Yourselfer's Guide to Self-Syndication" You can read more columns at the Slices of Life page on Facebook.



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