Unemployed? Your Banking May Have Just Become More Expensive

When you lose your job, the last thing you need is for your expenses to increase. Yet, at some banks, that's exactly what can happen with your checking account. A friend of mine recently learned this lesson the hard way with Bank of America. I thought her experience might be worth sharing.

Several years ago, my friend signed up for a free checking account at Bank of America. But this month, she realized the bank had begun charging her an $8.95 maintenance fee. When she talked the bank representative about the new fee, he informed her that the bank began charging her because she no longer had at least one direct deposit payment coming into her checking account each month. She has been unemployed for several months, and she hadn't noticed that she was being charged the fee until her most recent statement.

Don't get me wrong: it was her responsibility to know the terms of her account, and she didn't dispute that she should be paying the fees. But the bank representative also informed her that, since she had more than $750 in her account, she could switch it to a "Regular" checking account (instead of her "MyAccess" checking account) and escape the monthly service fee as long as she maintained that minimum balance. The "Regular" account also had exactly the same features as the "MyAccess" account.

So the obvious solution was that she would change the account type. But I have to wonder: why should she need to pay a maintenance fee when her account would have qualified for free checking if it went by a different name? Bank of America squeezed a few months of maintenance fees out of her because she was unemployed and hadn't realized her account was only free due to direct deposit.

And I don't mean to single out Bank of America: other banks do this as well. How about Chase? The "Chase Checking" account also waives their $6 monthly fee if you have direct deposit. In this case, you can also avoid the fee with five debit card purchases per month, but if you didn't realize that, then losing your job will cost you here as well.

I'm sure other banks have similar deals when it comes to free checking through direct deposit. And I get that: if you're a bank, you like it when your checking customers have a steady stream of income. But it does seem a tad morally repugnant to begin charging someone more for their checking account once they become unemployed -- particularly if there are ways that they could avoid that fee, through a minimum balance requirement or several debit purchases.

Again, however, this boils down to banks just not caring much about customers these days. My friend intends to leave Bank of America as soon as she gets a new job. If the bank had worked a little harder on their customer service, then she might have stayed. For example, the bank could have a mechanism in place that alerted them when a direct deposit stopped. Then, a bank representative could call that customers and inform her that her account will be subject to a fee. The rep could also provide options for switching to a different account type with other requirements that might help her avoid the fee. But in this day of lackluster customer service, that's probably too much to ask.