The best way to stick to any budget is to prepare for emergencies in advance. You might have an extra savings fund set aside or keep meals in the freezer to avoid pricey take out on late nights. Your Plan B can save you money in places where you might ordinarily leak funds, making it smart to keep several backup plans.

atm buttons

A great example of this is avoiding racking up expensive ATM fees. While most places take credit and debit cards, you’ve probably been in a situation where you’ve been unexpectedly faced with a cash-only purchase.

Maybe you turned into a quaint mom-and-pop store on a country drive, or hailed a cab when your car broke down. Whatever the circumstance, getting access to cash doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg.

In fact, it might surprise you to learn that the average ATM fee in America is $4.57. Considering that the minimum withdrawal amount is $20, you effectively pay 25% more if you use an out-of-network ATM with such a high fee. Of course, your actual fees will vary depending on where you live and what type of ATM you use, but it’s fair to say that these fees can really add up.

Luckily, you don’t have to resign yourself to paying a lifetime of expensive ATM fees. Instead, use a little bit of preparation to ensure you can access your cash for free whenever you need it. As Ben Franklin famously said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” In this case, a few minutes of preparation is worth a lot of cash savings. Get ready to prevent yourself from ever paying ATM fees again.

Plan in Advance

Spontaneity isn’t something you can (or should) completely avoid in your life. From unpleasant surprises to happy accidents, you can’t always know where life will take you. However, when you do know where you’re going, it’s wise to perform a little bit of research ahead of time.

Obviously, if your day entails going to Target or shopping online, it’s safe to assume you won’t need cash. But if you’re headed out to a less mainstream operation, check ahead to see if the business accepts debit or credit cards.

It’s as simple as a quick Google search on your phone to check out their payment options. If there’s no website available, see what people have to say on Yelp or Facebook. Message or call the business to check their policy in advance. While many small businesses use their smartphone or tablet to process electronic payments, you shouldn’t assume they all do.

This is especially true if you’re visiting a small operation. A farmer’s market or pick-your-own-strawberry field very well may only accept cash. Food truck rallies, small outdoor concerts, and cheap (but tasty) local dives may operate on a cash-only basis.

These are exactly the types of businesses that need loyal customers like you to support them. But when working with limited funds or limited wi-fi, accepting cards may not be an option for these businesses.

Do them and yourself a favor by checking acceptable forms of payment ahead of time, especially when it comes to local businesses. It might be easier to go to a big box store but it won’t be half as much fun or have as large of an impact on your community as supporting the little guys. Just prepare in advance so you can avoid taking a u-turn to hit up an ATM once you’re there.

Keep Backup in Your Wallet

It’s perfectly reasonable to try and minimize what you carry around in your wallet. After all, you’re probably also saddled down with a bulky smartphone and keychain.

Amidst your driver’s license, debit cards, credit cards, health insurance card, and whatever else that lives in your wallet, you should also carry some backup cash. Of course, you probably don’t want to walk around carrying a thick wad of money in your wallet.

The chances are low that you’d ever get robbed, but it’s certainly not impossible, especially if you live in a large city. Still, keeping a $20 bill in your pocket can save you a huge headache at some point down the road.

That amount should most likely cover a cab ride, lunch, or other last minute cash expense you might encounter. And if you do happen to lose your wallet for some reason, you’re not missing a huge chunk of change.

Another great way to avoid last minute trips to the ATM is to also carry a blank check in your wallet. This gives you a little more leeway than a $20 bill because you can write out the check for however much you want.

If you do happen to lose your wallet or it gets stolen, you’re not out any cash. You might want to stop payment on the check number, but even that may not be necessary since you didn’t sign it.

Not everyone still accepts checks because of the chance of someone writing a bad one. But in a lot of instances, it can save you time, money, and the aggravation of having to go out in search of an ATM. Adding a simple blank check and $20 can go a long way in ensuring you’re prepared for any situation that requires a certain amount of cash.

