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GIVE BANKS MORE OF YOUR BUSINESS, OR PAY INCREASING FEES

Life is about relationships: How well you get along with your wife, your kids, your neighbors, your boss, your co-workers. You give, you take, you develop bonds.

Did you ever think you'd have a relationship with your financial institution? That your bank or thrift would do its best to cement a lasting bond with you?

Did you know there's an extremely good chance that if you don't play by the rules of your banker to the tune of maintaining a $20,000 balance, it could cost you $10 or more a month?

Friend, welcome to the cusp of the 21st century, where fee income for financial institutions is sovereign, and banks are more than willing to give if they will receive additional fees.

Case in point: M&T Bank, effective Oct. 1, raised the minimum balance bar locally to new heights, while bringing its service charge fee very much in line with its largest competitors. M&T dusted off and polished up one of its relationship banking programs, M&T Select. Its sheen now includes new products and services the old Select didn't offer. "Banking beyond your expectations" is new Select's motto, and that may be the case if you weren't expecting your minimum balance in combined accounts to increase 100 percent to $20,000, and the penalty levied if you don't keep your chin above that board jumping 75 percent to $14.

M&T sees the new minimums another way: You offer customers willing to put $20,000 or more in your institution tons of extra products and services, and they won't be tempted to go to another bank.

"Our rationale, the one very clear objective for the new M&T Select program, was to give customers with $20,000 in combined accounts more benefits, more value, and to make those people want to do all of their banking with us and not move," said Carolyn Reding, an M&T vice president. M&T, like most of its competitors does offer other programs with fewer product and services in exchange for lower minimum balances and service charges.

To make its minimum balance and service-charge jumps more appetizing, M&T has broadened the accounts that can be counted toward the $20,000, while adding more bells and whistles in the form of benefits for the Select customers.

In addition to the common accounts -- checking and deposit accounts, including certificates of deposit and individual retirement accounts -- M&T Select also allows you to include installment and home equity loans, investment accounts handled through M&T Securities Inc. and even your mortgage, up to $10,000.

On the benefits side, M&T Select offers the standard perks, including free safe deposit box for one year, no fee for stopping payment of a check, free traveler's checks and Visa card with no annual fee. To that the new and improved Select offers such things as:

Free standard checks or up to 50 percent off custom checks for the life of the relationship. Ms. Reding said this would save about $13 on each check order.

Higher CD rates.

A customer telephone service line available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

A 1/8 percentage point discount on most new mortgage loans.

Lower rates on installment and home equity loans.

Various free consulting services from M&T Securities.

Marine Midland, Fleet and KeyBank offer similar programs.

"It's become increasingly important to consumers that they be recognized and rewarded," said William Freeman, Marine's marketing vice president. "The variety of services being used are growing and the relationships are growing."

Generally, smaller financial institutions have yet to move to linked accounts and relationship banking. That's not to say they don't levy account fees for not maintaining minimum balances. A checking account may be tiered to meet the needs of various customers, and come equipped with only one fee. But the fees themselves are not as steep as in relationships, nor are the minimums so maximum.

"They're (M&T) after a different customer and that's fine," said Salvatore Marranca, president and chief executive officer of Cattaraugus County Bank. "It makes sense financially, but you still have to have a community responsibility. It all depends on your community."

It would appear charging fees for failing to meet minimum balances does make financial sense. Some banking industry watchers believe as many as two-thirds of all bank accounts cost the institutions money. There has to be a way to recoup your losses.

"Banks spend about 80 percent of their time solving the problems of those customers who don't make them any money," Marranca said.

"Banks are trying to improve profitability on as many accounts as they can through increasing the number of relationships, although some relationships are worth more than others," said Bert Ely, a banking consultant in Alexandria, Va.

While Ms. Reding declined to revealthe number of M&T Select accounts, she did say there were roughly 33,000 accounts that weren't in M&T Select, but which did qualify for the program. Those customers will be contacted via direct mail and telephone calls between now and the end of the year to explain what they're missing.

There also are an undisclosed number of customers sitting right on the $20,000 cusp who also will be called to see what M&T can do to put them over the top and into Select.

As an additional impetus, M&T is waiving the monthly $14 service fee for six months to get its customers up to speed on the new Select.

While the program has only been in effect for about three weeks, the customer feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, Ms. Reding said.

Some consumer groups, however, say the move to higher fees at all levels of banking is not in the consumers' best interests. Just last week the New York Public Interest Research Group came out with its annual bank fee survey, which showed levies continue to slowly climb at even the lowest account levels.

"Clearly, M&T (through M&T Select) is not catering to average citizens in Buffalo," said NYPIRG's Blair Horner. "These aren't Joe Six Packs' accounts."

NYPIRG and other groups advise everyone to assess what they really need in a bank. Know thyself is the first commandment in today's banking world. Fees may be assessed, but pay for what you really need, not a lot of fluff.

Or, do what your forefathers used to do. "Stuffing cash under the mattress is looking better and better," Horner said.

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