This post is from staff writer Sarah Gilbert.

Bank of America will soon be charging $5 per month for consumers who use its debit cards to access the money in their accounts. This fee, to be charged whether you use your debit card once or several dozen times, is a direct response (a kind of “up yours,” if you ask me) to the recent limits on what banks can charge merchants for debit transactions, and a less direct response to rules on allowing debit card transactions to clear, triggering overdraft fees if consumers don’t have enough money to cover them.

Banks make big money from fees of all sorts; this is something I’ve instinctively known since I was in college and paid some nasty overdraft fees of my own. Once, the tiny pub for which I was working was struggling so badly that my $23 waitress paycheck bounced — triggering a $27 fee. This caused another fee when a check I wrote bounced. Double ouch!

That’s why I wasn’t surprised in the late 1990s when I visited a mentor whose new role was in investor relations at a big consumer bank (now Wachovia). We had worked together in investment banking, and because we knew exactly how much money our group and department was making — we tracked it on team reports in our weekly meetings, and it seemed like a lot — I was bowled over to learn that the bank made more in fees than in all of its investment banking income in 1997. This isn’t that unusual. Want to know what they earned in the last fiscal year?

  • Wells Fargo: $12.55 billion in fees and service charges. Nearly half of this is “service charges on deposit accounts,” most of which is probably overdraft and returned-item fees. That’s 31% of total non-interest income. At about 70 million customers, this is $179 a year each.
  • Bank of America: $17.5 billion in fees and services charges. Well over half of this number is “service charges,” which the bank mourns in its 10-K “decreased $1.6 billion largely due to the impact of Regulation E.” It’s 29% of total non-interest income. (Bank of America made more in investment banking income than Wells Fargo in 2010, by a lot.) But here’s the worst part: with 57 million customers, this is $307 per year apiece.
  • JP Morgan Chase: $6.3 billion in fees and service charges. At only 12% of its non-interest income, Chase seems almost prudish. The bank makes way more of its income from investment banking, asset management (mutual funds and brokerage fees) and “principal transactions” — in other words, trading for its own account. In the investment banking world, Chase is doing great. (And some of the debit fees may be hidden in “credit card income”; it’s not detailed.)
  • Citibank: $5.95 billion in fees and services charges. Citigroup is an enormous company with a huge variety of different revenue sources, and the bank breaks out its fees very differently; so these are a whopping 43% of non-interest income from its banking operations. Most of this comes from credit and debit cards; something Citi will be working extra hard to replace.
  • A Credit Union: $7.8 million in fees and service charges. I picked a credit union in my hometown, Unitus Community Credit Union, for comparison. This one has more than 52% of its non-interest income in fees; these work out to about $108 a year per member.

Despite the simplification of these numbers and the difficulty of comparing apples to apples (each bank categorizes its fees a little differently) it’s pretty easy to see who is milking their customers for all they’re worth and who is treating them relatively fairly. Banks have a natural and regulatory limit to how much interest they can charge — it’s all based on the total assets on deposit and market rates set by the Federal Reserve.

Banks need to make up the difference
There’s also the market’s demand that public companies maintain a growth rate in revenue and net income from year to year. In a challenging economy and with the mean government creating more and more limits on how and when the customers (both those like you and me and the merchants who swipe your debit cards) can be charged, banks like Bank of America and Wells Fargo are going to need to find somewhere else to make up that fee revenue.

At $60 a year, a debit card fee may sound sensible to a bank which stands to lose about 20 cents a transaction after the Durbin amendment took effect at the beginning of October. At this rate, a bank can afford for you to make an average of 25 debit transactions a month without losing anything (and maybe you’ll be gun shy and use it less).

What will this cost you?
Unless you have a “platinum” account or other premium account, like one tied to a brokerage account, most of the big banks will likely be including debit card usage fees in their fee lineup over the next several months. If you use cash (and take it out of the ATMs your own bank provides) or checks, you’ll avoid the fees. While it may seem abhorrent to pay $60 a year for something we all once believed to be a banking right, compared to other fees we’ve absorbed without much of a fight — like out-of-network ATM fees (I saw one at $4 at a U.S. Bank machine and shrieked in terror, even though $3 fees are now common) and, of course, those nasty overdraft fees, this isn’t actually that big.

Let’s face it: Most of us have become accustomed to using our debit cards. They allow us to avoid carrying around ungainly piles of cash, or to write out checks and then have to do the accounting (remember checkbook balancing?). If you’re already at a big bank like Bank of America, you’ll end up paying the fee unless you’re extremely stubborn and disciplined.

Should you change banks?
The attractiveness of getting a new bank depends on the sort of bank account you have now. If you have any of a panoply of ordinary checking accounts, take a gander again at some of those “average fees per customer” numbers I found. If you have a little time, go through your statements for the past year. How many fees did you pay? Would an alternative bank, like a credit union or USAA (the servicemember’s bank for military members, veterans, and their families), charge you less?

It’s quite likely that you would pay fewer fees at a bank that was less beholden to the demands of the shareholders. But you have a bigger question before you: does the hassle outweigh your reluctance to pay?

If you have bill pay and direct deposit set up at your Big Bank Account, and a linked credit card, savings or brokerage account, and CDs or other banking products connected to Big Bank, you may want to swallow hard and tell yourself, “it’s just not worth it.” (And maybe your accounts could qualify for a debit fee waiver.)

But if you’ve already been thinking about switching to a credit union (remember, you’re the shareholder at a credit union), are starting a new job or don’t have many accounts, now could be a very good time — and, along with many other consumers pulling their accounts from big banks thanks to the Occupy Wall Street movement, maybe your bank might even pay attention and start dialing down the fee meter.

What I’m doing
I have an account with USAA, because my husband is in the Army. This bank makes me very happy; there are no out-of-network fees, and any fees that other banks charge me are refunded. The management has pledged not to charge for debit transactions. Customer service is amazing and they even have a really great iPhone app.

But I also have a Wells Fargo account that I opened last year for depositing freelance checks and cash. It’s right down the street, and I don’t have to wait several days to mail the deposit in to USAA. What I’m planning to do is to try for asceticism, and never use my debit card except at the ATM. I’ll let you know how it goes; and track my fees to see if I succeed, or fail, at spending less than that average consumer.

Wish me luck!