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With American consumers taking to the streets to protest the sluggish economy and moribund job market, it's not a good time for politicians, big banks and major corporations to try to stay about the fray.  Yet that seems to be exactly what they're doing.

Bank of America's decision to get even with Congress and its customers by slapping a $5 monthly fee on debit card users has done more damage to the bank's reputation in just a few short weeks than the agonzingly drawn-out Countrywide Mortgage fiasco.

Consumers have not sacked and burned BA branches, not yet anyway, but many thousands have said they will close their BA accounts and go elsewhere.

The question thus becomes: where can those disgruntled banking customers  go to find free or reasonably-priced checking accounts that include online banking and a debit card?

The options are literally too numerous to list but we rounded up  a few of the more obvious ones.  Keep in mind that all banks have multiple plans that depend in great part on how much money you're willing and able to keep in your account.

If you can keep $5,000 or more on deposit, most big banks will welcome you with free or inexpensive plans. If you can't or won't do that, prepare to be charged for just about everything -- or look for a smaller bank or credit union that's hungrier for business.  There are thousands of them out there, just waiting for you to come through the door.

And just to prove it, here is a tiny but representative sample of banks that offer free debit cards on at least some of their account plans.  Keep in mind, plans differ by state and you must read the terms carefully. Banks have numerous plans, so be sure you know which one you're getting.

Large Banks

  • Ally The former GMAC, Ally is an online bank offering free debit cards, free onling banking, and free checking accounts.  The Ally Perks plan pays a small bonus each time you use the debit card to make an online purchase or at participating retailers.   
  • Capital One  Once just a credit card issuer, Capital One has bought up several regional banks and is aggressively pursuing new customers.  It offers  at least one checking account that includes a free debit card, no monthly fee and free currency exchange services for overseas transactions.   
  • Chase You can get a free debit card and free online banking if you keep a minimum balance of $1,500 or have direct deposits of $500 or more made to the account.  Higher balances will get you more freebies.  
  • PNC Bank  PNC's Virtual Wallet Plus plan offers free debit cards as well as limited free checking, online banking, interest-bearing checking and a savings account.  Read the terms carefully; nothing in life is completely free.
  • Provident Bank A free debit card is available with several of its checking plans, which offer free checking with an monthly average balance of as little as $500. 

Local Banks

Just because we're all drowning in advertising from huge banks doesn't mean we shouldn't patronize -- or at least check out -- local banks.  They often offer much better terms than the big guys and tend to provide more personal service.

Here are just a few local banks we picked at random:

Credit Unions

Credit unions are non-profit organizations that originally offered memberships to very specific groups -- employees of a local municipality, federal workers, etc. But these days, many credit unions have much more liberal membership standards. They are often the best source of loans, checking, credit card and savings accounts.

To find a credit union near you, visit the National Credit Union Association site. Enter your state and Zip code in the Find a Credit Union form and, chances are, you'll find one near you.  You can then check eligibility requirements and look over what the CU offers.

In Burbank, California, for example, we found the UMe (you & me, get it?) Credit Union.  Originally chartered to serve local school teachers, it now has about 12,000 members who live, work or worship in Burbank or attend school or belong to an organization that's headquartered there.

UMe offers free checking if you sign up for paperless statements or are 60 years of age or older.  The personal checking account includes a free Visa debit card, unlimited check writing and pays interest on account balances over $2,500, as well as dog treats for your dog and bottled water for you whenever you visit a branch.

It's a big country ...

We like cable news and the Internet as much as anyone but one result of the so-called information explosion is that there is a lot more national news and chatter than there used to be and less attention to local and regional goings-on.

It's easy to sit at home in front of the tube and get riled up at Bank of America, but take a look out your back door and you'll probably find a couple of local banks and credit unions a few minutes away.  Go introduce yourself and see what they'll do to win your business.  You might be surprised.  

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