NEW YORK — Bank of America plans to start charging customers a $5 monthly fee for using their debit card to make purchases. The fee will be rolled out starting early next year.
A number of banks have already either rolled out or are testing such fees. But Bank of America's announcement carries added weight because it is the largest U.S. bank by deposits.
Anne Pace, a Bank of America Corp. spokeswoman, said Thursday that customers will only be charged the fee if they use their debit cards for purchases in any given month. Customers won't be charged if they only use their cards at an ATM.
The fee will apply to basic accounts and will be in addition to any existing monthly service fees. For example, one of the bank's basic accounts charges a $12 monthly fee unless customers meet certain conditions, such as maintaining a minimum average balance of $1,500.
A fee for using debit cards is still a novel concept for many consumers and was unheard of before this year. But there are signs it may soon become an industry norm.
SunTrust, a regional bank based in Atlanta, began charging a $5 debit card fee on its basic checking accounts this summer. Regions Financial, which is based in Birmingham, Ala., plans to start charging a $4 fee next month.
Chase and Wells Fargo are also testing $3 monthly debit card fees in select markets. Neither bank has said when it will make a final decision on whether to roll out the fee more broadly.
The growing prevalence of the debit card fee is alarming for Josh Wood, a 32-year-old financial adviser in Amarillo, Texas.
Wood relies entirely on debit cards to avoid interest charges on a credit card. If his bank, Wells Fargo, began charging a debit card fee, he said he would take his business to a credit union.
If a debit fee became so prevalent that it was unavoidable, Wood said he's not sure how he'd react.
"I might use all cash. Or go back to writing checks," he said.
The debit card fee isn't the only unwelcome change for checking account customers are seeing either. The banking industry has been raising fees and scaling back on rewards programs as they adjust to new regulations that will limit traditional revenue sources.
Starting Oct. 1, a regulation will cap the fees that banks can collect from merchants whenever customers swipe their debit cards. Those fees generated $19 billion in revenue for banks in 2009, according to the Nilson Report, which tracks the payments industry.
There is no similar cap on the fees that banks can collect from merchants when customers use their credit cards, however. That means banks may increasingly encourage customers to reach for their credit cards, reversing a trend toward debit card usage in the past several years.
An increasing reliance on credit cards would be particularly beneficial for Bank of America, which is a major credit card issuer, notes Bart Narter, a banking analyst with Celent, a consulting firm.