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By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 8/28/2008 7:21:36 AM ET 2008-08-28T11:21:36

Wait a minute – aren’t banks supposed to help you save your money?

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In theory the answer to that question should be yes, but an ever-growing legion of bank fees and other expenses can affect your bottom line more than you might imagine. ATM fees alone can hobble the budgets of even the most prudent planners.

It is possible to turn the tables in at least some key areas, though.

Here’s how to get your bank to giveth rather than taketh away.

1. Pick the right bank. Especially if you just moved to a new city or you’re just starting out in life, don’t open an account at the first bank you see. Instead, shop around and ask plenty of questions. Ideally, you’re looking for a bank that provides free checking, direct deposit, online bill paying, decent interest rates and many convenient branches and ATMs.

2. Inquire about minimum-balance requirements. Many banks charge monthly fees for failing to maintain their minimum account balances. If you’re not likely to meet those requirements, consider taking your business elsewhere. Or, find out whether you can get the fees waived if you have your paycheck deposited directly into your account and if you don’t do face-to-face business with tellers.

3. Beware of this so-called “courtesy.” Unless you say no to “courtesy overdraft protection,” you could end up paying as much as $39 for each overdraft from your checking account. Instead, link your checking account to your savings account, credit-card account or home equity line of credit.

4. Do some advance planning. Going out on a weekend night in an unfamiliar part of town? Remember to do a quick online search to see whether your bank has any ATMs where you’re headed. Otherwise, if you get cash from another bank’s ATM, you’ll probably be double-whammied with fees from that bank and your own bank.

5. Make wise money moves overseas. If you’ve used ATM machines to withdraw cash while traveling overseas in recent years, you may have been hit with enormous fees. Credit-card currency-conversion fees also may have walloped you. Before leaving town, visit this Bankrate.com site to find out which credit card to use while traveling, and check with your bank to see whether it has ATM alliances with banks in the countries you plan to visit.

6. Earn more from your savings account. Rather than relying on a traditional savings account that provides low yields in the 0.2 percent range, consider an online-only savings or money market account with annual percentage yields in the 3 percent range. You can find FDIC-insured savings accounts by going to the “Compare rates” link at Bankrate.com and choosing “100 Highest MMAs.” Credit unions are another option to consider; some actually offer yields above 7 percent for your first $500 or so in savings. To shop around for a credit union near you, visit this site.

7. Avoid credit-card debt. The worst fees of all will haunt you if you fail to pay off your credit-card balances in full and on time each month. Bearing that in mind, use your credit cards with extreme caution and humility and be conscientious about their due dates.

8. Be careful with debit and check cards. When using these cards, be diligent about logging transactions in your checkbook register. It’s also a good idea to use online banking so you can check balances often and make sure nothing funny is happening in your account.

9. Shop around for decent loan terms. If you’re in the market for a car loan or another type of loan, credit unions can come to your rescue yet again because they tend to offer lower interest rates. To find a credit union in your area, click here.

10. Know where to turn. If you’ve been treated unfairly by a bank, try calling customer service about the matter. If that doesn’t help, find the bank’s main phone number and call a senior vice president who ultimately is responsible for the issue you’re having. You also can complain to regulators at the Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

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