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ATM cards can be a costly convenience

That little plastic ATM card you are carrying in your wallet or purse is beginning to cost you more than you think. At more and more banks, it now costs $1 a pop to withdraw funds from a machine. The tab goes as high as $2 at certain Pennsylvania institutions, while other savvy bankers have invented even more exotic ways to separate you from your cash automatically.

Once upon a time, it wasn't that way. When ATMs arrived, banks gave away coupons for free McDonald's and Wendy's hamburgers if you just would learn to push the buttons on one of those electronic marvels.

That was long ago. Everything has changed. Now you are what marketers call an ATM "captive customer." They've got you coming and going because you have become addicted to convenience _ getting instant cash in the middle of the night or without waiting in a teller line.

And you are paying for it.

Some outfits have started to tack "surcharges" on top of regular ATM fees to create a profitable money machine of their own, especially in gambling meccas.

A surcharge occurs when you use a machine other than your bank's, and the second outfit slaps on a fee in addition to what your institution or an ATM network might charge.

Valley Bank, Las Vegas, netted $500,000 in extra income in one month alone by imposing a $1 surcharge at casinos and other non-branch locations. Even though the machines forewarn customers of the charge, 93 percent proceed with a transaction anyway, said Jon Joseph, Valley's general counsel.

Spokesmen for First Interstate Bank, Reno, refused to discuss the bank's $1 surcharge to folks using its Cash Center machines in casinos and retail stores. The cost could go to $2 for someone who is not a customer of First Interstate, according to Bank Rate Monitor.

An extra ATM buck here or there may not seem like much to the average Joe or Jane, but it adds up.

Three of every five ATM card-holders use a machine two or more times a month, according to the Gallup Organization; 33 percent use it five or more times. Unless you watch your machine habits carefully, it's easy to get zapped for $25 to $60 a year.

Here is how to keep expenses down:

Instead of tossing out the literature that comes with your ATM card and/or monthly statement, note the cost of transactions at different types of machines. These include deposits, withdrawals, transfers between accounts and balance inquiries.

If you use your own bank's ATMs, you probably will escape paying a fee. If the machine is part of a regional ATM network, with strange names like Star, NYCE, Exchange, MAC or Honor, you probably will be charged 50 cents to a dollar, with the accent on the higher amount. The tab gets higher _ at least $1 _ at machines that are part of a national network such as Cirrus or Plus.

A couple of years ago, the range usually was only 25 cents to 75 cents.

The type of transaction you make often determines the charge, especially on regional or national ATMs.

Home Federal Bank, San Diego, charges $1 per withdrawal, but only 35 cents per transfer or balance inquiry. At Seafirst Bank, Seattle, it's 60 cents per withdrawal, 35 cents per inquiry. Institutions such as NBD, Detroit, and NCNB, Charlotte, N.C., charge a dollar regardless of the transaction.

According to Bank Rate Monitor surveys, some of the highest fees show up in Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh National Bank charges $2 per withdrawal, $1.25 per transfer or balance inquiry. Outside Pittsburgh, Mellon Bank also charges $2 per withdrawal.

At Chevy Chase Savings Bank in Maryland, it's a straight $2 for either a withdrawal or inquiry, compared with $1.50 at U.S. National Bank in Portland, Ore.

The geographic location of an ATM can influence fees. Great American Bank, San Diego, has a $1 withdrawal fee in Arizona, but only 50 cents in Washington.

Many institutions will waive fees entirely if you maintain a minimum balance in your account. At Goldome in New York, you will pay 70 cents above a $10,000 balance, or 95 cents below, if you use a "foreign" machine.

Complicated? You bet. Costly? It's getting there.

Just forget those free hamburgers and concentrate on asking your bank to spell out its ATM charges. And remember to use its machine, not somebody else's.

Latest rate trend: Banks are still clipping two- to three-hundredths of a percent off their CD yields each week as the "bottom" of the down cycle gets closer. BRM's ratio of rate decreases to increases widened to 13-to-1 from 4-to-1 the previous week.

- Robert K. Heady publishes Bank Rate Monitor, 100 Highest Yields and other financial newsletters from his office in North Palm Beach.