When it comes to banking, consumers are in the driver's seat these days -- thanks to cutthroat competition among brick and mortar banks and a growing wealth of online alternatives, financial services experts said.
Banks may seem to have the upper hand as they cut credit lines and jack up fees, raking in an estimated $38.5 billion in overdraft fees alone this year -- double the amount in 2008, according to Mike Moebs, CEO of research firm Moebs Services.
But the simple fact is banks benefit because many people do not negotiate when hit with a hefty fee, or shop around for a better deal. That's a costly, easily avoidable mistake, the experts said.
"It's a consumers' market -- for the consumers that get off their asses and take advantage," said Ramit Sethi, author of "I Will Teach You to Be Rich."
"Banks [only] have the upper hand against lazy people and in certain situations where people don't have alternatives," Sethi said.
To help you hang on to your hard-earned cash while getting the services you want, The Post has a plan for you.
First, keep an eagle eye on fees -- for ATM use, for all those pesky times you overdraft your account, and those times you fail to maintain a minimum, fee-free account.
Consumer experts note that credit unions and community banks often have lower fees than larger players.
Local credit unions, like Montauk and Melrose -- which have open charters, meaning anyone can join -- charge no monthly fees on share draft accounts (the credit union's version of a checking account) and have no minimum balance requirements, the better to avoid monthly fees.
Bigger banks charge up to $8.95 a month for smaller accounts, or require a direct deposit link or a minimum number of transactions.
"[Big banks'] prices are too high on many consumer products, and for the average consumer the long-term total costs are high," said Moebs.
But credit unions and community banks have way fewer ATMs and branches, so if you live in the outer boroughs and work in Manhattan and need cash in a pinch, you may be forced to visit an out-of-network bank -- where you will pay dearly.
When it comes to savings rates, credit unions and online banks are good places to look for high rates, experts said.
If a wide spectrum of financial services are needed, along with a broad network of ATMs and branches, the latest tech-oriented banking bells and whistles, then big banks trump the smaller players.
Chase, Citi and Bank of America, to name three of the biggest banking brands around town, all offer the full range of services, from mortgages to credit cards, that credit expert Christian Weller, of the Center for American Progress, says are important to look for when choosing a financial institution.
By contrast, credit unions and community banks tend to have far fewer ATMs and have been slower to adopt popular new services such as mobile banking.
With 81 bank failures this year so far -- and 416 weaker banks on the FDIC's watch list -- consumers may also want to give their financial institution a personal stress test.
Moebs recommends parking your money in a bank or credit union that turned a profit last year and in the first half of 2009, has a Tier-1 capital ratio of at least 10 percent, and did not take TARP money.
That, of course, could rule out most every major bank in the country. However, New York Community Bancorp, parent of Queens County Savings Bank, and Melrose Credit Union pass Moebs' test.
And if you travel outside the US often, on business or pleasure, banking with a large bank could be for you. Many offer no-fee ATMs -- through their own overseas branches or through affiliated banks -- that smaller banks don't.