If, as the saying goes, life happens, the same can be said about bouncing a check. It happens, even to the most careful consumer.
James G. Edgar, a reader from Charlotte, used to work for a large bank's customer call center. In response to a recent column on overdraft fees, Edgar wrote that he has heard all the excuses for why people overdraw their account.
Here are a couple of classics:
* A customer calls to say he couldn't possibly be overdrawn. "I have a whole book of checks left."
* A pleading customer begs for the overdraft fee to be waived, claiming it was her first offense. But "after two mouse clicks, you see the 15 overdrafts in the last three months," Edgar said.
If you're one of those bank customers who can't seem to keep from bouncing checks, get overdraft protection. It will save you some money and frustration.
Here are three common types of plans to protect you from overdrafts:
* Savings-linked. Under this plan, money is transferred from your savings account to cover an overdraft in your checking account. Many banks do not charge a fee for this. However, some charge a monthly maintenance fee in case your savings account dips below a minimum balance, which can happen when money is transferred to cover overdrafts.
* Credit card-linked. The bank links your checking account to your credit card and automatically charges a cash advance to your card to cover overdrafts.
* Line of credit. This is an unsecured loan to protect against overdrafts. The credit line sits unused until you need it to cover an overdraft. When you write a check or withdraw money from an ATM and there is not enough in your account to cover it, you get an automatic loan subject to the amount of your credit limit.
Consumer advocates recommend you stay away from "bounce protection" plans. Unlike a traditional overdraft protection plan, which keeps checks from bouncing and therefore avoids fees, bounce protection allows the bank to collect the fee anyway, points out Consumer Action, a nonprofit consumer-advocacy group.
With a bounce protection plan, in exchange for covering an overdraft up to a set dollar amount, banks charge a fee similar to a "nonsufficient" funds fee, ranging from about $20 to $35 for each transaction. Some banks also charge a per-day fee of $2 to $5 until the account has a positive balance.
What's different about this plan is that customers can borrow against their bounce protection limit.
"Some banks have promoted this as a customer service, advising customers not to worry if they have to sometimes write a check before they can cover it," said Fritz Elmendorf, vice president of communications for the Consumer Bankers Association.
It's that last piece of advice that riles consumer groups, who argue that bounce protection plans are designed to boost bank income by encouraging customers to overdraw their accounts. Because a limit of several hundred dollars is added to a customer's available balance, many people are lulled into thinking they have money in their accounts when they don't.
Before signing up for overdraft protection, Consumer Action recommends you get answers to the following questions:
* What interest rate will I be charged? Banks may charge anything from 7 percent to almost 22 percent for lines of credit linked to overdraft protection. Interest rates on credit cards linked to overdraft protection can range from 9 percent to 20 percent.
* How much is the transfer fee? You are most likely to encounter transfer fees on overdraft protection linked to a credit card or a savings account. For credit card overdraft protection, transfer fees can range from $3 to $10 a day. For savings-linked overdrafts, transfer fees range from $5 to $10 a day. It's also possible you won't be charged at all.
* Is there a minimum on each advance? Overdraft advances vary greatly. For example, some banks will advance you the exact amount needed to cover a transaction. Other protection programs advance cash in multiples of $100. If the bank lends only in multiples of $300, you would have to borrow $300 (and pay interest on it) even though you need only a few dollars to cover an overdraft.
* Is there an annual fee? Financial institutions typically don't charge an annual fee when the overdraft protection is linked to a credit card. However, many charged an annual fee for overdraft protection connected to a line of credit. Annual fees can range from $5 to $50.
While overdraft protection can save you money, be careful about leaning on it too much. The most cost-efficient way to handle your bank account is to wait until a deposit has been cleared before you write a check or use your debit or ATM card for a transaction.
* On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online at www.npr.org.
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