Please Take (Most of) Your Cash

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There are several inevitabilities of modern life: death, taxes — and, for the moment, ATM fees. Monday, a federal judge in San Francisco issued a preliminary injunction against a ban on ATM banking fees that city residents approved earlier this month. The measure would block "double dip" charges, fees levied on consumers who use cash machines belonging to banks other than their own. Currently, both the consumer's bank and the ATM operator take a cut, which can result in a hit of up to $3.50 per use. That's a hefty sum to pay for a transaction that costs banks only about 50 cents.

As any bank representative will tell you, financial institutions have to cover the expense of setting up all these ATMs, and if consumers find the fees so unpalatable, they should probably just find a machine operated by their own bank. Many people agree. "I think it's amazing that anyone would expect to use another bank's ATM without paying a fee," says TIME finance writer Daniel Kadlec. And what about moments when you're trapped 60 miles southeast of Oshkosh and you can't find your own ATM machine? "These machines are an extraordinary convenience," says Kadlec, "and if you're desperate for cash, a $1.50 charge is really insubstantial." Still, to many it seems like too much to pay. "It's hard to know who's the good guy and who's the bad guy in this situation," says TIME business writer John Greenwald. "On the one hand, these systems cost the banks money that they have a right to recoup. On the other hand, it's galling to consumers to be charged every time they use a machine." It doesn't help that consumers are not in a particularly forgiving mood when it comes to financial institutions, which are imposing cutbacks on service, often forbidding customers from speaking with tellers. "People don't like banks in the first place," says Greenwald. And debate over exorbitant ATM fees isn't likely to gain them any new fans.