You wake up the day before payday to alerts from your mobile banking app saying your account has been overdrafted. How could this be? After all, you had $50 in your account last time you checked. So you start backtracking.
Dinner was only $45, right? You should have $5 to spare. Then you check your account and realize your $30 gym membership conveniently posted to your account this morning. Rather than declining the charge due to insufficient funds, your bank allowed the transaction to post — and charged you $35 for the favor.
This is an example of how banks have turned so-called overdraft protection and insufficient fund fees into a multi-billion-dollar cash cow.
According to a new analysis by Pew Research Center, more than 40% of 50 banks studied order transactions in a way that maximizes overdraft fees. The practice is called “high to low processing,” in which the bank posts transactions from largest to smallest rather than posting them chronologically. This can make customers more susceptible to incurring multiple overdraft fees on the same day.
The fees have effectively allowed banks to profit off of some of their most financially vulnerable consumers: those who keep low account balances and are thus at higher risk of overdrafting. Only 18% of checking account holders are responsible for 91% of overdraft and insufficient funds fee (NSF) fees according to research from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Pew’s analysis found most heavy overdrafters — those who pay $100 or more in overdraft and NSF fees annually — earn less than $50,000 per year. One-quarter of these account holders pay up to a week’s worth of wages in overdraft fees each year.
In 2015, 628 banks with more than $1 billion in assets reported a total of $11.16 billion — about 8% of total net income — of revenue from consumer overdraft and NSF fees according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. That’s more than two-thirds of all consumer deposit account fee revenues.
Overdraft Protection: The Ultimate Catch-22
When you are enrolled in overdraft protection, you give the bank authority to approve charges when you don’t have enough to cover the full amount in your account. The bank will approve the transaction, then charge you a predetermined flat rate fee — typically around $32 — for allowing your purchase to go through.
That’s why overdraft protection is something of a catch-22. On the one hand, it saves you from the embarrassment of a declined card at point of sale. On the other, it is one of the most expensive ways to borrow money for what are typically small purchases.
Let’s go back to the payday example from before.
If you had not realized right away you overdrafted your account, you might have thought you still had $5 in the bank, just enough for a cup of coffee. Your debit card would have been approved for the $3 coffee thanks to overdraft protection — and you would have been hit with yet another $35 overdraft fee, twice in the same day. Effectively, you just borrowed $3 for a fee of $35 — an annual percentage rate of over 1,000%.
Here’s how the math works out (in this example, we assume the person banks with Bank of America, which carries an overdraft fee of $35):
Original balance: $50
Dinner: $50 – $45 = $5
Gym fee: $5 – $30 = -$25
Overdraft fee for gym membership: -$25 – $35 = -$60
Coffee: $-60 – $3 = -$63
Overdraft fee for coffee: $-63 – $35 = -$98
At the end of the day, you would be left with a negative balance of -$98.
Some institutions limit the number of times you can be hit with overdraft fees in a single day. Bank of America, for example, limits overdraft fees to four times a day. Some banks will allow you to link your checking account with another account to pull funds from when you overdraft, but will then charge you for an overdraft protection transfer fee, which is typically lower than a full overdraft fee. Even if your bank doesn’t approve the overdraft and your purchase is declined, you could still get charged an insufficient funds fee, which will usually be equal to the overdraft fee.
Overdraft fees can quickly spiral out of control if the person cannot afford to pay back the bank and bring their balance back in the black. If you maintain a negative account balance for about five days, you are charged on average $20 for what’s called an extended overdraft fee. More than half of the banks Pew studied said they charge an extended overdraft fee.
It’s important to make sure to take care of overdrafted accounts. Excessive overdraft fees could lead to a closed account or loss of check-writing privileges. It could also become difficult for you to open accounts with other banks if your bank reports your behavior to ChexSystems. ChexSystems keeps a record of your banking history similarly to how the credit bureaus keep track of your credit history.
In a worst-case scenario, excessive overdraft fees could damage your credit score as well. If your bank decides to write off your unpaid account and send it to collections, it can show up on your credit report. At that point, your accidental overdraft could seriously damage your credit score.
How to Avoid an Overdraft Fee
Don’t “opt in”
You can’t be charged an overdraft fee if you don’t sign up for the program, but beware: your bank can still charge you an insufficient funds fee.
Choose “no” when presented the opportunity to opt in to a debit card-based overdraft protection program. Don’t miss this step as it can be easily overlooked as part of the process. It may be in the form of a question asked by your banker or a pre-checked box when you enroll in online banking.
Link your accounts
If you are worried about getting denied at a point of sale and are okay with a fee to automatically transfer your own money, you can link your debit card checking account to another account for overdraft protection. This lets the bank pull the money from the account that you’re linked to to cover new transactions. Banks typically charge a median $5 fee for this service.
Track your balance
Keep your eye on your balance to avoid overdraft and NSF fees altogether. If your bank offers them, you can set up banking alerts so that you’ll be notified when your account goes into the negatives and balance it out before you’re charged a fee. You can use a budget-tracking app like Mint that sends you overdraft and fee notifications as well, although they may not come in time to help you.
You should also go over any automatic payments that you have set up and record and set reminders for them so that you won’t have any surprise withdrawals from your account.
Call your bank
If you don’t overdraft your bank account often, you have a better chance of getting the fee reversed. Because banks make most of their money from a small percentage of accounts that are regularly overdrafted, bank agents usually have more flexibility to reverse the charge for those who don’t overdraft as much. If you make a mistake, and don’t do it often, it’s worth a call to ask the bank to reverse the charge.
Best Banks with Low Overdraft Fees
There is no bank account that truly offers no overdraft fees. However, you can find a bank that either doesn’t allow you to overdraw your account at all or doesn’t excessively fine you for overdrawing your account.
Ally Bank is one of the better banks when it comes to overdraft penalties. So long as you link a savings account to your checking account, the bank will transfer funds from savings when you make a purchase larger than your available balance. And it doesn’t charge a fee for that transfer.
Bank of Internet’s Rewards Checking account has no overdraft or insufficient funds fee, but they will decline the charge if you don’t have enough to cover it in your account. The bank also gives you the option to link an account for overdraft protection with no fee for the transfer, or create a line of credit that can be used to cover overdrafts. If you decide to use the line of credit you will be charged interest on the overdraft balance until you pay it off, but there is no fixed overdraft fee.
At the very least, opt out of overdraft protection to avoid getting hit with fees each time your card is declined.