Debit card overdraft protection: when to avoid it, when to opt in
4 cheap ways to duck overdraft fees -- and 3 times to consider opting in
By Dana Dratch
you opt in to an overdraft program that, for a fee, lets you make debit card
charges when there's not enough money in your account?
hot question for a lot of consumers.
HIGHLIGHTS OF FEDERAL OVERDRAFT FEE RULES
What: The Federal Reserve has implemented rules that require banks to get consumers' permission -- that is, they must "opt in" -- before the banks can charge overdraft fees when there's not enough money in an account to cover purchases.
Who is affected: Anyone with an ATM or debit card. The rules took full effect Aug. 15, 2010.
What's not covered: Banks can still charge whatever they want for overdraft fees. They can also assess multiple fees during a single month.
exception: if the customer has set up some type of overdraft protection. The banks used to automatically enroll customers in overdraft protection; the new rules require them to get customers' permission -- that is, "opt in." Because the fees are lucrative, some banks have aggressively pushed their overdraft
recent study, by the nonprofit National Foundation for Consumer Counseling,
found that 74 percent of customers are telling their banks "no thanks" when it
comes to fee-based overdraft protection.
study, by the American Bankers Association, an industry group, put the number
at 49 percent with 5 percent undecided.
some, that $30 overdraft fee is worth the peace of mind," says Carol Kaplan,
spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association.
disagree, believing that consumers either don't understand what they're signing
or erroneously believe the opt in covers all bank transactions including checks.
confused," says Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the U.S. Public
Interest Research Group. "Opting in helps the banks and hurts them."
With a fee-based
overdraft programs, the account will keep working into the red, usually until the balance hits about negative $500 for most
people, according to Kaplan.
time a transaction goes through, the customer pays a fee. And debit card
overdraft fees are averaging about $34, according to the Center for Responsible
debit card overdraft fees totaled $10.5 billion in 2008 alone, according to
the Center for Responsible Lending. The
average transaction amount that triggers a debit card overdraft fee: $20.
consumer, it doesn't make sense to pay $39 for a $5 latte. But it's also
galling to get shut down at the checkout when you're trying to get home with a
week's worth of groceries.
Cover overdrafts for
VIDEO: Should you enroll
in overdraft protection?
New federal rules require banks to get your permission before they enroll you in overdraft protection. Should you opt in? Before you decide, watch this video. Also, check out this helpful chart of major bank overdraft fees.
may not know: You can have the best of both worlds -- overdraft protection
without high-dollar fees.
protection is presented in marketing as a binary choice," says Rebecca Borné,
senior policy counsel for the Center for Responsible Lending. "The truth is
there are options."
4 low-cost alternatives to overdraft
of checking that box and signing your name to opt in to a fee-based program,
you can get overdraft protection in at least four other ways:
1. Link your checking account to
a savings account.
Then, if you overdraft, money is transferred from one account to the other.
What you pay: a much smaller transfer fee -- usually about $6 to $15, says
"Customers should watch the upfront transfer
fee -- both the amount of the fee and the way it's charged," says Borné. "For example, it's
generally far cheaper for the fee to be charged for each large dollar increment
transferred than per incident."
2. Link your checking account to
a line of credit.
If your credit is good, you can link your checking account to a
line of credit. Banks will issue the lines with rates around 18 percent, says
Mierzwinski. And, for a loan whose duration will number in the days, that interest
amounts to $1 or $2, plus the transfer fee.
trick here: Unlike fee-based overdraft programs, just putting the borrowed
money back into your account doesn't wipe out the loan. You have to write a designated
check to the bank to pay off the debt, he says.
with anything involving transfers, watch those fees.
3. Link your checking account to
a credit card.
Many banks will also allow you to link your checking account to a bank-issued
credit card. The process works in much the same way as with a line of credit, sans check-writing.
4. Build a buffer. Don't have a savings account or
can't qualify for credit? How about just padding your checking account? An
extra $10 or $20 every time you get paid adds up quickly. Before you know
it, you'll have a three-digit cushion between you and disaster.
method is also good for people who have savings and good credit because there
are no pesky transfer fees. The trick: Pretend the money isn't there.
savings, says Borné, "is the backup that is so much better than disaster
3 times you may want to opt in
In a few circumstances, though, you may want to consider opting in. Do you see yourself in any of the following three scenarios? Then you might consider opting in to the bank's fee-based overdraft protection
1. You use your debit card to pay
occasional bills. Paper
checks, automatic bank drafts and regular, recurring bill payments via debit
cards are not covered under the opt-in rules. So if you've set up certain
bills to automatically draft via your debit card, and there isn't enough money,
your opt-in doesn't mean the bank will pay the bill. But if you use your debit
card occasionally to pay bills, then your opt-in does count.
worry for bill-payers: If a debit card payment is refused, the payee (power
company, phone company, etc.) will likely levy their own set of fees.
Getting poll results. Please wait...
instance, it's smart to have some protection for your account. Your least
expensive option: Either stop using the debit card to pay bills, or use one of
the four low-dollar protection options.
2. You travel regularly and don't
have a credit card. By
now everyone knows about the temporary blocks and holds that some hotels, gas stations and other establishments
sometimes put on cards. Use a debit card and that practice freezes actual cash
in your account. End result: You might be traveling with less money than you
overdraft protection a good idea? A
backup would be wise. But at $34 per charge, a road trip can take you to that
negative $500 limit pretty quickly. More fiscally sound: ask about holds (and
whether the establishment can forgo them) before you present your card. And
investigate one of the four less expensive overdraft options to backstop your
3. You're living close to the
financial edge and consider fee-based overdraft protection a short-term "loan."
You have a lot
of company. If you're talking about buying food, medicine or making the
mortgage, and you don't have other options, a fee-based program might be your
Look at the numbers, your behavior
Before deciding, do the math. Look at
your past year's debit charges.
fees did you pay?
How much did the fees set you back?
Did the fee-based program save
you any money (in fees payees would have charged for nonpayment or
Did overdraft protection enable you to buy critical supplies
(like food or medicine), or did it just drain your next few paychecks and leave
you further in debt?
Center for Responsible Lending started analyzing several consumers over a
year's time, they found that, in the long run, participation in fee-based
overdraft programs tends to perpetuate debt rather than relieve it.
consumers, "it's a more expensive way to live," says Borné. "They are always
robbing Peter to pay Paul."
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