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updated 10/30/2006 5:50:37 PM ET 2006-10-30T22:50:37

Making a mistake with your checking account can cost you a lot of money these days.

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A survey of banks in 25 large American cities by Bankrate.com, an online financial information service, found that the average fee for a bounced check has hit a record $27.40, up from $27.04 in the previous survey last spring.

At the same time, the average surcharge at automated teller machines, or ATMs, has jumped to an all-time high of $1.64 from $1.60 in the spring and $1.54 a year ago, the study indicated.

“What makes these fees especially irritating is that they’re avoidable,” said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst with Bankrate.com. “It’s something that pops up and bites you when you’re not careful.”

Consumers can avoid bouncing checks by remembering to track the use of their debit cards, which generally are linked to checking accounts, and by keeping their checkbooks balanced, he said.

And ATM surcharges can be avoided if consumers plan ahead and get cash from their own bank’s machines and not those of other institutions.

“What the study indicates and that when you use somebody else’s ATM, you have to pay dearly for the privilege,” McBride said.

The biannual survey by Bankrate.com, which is based in North Palm Beach, Fla., also looked at interest and non-interest checking accounts offered at nearly 250 financial institutions.

When it comes to checking accounts, the bottom line is that those that pay interest generally require higher initial deposits and higher minimum balances than those that don’t pay interest, McBride said.

But the interest that most pay — averaging just 0.34 percent — “is so dreadfully low it’s not worth it,” he said.

“By settling for average interest earnings of 0.34 percent instead of the 5 percent returns available in a savings or money market account, the consumer forfeits more than $100 per year in interest earnings on a $2,500 balance,” Bankrate.com pointed out.

The study found that for interest-paying checking accounts, the minimum opening deposit rose to about $615 in the latest survey from about $430 in the spring — a 43 percent jump. The minimum balance that must be maintained to avoid fees was $2,660, it said.

Meanwhile, checking accounts that don’t pay interest required opening deposits averaging about $88 and minimum balances to avoid fees of about $210.

“More than 60 percent of non-interest accounts have no balance requirement or monthly service fees,” McBride said. “That’s what you want in a checking account — not a token amount of interest earnings.”

The average monthly service fee for interest-bearing accounts was $10.74, while the average fee for non-interest accounts was $2.50, the study showed. Both were down from the spring survey.

“People should look at these service fees because they can really add up over the course of a year,” McBride said.

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