In this tough economy, smart shoppers know they need to shop around to get the best deals on groceries or gas, but where we bank can also have a big effect on our wallets.

Increasingly, big banks are charging more outrageous and more hidden fees to use basic services.

According to a new article by The American Banker, the industry’s leading trade paper, 96% of big banks offered free checking just two years ago, as opposed to 35% today. However, AB also reports that free checking is still “alive and well” at small banks.

PennPIRG’s advice to consumers remains simple: shop around (see our banking guide). Big banks can charge increasingly bigger fees and make it harder for customers to avoid them because they know consumers don’t shop around.

For the best value, use a credit union or a local community bank, not a big bank. Our reports consistently show that big banks charge bigger fees.