Finding a better bank

Credit unions, online banks, and local banks are almost always better than major banks (Photo collage by Reid Bramblett; logos courtesy of the respective business)
Credit unions, online banks, and local banks are almost always better than major banks

Use a credit union, online bank, local bank, or no-fee/low-fee credit card to keep foreign transaction fees (and all other bank fees) to a minimum

Do you hate your bank? Don't worry; Most people do.

After all, banks exist solely to make money from playing sophisticated cup-and-ball games with your money (and look where THAT landed our economy by 2008).

Most people look upon their bank as a necessary evil of everyday life. It doesn't have to be that way.

Big banks are beholden only to their shareholders and their quarterly profit reports, not to you. You are the cow they milk for cash.

Tired of saying "moo" every time you hit an ATM and are charged a $2.50 fee? The solution is simple: break up with your bank.

How to break up with your bank

Honestly, it takes an hour or two, max, to leave your bank for a credit uniononline-only banklocal bankor other financial institution that exists not so much to make money off of you as to provide you with excellent, largely fee-free services, including fee-free ATM usage and no foreign transaction fees.

Just open a new account elsewhere, switch any direct deposits to it, then switch any bill paying services to the new account. That's it.

(Well, see the sidebar on the right for some prudent tips on the process.)

The careful switch-over
OK, so it's not quite as simple as just opening up a new account with a customer-friendly institution. In the real world you have to worry about that overlap/gap between when money comes in and when it goes out and be sure the new account is topped up enough to handle the bill paying—and that no stragglers come in over the auto-pay system to ding your old account for money that is no longer there. 

To be extra cautious, disable automated bill-pay for everything (monthly credit card payments, health insurance premiums, mortgage and car payments, etc.) and for a month or two just pay those the old-fashioned way—by check—until you are sure the old account is not getting any bill-pay requests and the new account is up and running and ready to handle auto-pay getting switched back on.

How to find a credit union or local bank

Best financial decision I've ever made was to open an account with a local credit union.

Not only are all sorts of fees minimal or nonexistent, but the interest rates on credit card charges are laughably low (6.9% usually), and both my savings and checking accounts earn interest—with no minimums. It also doesn't charge me for out-of network ATMs usage, including overseas.

I love my credit union—and local banks are similar. Here's where you can start searching for one of your own:

How to find an online-only bank

Some folks with far more fiduciary knowledge than I swear by these. I was a tad suspicious—not for their lack of local offices (when was the last time I did banking in person anyway? It's nearly always online or over the phone), but because many of them are yoked to major financial institutions—automobile associations, major investment firms, etc.—and, once again, I simply don't trust any institution whose sole purpose is to make money off of me.

However, more than a year ago I started using Ally, and now I use it as my primary bank and it has been a godsend.

Major bank credit cards with minor fees

Not all big banks are as greedy as those who routinely make the evening news for their latest affront against society—at least not in the context of charging fees for foreign transactions.

Of the big national credit card issuers, here are a few I know of that—last time I checked—charged either nothing or 1% (on top of Visa's 1%) for overseas purchases: