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'Free' checking gets rarer and more complicated

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Free checking isn't necessarily a given at financial institutions these days and, where it is offered, it often comes with requirements.

However, it also increasingly comes with rewards.

For example, Carol Fastrich said, Upper Allen Township-based AmeriChoice Federal Credit Union — where she is vice president of marketing — has always offered free checking.

"Banks are moving away from free checking, and credit unions typically are holding steady with free checking; that's really the mainstay of our membership, and so we want to do everything that we can to continue to offer free checking," Fastrich said.

AmeriChoice isn't stopping at that, though. This year, Fastrich said, the credit union will add rewards to its consumer checking accounts, so patrons will get money back on their debit card purchases. The rewards won't apply to commercial checking accounts, she said, because AmeriChoice already offers interest on them.

Fastrich's generality notwithstanding, banks here are a mixed bag on free checking. Lancaster-based Fulton Bank offers it, according to spokeswoman Laura J. Wakeley. But it calls it "Simply Checking," lest customers be confused when they incur a fee by, say, overdrawing the account.

Pittsburgh-based PNC Bank stopped offering free checking to new consumer customers in August 2013, according to spokeswoman Nicole Berger, and will transition existing customers to standard checking accounts with a $7 monthly service charge in June this year.

However, Berger said, the charge will not be assessed on customers age 62 or older. It also will be waived for those who have a $500 average monthly balance in the account or $500 in combined qualifying monthly direct deposits.

"The impact on customers is minimal, as nine out of 10 active PNC customers are banking this way already with balances that exceed minimums for each account," Berger said. "This is part of our long-term strategy to remain financially strong and invest more in technology and the services that enable customers to bank where and when they want."

Berger also noted that PNC currently offers free checking to small-business customers.

At Swatara Township-based Metro Bank spokeswoman Natalie Neyer said free consumer checking has been a staple since the bank opened its doors in 1985. Today, it has two versions, both offering an instant-issue Visa debit card, unlimited check writing and a free first order of checks. The one for customers age 50 and older also features interest and a free safe deposit box for the first year.

For commercial customers, Metro has three basic offerings, with no charge at the following combined transaction per month and minimum balance amounts: 200 and $1,000; 400 and $5,000; and 4,000 and $10,000. The last option includes tiered interest rates on balances above $10,000.

Manheim Township-based Susquehanna Bank similarly touts the features of its Stellar Checking with Smart Rewards program, which spokesman Matthew Kemeny described as "better than free" when consumers choose eStatements — if they want paper statements, there's a $3 monthly fee.

Regardless of statement choice, the account has a 5-cent reward each time a customer swipes a debit card or pays a bill online; a $1-per-month award for those who schedule automatic transfers totaling $100 a month from checking to savings; and an annual reward equal to 5 percent of their total rewards accumulated in the past 12 months.

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