Use Your Debit Card to Get Cash Back

A simple, but often forgotten, way of avoiding ATM fees is to get cash back on a store purchase. You’ll need a debit card rather than a credit card for this tactic, but otherwise, it’s pretty straightforward.

Simply make a low-cost purchase at a gas station, drugstore, or other convenient retailer and request money back from your account during the payment process. There are a few caveats that come with this strategy.

First, it’s not technically free since you do have to pay money to get your cash. But you do actually get something for that money, unlike an ATM fee. Also, note whether or not the establishment has a minimum for either a debit purchase or getting cash back. Ideally, you can get away with buying a cheap drink or snack for one or two dollars. At some places, however, you have to spend $5 or more to use debit.

Another factor to consider when getting money through cash back is that there may be a maximum amount you’re able to receive. For instance, CVS only allows for $35 as cash back.

If you need more than that, you may have to visit a few different stores. That can quickly add up if you’re making small purchases at each one. While these limits can be annoying, there is an upside to using cashback for money rather than an expensive ATM.

That’s the flexibility you have in the types of bills and coins you receive. While ATMs usually only disperse cash in $20 bills, you can request any combination of money with cash back. It’s also convenient if you only need a small amount and don’t want to (or can’t) withdraw in $20 increments. Before you hit an ATM, see if a retail store can meet your needs with cash back.

Check Your Bank’s ATM Network

If you do find it necessary to track down an ATM, look for one that is in your bank’s network. This allows you to avoid ATM fees from two different parties. How?

Unfortunately, when you use an ATM that’s out of your bank’s network, you’re usually charged twice: once by the company operating the ATM and once by your bank. It’s a double whammy that really hurts your bottom line. First, look to see if your actual bank has a branch location with an ATM near you.

This is the simplest way to ensure you won’t incur any extra charges. If there are none nearby, check the back of your debit card to see if any other ATM networks are listed. You can also download your bank’s app to use an ATM locator. It’s a quick and easy way to find a no-fee ATM — plus it’s usually free.

Some of the most common ATM networks include Allpoint, MoneyPass, and CO-OP. Allpoint, for example, has 55,000 ATMs not only in the U.S. but also in Canada, Puerto Rico, the U.K., Australia, and Mexico.

So you can enjoy fee-free cash in some popular international destinations as long as your bank participates. MoneyPass is only found in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, but is found in many convenient locations, including WalMart.

CO-OP is a similar service that focuses on credit union members. With more than 30,000 ATMs and 5,000 shared branches throughout the nation, participating credit union members can gain easy access to fee-free money just about wherever they are.

Ask the bank with your checking account if they participate in any of these ATM networks. If they don’t and you frequently use ATMs, it might be time to find a new financial institution.

Look for a Bank that Reimburses ATM Fees

Even if your bank does participate in an ATM network, it’s also good to find one that reimburses your ATM fees. There are a few different ways they do this: some offer an unlimited reimbursable amount, while others might cap it out between $10 and $25 each month. How does ATM fee reimbursement work? Typically, you’ll still have to pay the fee upfront.

At the end of your billing cycle, your bank then credits any applicable ATM fees to your account balance. So you generally have to wait a bit of time before seeing that money. Still, it’s much better than never seeing it at all! Interested in finding a financial institution that offers ATM fee reimbursements?

Here is a list of some of our top picks for both banks and credit unions.

  • Alliant: reimburses up to $20 per month
  • BankFive: up to $15 reimbursed each cycle
  • Bank of Internet USA: up to unlimited monthly reimbursements (depending on your account type)
  • Charles Schwab: unlimited ATM reimbursements worldwide
  • First Republic Bank: reimburses third-party fees worldwide
  • Incredible Bank: automatically reimburses ATM fees

As you can see, there are plenty of financial institutions offering fee-free options when you’re ready to hit the ATM. You can narrow down the list by reviewing other account features, and should also take into account how much foreign travel you do.

Fees can be especially high when travelling abroad, so having an account with a bank like Charles Schwab or First Republic can result in a lot of savings. While ATM fee reimbursement isn’t the only feature you should use to choose your checking account, it could be an important one if you frequent ATMs often.