Jeff Gelles: Bank customer feels pinch of a larger balance or fees

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Shaula Wright in the kitchen of her Cherry Hill home, a farmhouse built in 1743. New TD Bank rules are challenging her loyalty. JEFF GELLES / Staff

Shaula Wright knows values - one benefit of a long career as a content appraiser for insurers, law firms, and others who need to know what things are worth.

So when TD Bank advised her last month that the minimum balance on her checking account - the deposit she'd need to avoid a $10 monthly fee - would soon jump from $100 to $250, she didn't mince words in response.

"A 150 percent increase is outrageous in this time of belt tightening," she wrote in a letter of complaint. A $250 deposit "may be chump change to a one percenter. But it's a heck of a lot more than a lot of payments I make monthly."

To be sure, Wright lives a reasonably comfortable life in a 1743 farmhouse tucked away in Cherry Hill's Deer Park section - a home, she notes proudly, that was built the same year Thomas Jefferson was born.

But Wright is caring for an ailing husband while keeping up her appraisal business, so she's mindful of expenses, including the cost of tying up extra funds just to avoid $120 a year in fees. And she's worried for the bank's "fixed-income and lower-income customers," she says.

"The sad part is that it's penalizing customers who can least afford it," she says. "A lot of people only get $700 or $800 a month in Social Security."

Adding to Wright's frustrations were what seemed like conflicting explanations for why her terms were changing. One manager said it was "because of government regulations," Wright recalls. At another branch, she was told it was simply because the bank's "costs had gone up."

Wright could, of course, just take her business elsewhere, as millions of people have done in the years since the financial crisis, foreclosure surge, and bank bailouts created a tsunami of bad banker PR. Credit unions opened 2.3 million checking accounts in the last year alone, according to a study by Callahan & Associates.

But so far, Wright hasn't done so. She's liked the bank since TD's predecessor, Commerce Bank, came through with a $10,000 home-equity loan when other banks turned down the self-employed couple.

"We were loyal and stuck with them," Wright says.

And she still likes TD Bank's long hours and its focus on consumer services, a centerpiece of Commerce's original brand, such as the coin-counting machines it still offers at most branches.

So what should Wright do? The second manager she spoke with sought to address her problem by helping her shift to a different kind of account - "Convenience Checking" - that still requires a $100 minimum deposit. But she remains upset by what she calls the bank's high-handedness.

Gabe Weissman, a TD Bank spokesman, says Wright was caught in a shift the bank began two years ago, when it decided to quit offering a "50-Plus" account for older customers and replace it with "60-Plus Checking." The old account required only a $100 minimum for its benefits, which included free checks. The new one sets the bar at $250.

Weissman says the bank initially grandfathered customers with 50-Plus accounts, but recently began to shift them to the new terms. Still, the bank offers enough alternatives to meet most people's needs, he says.

"We really do try to offer customers a choice, and we have a number of accounts that can help minimize or avoid costs for banking services," he told me.

What are Convenience Checking's drawbacks? Wright says one is paying for her checks, which the 50-Plus and 60-Plus accounts include. Another is that when the account balance dips too low, the monthly fee is 50 percent higher: $15 rather than $10.

Was there truth in what Wright heard about the role of regulations in TD Bank's changes? Brushing that aside as "a lot of noise in the industry," Weissman says TD is simply trying to align its pricing "with the value that we provide to our customers."

Even so, analysts say many banks are scrambling to replace revenue lost because of new rules reducing their take from overdraft penalties and fees on debit-card purchases.

"The economics of checking accounts have changed dramatically since 2009," says Greg McBride, senior analyst at BankRate.com.

BankRate tracks fees and minimum balances at 250 large financial institutions. From fall 2009 to fall 2012, the average balance required to avoid a monthly fee at those banks rose from $185 to $723, McBride says.

Compared with many other large banks, it seems, TD Bank is mostly living up to its reputation - even if it has left customers like Shaula Wright understandably miffed.

 


Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776, jgelles@phillynews.com, or @jeffgelles on Twitter. Read his blog at www.inquirer.com/inquiringconsumer.