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ATM fees are the most hated bank fee but they're 'completely avoidable,' says expert — here's how to dodge them

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ATM fees are the most hated bank fee among consumers, meaning that people detest them even more than airline baggage fees, according to a new MagnifyMoney survey of more than 1,000 Americans.

It doesn't help that withdrawing money from an out-of-network ATM is more expensive than ever. The average withdrawal fee hit a record $4.72, an increase of 33% over the last decade, according to a 2019 Bankrate survey of 10 financial institutions in each of 25 large U.S. markets.

Despite reaching record highs and how much customers loathe them, ATM surcharges are still the most commonly paid fees, according to MagnifyMoney. Nearly 40% of respondents have paid one or more ATM fees in the last year, while only 18% of Americans were charged with an overdraft fee and 13% paid a credit card annual fee in the same time period.

But you don't have to pay money to get access to your money. "ATM fees are completely avoidable," Greg McBride, chief financial analyst and senior vice president at Bankrate.com told Grow earlier this year. "Having money needlessly drained out of your account by repeatedly going to out-of-network ATMs is indicative of other sloppy financial habits that may be inhibiting your progress."

Sidestepping unnecessary fees at the ATM can become even more challenging as you approach holiday travel season, since ATM charges vary depending on your location. Still, you can dodge surcharges and save money by planning ahead and following these three tips.

1. Look into smaller banks and credit unions

To avoid ATM fees, make ATM withdrawals within your bank's network. "Just like health insurance, if you go outside your bank's network, it's going to cost you," says McBride. If you're away from home, locating an in-network bank in unfamiliar territory can be difficult and even more expensive.

McBride suggests looking into accounts offered by credit unions and smaller banks, since they tend to make more machines available than bigger banks. In order to stay competitive, many smaller banks and credit unions belong to nationwide fee-free ATM alliances, and "that literally opens up tens of thousands of ATMs around the country you can use for free," says McBride.

Locating the nearest no-fee ATM is as easy as checking your bank's website, downloading the bank's app, or calling customer service, he says.

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2. Use your debit card to get cash back

If you're really in a pinch for cash and you can't get to an in-network ATM, you still have options. You can avoid fees by getting cash back when paying with your debit card, for example, McBride says. Most grocery stores and pharmacies offer the option for free: "Banks don't charge for that, and very few merchants do either."

Cash back makes sense if you're in a pinch, but don't make it a habit, says McBride. Using your debit card often means you're missing out on purchase protection. You might also be missing out on rewards that can help you save money in the long run, like extra cash back on groceries or frequent flyer miles.

Just like health insurance, if you go outside your bank's network, it's going to cost you.
Greg McBride
senior vice president, Bankrate.com

3. Explore nontraditional banks

One of the primary reasons ATM fees continue to climb is because it's easier than ever to avoid cash, says McBride. The operators of ATMs rely on the income they receive from fees. Because of financial technology companies like Venmo, banks are seeing fewer customers and, in turn, losing money.

Depending on your banking habits, it could make sense to switch to a digital bank that operates without any branches and offers digital- or mobile-only financial services. Because these banks don't have brick-and-mortar costs like traditional financial firms, they tend to offer accounts with higher savings rates and lower fees — including low-fee or free ATM access.

If you want to avoid paying extra to access your cash, MagnifyMoney compiled a list of banks that offer incentives to either reduce or eliminate out-of-network ATM fees. Here the three nontraditional banks on the list:

  1. Axos Bank — offers unlimited domestic ATM fee reimbursements.
  2. Radius Bank — offers unlimited ATM fee reimbursements.
  3. E* Trade — offers unlimited ATM fee refunds if you maintain an average monthly balance of $5,000.

Smart cash moves like these can keep more money in your account to help you move toward your financial goals.

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