Last year, U.S. banks and credit unions collected $42 billion in account fees. But you don't have to be one of the ones contributing to that pot.

Sure, your bank will waive the monthly checking account service fee if you keep $1,000, $2,500, or more on deposit. But that means you have to have a large chunk of money sitting idle. And in any event, other fees can sneak up on you and take back your savings. 

Instead, use these five, mostly painless ways to avoid monthly checking account service charges and ATM fees. Then see our companion report, How to Avoid Bank Overdraft Fees, to dodge that infuriating penalty.

Monthly Service Fee

1. Get truly free checking. Genuine "free checking" doesn't come with any minimum balance requirement, it's free regardless of the size of your account balance. You're more likely to find truly free checking at a credit union, 80 percent of which offer it, according to Moebs Services, a bank research firm in Lake Forest, Ill. Credit unions also rated highly on satisfaction in our banking survey of Consumer Reports subscribers.

Eighty-four percent of smaller community banks also offer free checking, according to the Independent Community Bankers of American trade association. We also found that primarily online banks like USAA Bank, Discover Bank, and Ally tend to offer free checking. Switching can be a hassle, but that can be minimized by following our step-by-step advice on how to fire your bank

2. Sign up for direct deposit. Maybe your bank doesn't offer real free checking, but its branches are convenient and you like it anyway. No problem. Many banks will waive the monthly service fee if you agree to have your paycheck directly deposited electronically into your account each pay period. A minimum $500 monthly direct deposit to Chase Total Checking, for example, will waive the $12 monthly fee. 

3. Look for a fee waiver for debit card us. Wells Fargo will waive its $10 monthly fee for its Everyday Checking if you use the account's debit card to make at least 10 purchases per month. Not all banks offer this deal, so ask.

ATM Fees

While you're enjoying free checking, don't forget that you can also rack up costs on careless out-of-network ATM withdrawals, which can result in double-whammy charges by the bank or vendor that owns the ATM, as well as surcharges by your own bank.

4. Use the fee-free ATM networks. Banks don't charge you for using their own automated teller machines, so be sure to seek out that freebie if you're with a big bank that has hundreds or thousands of branches and ATMs. Many smaller banks or credit unions are members of regional or national fee-free ATM networks, such as CO-OP and Allpoint, which offer 30,000 and 55,000 ATMs, respectively. Find locations using your bank's or network's mobile app. 

5. Take the free cash-back option at retailers. In many cases, you can avoid the need for an ATM altogether by exercising your cash-back option when you pay for purchases using your debit card at supermarkets, drugstore chains, and other retailers. Typically, there is no fee for this.