This post is from staff writer Sarah Gilbert.

Did you ever look at a bank’s website and think to yourself, “Why would they give you free bill pay when they charge for everything else?” Even with the super-restrictive accounts that limit ATM deposits and withdrawals; put holds on most of your checks; and demand monthly fees or regular savings transfers; bill pay is usually offered free. It’s surely not an inexpensive process from the bank’s perspective; there’s the technology and software required for processing and security and for many payees the bank is eating the printing and postage costs. (If I was a betting woman, I’d put lots of money on the suspicion that, per transaction, bill pay is far more expensive than, say, overdrafts due to debit card transactions, for which banks charge more than $30 per instance.)

Why BofA thought debit fees would fly
When Bank of America first announced they would charge fees simply for the use of the debit card (the bank later reversed its decision) it was a calculated risk based on the belief that their large ATM network and, most importantly, their freebies had their hooks in customers.

“They’re hoping that people will throw up their hands and be willing to pay $5 a month to spare themselves the hassle of changing,” said Ron Lieber of the New York Times in an interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. The hassle isn’t with changing direct deposit routing and buying new checks and vanity debit cards — it’s more about changing bill pay. “People have gotten used to having their credit card bill paid from their bank account and paying their utilities and maybe there’s a direct connection between the school or a tuition payment plan. And, you know, by the time you’re done, you’ve got 10 or 12 different tentacles into the account, and you start to believe that it’s going to be really complicated to extract yourself.”

It’s not just the hassle: It’s the love
Did you know you are more likely to be satisfied with your bank — and pay for additional services — if you pay your bills online with your bank’s website? (Those of you who don’t pay bills online, you’ve seen those photos on your bank’s home page of pretty, smiling women sitting at their computer paying bills with an attitude of absolute zen, haven’t you? You know what I mean.) In a survey of 900 Forbes.com newsletter subscribers, of online bank users, those who paid bills online rated their bank as significantly better than those who did not.

In a press release that must have been targeted at product managers and accounting folks at banks, the firm that ran the study crowed, “Data suggests that converting online bankers to online bill paying customers represents the best opportunity for banks and credit unions to increase share of wallet while driving customers toward the most cost-efficient channel for services.”

Then, there is the lazy factor
Even though many of us would rather bank with a credit union, an online bank, or a bank like USAA, any of which seem like better choices than Bank of America or another too-big-to-fail-sized bank, it’s just a lot of time and effort. There is, says Lieber, “the perceived pain involved with switching.” And our banks give us enough pain just by being who they are without adding in the considerable time to do paperwork and input all those account numbers, addresses, and phone numbers, again.

That’s why Representative Brad Miller of North Carolina has been pitching what he calls “account number mobility” — the ability to take your account number with you when you change banks (though, presumably, you would have to change routing numbers). More importantly, his “Freedom and Mobility in Consumer Banking Act” would:

“…make it simpler to close accounts, and for 30 days following the closure any direct deposits would have to be transferred to the new bank free of charge. During that period banks would also be obligated to notify customers when a recurring debit occurs. This measure wouldn’t completely remove all the hassles of switching banks, but would protect consumers from unnecessary fees and grief,” he says.

Miller points out that the technology to do this is already in place; when the FDIC takes over failing banks, customer accounts are transferred seamlessly.

It’s hardest for those living paycheck-to-paycheck
If you’ve never timed your payment to the mortgage company precisely so that it would be credited to your mortgage account by the due date and not clear your bank account until the following day — when your paycheck was deposited — than good for you! But most Americans have a more tenuous hold on their good credit and the funds in their bank account than that. (I know, many of you are the sort who keep an emergency fund and a personal escrow account and never worry about that at all. But you’re special!)

If you do have your paycheck set up to direct deposit into your account, along with many regular automatic bill pays and debits, and you are regularly running out of money with a few days left in the pay period, it’s near-impossible to get the “float” to switch banks. You’ll want to have a little extra that you can deposit in the new account while you wait for the change in direct deposit to take place; and if you’re also juggling checks and pending debit transactions, it might seem a hopeless mess and certain to trigger nasty overdraft fees from the banks and late fees or NSF fees from the merchants. You’d probably throw your hands up and say, “No way.”

Only the 1% can change banks easily?
To see how hard it was to change banks and switch bill pay and other automatic debits, the Lieber used a stopwatch. “I had somewhere between 10 and 15 automated payments and direct deposits to various sorts that I needed to change, and it took me a little under two hours,” he told Talk of the Nation. And, of course, there was the float. “Sometimes, they may be taking money out of one account when you think they’re taking money out of another. So you need to leave some money in both places just to allow for that,” he said.

When I was at Wharton, everyone’s favorite finance professor, Franklin Allen, taught us a tongue-in-cheek chorus to his questioning. Professor Allen was (still is, I’m quite sure) adorable when he would call out: “And who doesn’t pay taxes?” We’d reply, 100 good MBA girls and boys, “Rich people!” Rich people also have the benefit of no transaction fees in the Allen finance world. Indeed, it’s the wealthier customers whose accounts never trigger the maintenance fees and the like (and wouldn’t have had to pay debit fees, had Bank of America been stubborn).

The wealthy, who have the float to change banks easily and accountants and personal assistants to make it happen, don’t care as much about changing banks, because they’re being taken care of. And this is what Bank of America and many other large banks have counted on all these years. Until now.

Consumer anger was a perfect storm
Who could have predicted the effects of such a small fee? Especially after my cursory analysis last month showing well over $100 per customer in fees was a pretty common average for large banks. But the timing couldn’t have been worse, right at the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Suddenly, thousands of people nationwide showed that they were not just willing to put 90 minutes into changing banks; they were willing to put their lives on hold for weeks to camp out and protest bank fees. Then someone invited a few friends to change to a local bank or credit union, and Bank Transfer Day was born.

Early reports were that the Transfer Day was very successful; even before the event, it had enough of an impact to influence Bank of America’s decision to charge those now-infamous debit fees. But the damage was done, not so much to the banks’ reputations, but to the idea that changing banks was odious and hard.

Suddenly, it was a small thing anyone could do to show their beliefs in keeping money local and in the hands of financial institutions organized around service instead of profit alone. It was unforeseen by big banks and could, in the end, make them more reliant than ever on those “rich people” who don’t pay any fees — and, sadly, the families struggling from paycheck to paycheck.

The end may not be a fairytale one for the banks, and many of us have finally found the strength to change our automatic draft to the cable company each month. But, as long as the account portability legislation stays in limbo, the banks will keep the most lucrative customers on both ends of the financial spectrum; at least, that’s what I see in my crystal ball.

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