German banks often charge users a percentage-based fee that adds up quickly.

German banks often charge users a percentage-based fee that adds up quickly. (Terry Boyd / S&S)

BAUMHOLDER, Germany — As the dollar wastes away against the euro, the money-savvy know that the automatic teller machine can dispense help — or some serious pain.

If the declining dollar — down about 38 percent since 2002 — isn’t bad enough, some soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and Department of Defense civilians may be losing additional purchasing power by not paying attention to how much the ATM is taking, rather than giving out.

The convenience of running to the German banks’ ATMs for a quick 20 euros can be costly.

Many — if not all — German banks add a hefty fee for ATM transactions if you’re not an account holder. Sparkasse, Deutsche Bank and Dresdner Bank, for example, all charge 2 percent of the total value of the transaction, or a minimum of 5.11 euros. At the March 22 Community Bank exchange rate of $1.3699 to buy one euro, that quick 20 euros takes $27.40 plus a $7 ATM fee. By comparison, that 20 euros cost a total of $27.40 at a Community Bank ATM, which charges no ATM fee.

Using the ATM at base banks, credit unions or military-affiliated banks, or their ATM network affiliates may be the way to go for Americans. Typically, ATM exchange rates are better than consumers get changing money at the teller window, or writing a check, according to Lee Brookman, spokesman for United Services Automobile Association, the San Antonio-based insurance and banking company.

USAA members using USAA debit cards or credit cards receive the Mastercard or Visa International Exchange Rates, which are usually more favorable than rates received when exchanging dollars for foreign currency or using traveler’s checks, Brookman said.

For bill payers, a more important number than the dollar/euro exchange rate may be the number — if any — of ATM transactions consumers get without paying a fee, as well as the per-transaction limit. Because if consumers don’t use their own bank or credit union’s ATM, the owners of other machines charge a fee of at least $1, and perhaps much more.

That can be important for Americans paying their landlords euros, or paying other bills on the economy. For example, getting 1,500 euros monthly for rent and utilities may take three ATM transactions for those with $500 limits. Those three transactions might cost you as much as 2 percent of each transaction, or a total of 30 euros.

But you can easily avoid these costs.

“As a member of the Pentagon Credit Union, I pay $5 per month” for a checking account, Ron Conlon, a civilian employee at Grafenwöhr, wrote Stars and Stripes in response to a March 18 story on euro/dollar exchange rates. “That fee allows me not only to bank online but it also allows me to use Cirrus ATMs without charging any usage fees.”

That $5 fee basically covers the cost of providing Internet banking, said Mary Lynn Stevens, vice president of external relations for Pentagon Federal Credit Union in Washington, D.C.

The Service Credit Union’s ATM card “is the best way to get foreign currency anywhere you go that there are Cirrus ATMs,” wrote Frank Leitnaker, a retiree living in Miesau, west of Ramstein.

The Service Credit Union gives account holders three free ATM transactions per month on non-Service Credit Union ATMs, compared to none at Community Bank, he added.

Neither customers nor noncustomers pay a fee to use Community Bank ATMs, according to information submitted by Overseas Military Banking officials in Virginia. The overseas banking system, part of the Department of Defense, oversees Community Bank, which is operated by Bank of America.

Community Bank charges account holders network fees anytime they use a non-Community Bank ATM, standard practice by banks and credit unions throughout the United States and overseas, according to Overseas Military Banking officials.

By comparison, Service Credit Union offers a Service Plus checking account that gives account holders three free transactions each month on non-credit-union ATMs if the account holder has direct deposit. That includes German banks operating on the same ATM network as Service Credit Union, according to Deborah Emery, in the marketing department of the member-owned credit union’s overseas headquarters at Pulaski Barracks in Kaiserslautern.

An even better deal may be USAA’s checking account. USAA gives members 10 free withdrawals per month from non-USAA ATMs in foreign countries, Brookman said.

But to some extent, the comparisons are apples and oranges, depending on a person’s overall financial needs. Neither Pentagon nor USAA has actual branches in Europe, whereas Service Credit Union and Community Bank have operations at nearly every base in Germany.

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