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rob carrick

In a financial-services sector where many costs are falling close to zero, the big banks have created a booming business in chequing accounts costing a hefty $15 or so a month.

Smart packaging and convenience explain the appeal of these accounts, which typically include an unlimited number of certain transactions. A definitive example is the newly revamped TD Unlimited Chequing Account, which builds a bridge between a cashless future of electronic payments and a past of relying on paper money withdrawn from bank machines.

The most notable improvement for this account is the offer of free Interac e-transfers, which are a way to send small to medium amounts of money from one person to another without the need to write cheques or carry cash. Still prefer money you can hold in your hand? The unlimited account has you covered by allowing cash withdrawals from any non-TD bank machine in Canada without paying any additional fees to TD. You will almost certainly have to pay a fee to the ATM provider, though.

Royal Bank of Canada is also bridging the new and old in RBC Signature No Limit Banking, which it describes as its most popular account. Signature No Limit offers a refund of RBC's $1.50 fee of using another bank's ATMs for three transactions a month. No, you can't carry them over. As for e-transfers, RBC was a leader in making them available at no cost to holders of some of its chequing accounts.

Other banks have finally started to offer unlimited, no-cost e-transfers to their aforementioned chequing accounts as well. Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce is doing it in its Smart Account, while BMO is doing it in its Performance Plan account. Bank of Nova Scotia offers two free Interac e-transfers in its Momentum Chequing Account. BMO waives its fee for using another bank's ATM for one transaction a month, while Scotiabank gives you two free withdrawals from ATMs outside the bank's network.

ATMs were kind of like the e-transfers of the day 40 years ago – a convenient application of technology to make banking easier than lining up to see a teller. But wide acceptance of ATMs gave the banks the power to start charging for their use in some cases. In fact, the prohibitive cost of using another bank's ATMs to make a withdrawal has to be considered a big contributor to the growth of electronic payment options such as debit, flash and credit cards.

The Canadian Bankers Association says 75 per cent of transactions at ATMs were conducted with the customer's own bank in 2014. Under the typical chequing account packages, there would very likely be no charge for this transaction. Fees pile up when you use another bank's ATM, though.

To start, your bank charges you a network-access fee. Then there's the convenience fee from the owner of the ATM. The federal Financial Consumer Agency of Canada says the network-access fee can be as high as $1.90, while the convenience fee can range from $1 to $5.

Monthly fees of $15 to $16 for the big banks' all-inclusive accounts are pricey, though you can reduce them to zero in some cases by maintaining a minimum monthly balance. At TD and BMO, the threshold is $4,000. RBC will discount your monthly fee on Signature No Limit to $8.95 if you qualify for its multiproduct rebate.

In contrast with chequing account fees, many other costs in the financial-services world are falling. The fees on some exchange-traded funds have declined gradually to within hailing distance of zero for a basic Canadian equity fund. You can buy ETFs with the usual stock-trading commission waived at several online brokerage firms. Mutual-fund fees have been falling in some cases and it's becoming increasingly rare for advisers to charge upfront sales commissions on funds.

In banking, we now have a good complement of no-fee chequing accounts from Tangerine and President's Choice Financial, and credit unions such as Coast Capital, Envision Financial and FirstOntario.

The big banks typically offer chequing accounts with fees well below $15, but they include only a limited number of transactions. Extra service fees can pile up like snow in a blizzard if you're not careful.

The all-inclusive alternative gives you cost certainty, at a high price. It's a deal that seems to appeal in a world where other financial costs are falling.

Rob Carrick talks about combining a fee-for-service financial planner and a robo-adviser to help with investment planning