Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
The bill arrives at that hole-in-the wall ramen place and I realize the restaurant doesn’t accept credit cards. In this not-so-hypothetical scenario, my first impulse is to withdraw cash from the closest ATM, even if it isn’t affiliated with my bank. But by doing that, it turns out, I’m losing a lot more money than I thought.
Although withdrawal fees vary by size and type of bank, the average for out-of-network ATMs fees has been climbing up over the last decade, according to a new survey conducted by financial data organization Bankrate, Inc. Today, the nationwide average fee to retrieve cash from non-affiliated ATMs is $4.52—up 21 percent from 5 years ago.
The total amount we pay to make these withdrawals has two components. The first is the surcharge fee imposed by the bank that owns the ATM. We pay this because we’re jumping on a service the bank provides to their customers for free, explains Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate, Inc. Over the last decade or so, banks have steadily raised this surcharge. (We charted the trend below.) From 2014 to 2015, the surcharge fee hiked by 4 percent to a nationwide average of $2.88.
In general, banks aren’t concerned about this kind of increase. "No one is worried about worried about alienating a non-customer,” McBride says.
The second part of the withdrawal fee goes to your bank. Out-of-network ATM fees are “low-hanging fruit” for boosting revenue, McBride explains. They incentivize in-network ATM use for the bank’s customers, and help cover the cost of maintaining ATM networks. Many banks, however, have some out-of-network withdrawal allowances or reimbursement policies, which is why the national average of this fee hasn’t climbed as consistently (in chart below). Still, it saw saw a 4 percent jump last year to $1.64, which McBride calls “unusual.”
The total fee differs from city to city, depending on the local market. In cities like Atlanta and New York, you have to pay over $5 in total out-of-network ATM fees. (You can buy a poop emoji cushion with that money!) On the other hand, ATMs in San Francisco and Cincinnati charge around $3.85.
Check out this map we made with Bankrate’s data on the 25 big U.S. markets they analyzed:
So the next time you’re stuck with your plastic in hand at a cash-only joint and can’t find an ATM affiliated with your bank, get cash back at the nearest pharmacy or 7-Eleven. It’s cheaper that way.
"Regardless of how high these fees go, you're not hostage to them because they're completely avoidable," McBride says.