Consumers can get a better deal on savings accounts at small- and medium-sized banks and credit unions than at large banks, according to the Consumer Federation of America.

However, large banks offer automatic savings features, which the CFA likes because it wants to encourage people to save, says Stephen Brobeck, CFA’s executive director.

The CFA on Monday released a study of bank savings account fees and requirements entitled “Savings Accounts: Their Characteristics and Usefulness.” The study concluded that bank regulators need to do more to encourage savings and to make banks more consumer friendly. The study included 50 of the largest banks by branch numbers, 50 medium-size and 50 small banks, and 10 of the largest credit unions. The study also used data from the Federal Reserve Board’s 2010 Survey of Consumer Finances.

Banks are using the low interest rate environment as a reason to offer very low interest rates on savings accounts, usually less than 1 percent, says the CFA, which suggested policy makers consider subsidizing banks and credit unions to pay 3 percent to 4 percent interest on the first $500 in savings accounts. This would cost several hundred million dollars, which is a small amount compared to the cost of many upper-income tax breaks, says Brobeck.

The requirements that need to be met and the fees charged vary greatly among banks, the CFA study shows. Big banks are more likely than smaller banks to require higher minimum balance requirements and to charge higher fees.

More than half (52 percent) of the 50 largest banks––but only 16 percent of the medium-size banks and 12 percent of the small banks––require minimum balances of at least $300. At the same time, 70 percent of the large banks––but only 42 percent of the medium-size banks and 24 percent of the small banks––charge monthly fees of at least $4 if the minimum balance is not met.

On the other hand, big banks are most likely to disclose these fees and interest rates on their websites. Ninety percent of large banks, but only three-quarters of small and medium-size banks, disclose monthly fees. Seventy-two percent of large banks, but only 40 percent of medium-size banks and 34 percent of small banks, disclose interest rates paid, the CFA says.

Compared to banks, credit unions tend to require much lower minimums to avoid monthly fees, often only $25, and tend to pay higher interest rates, the survey says.

Many banks charge a fee on savings accounts with no deposits or withdrawals over a period of time. Fees are charged after as little as six months, up to three years, and range from $1 a month to $12.

“One problem with inactivity restrictions is that some savers want to build up an emergency fund and then let it sit for use in emergencies,” notes Brobeck. “If there are no emergencies, then they may be whacked with inactivity fees.”