In another sign that consumers are becoming more vigilant about their finances, the American Bankers Association finds that an overwhelming majority of Americans are avoiding overdraft fees.
In its annual survey, the ABA said 82 percent of consumers kept check on their balances and steered clear of what can be hefty fees on an account that gets drained.
What's more, most are learning from their mistakes: 36 percent of those caught without enough in their checking or debit accounts got hit only once in the last year with an overdraft fee.
At the same time, however, 35 percent got stuck with four or more overdrafts. Eleven percent of those had six to 10, which at about $29 a pop could cost a consumer as much as $290.
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"Anyone's bank account can fall short from time to time, but overdraft fees are 100 percent avoidable," said Nessa Feddis, ABA senior federal counsel and retail expert. "Just like a parking ticket, they're meant to be a deterrent."
The results come at a time when most Americans are reining in spending and borrowing less. The Federal Reserve said last week consumers chucked debt for the sixth straight month in July. Total borrowing for almost everything but real estate plunged a record 10.4 percent, on a seasonally adjusted annual rate, to $2.47 billion. That's a $21.6 billion decline from June, which saw debt drop 7.4 percent.
That means that banks are making less money on credit cards and turning to fees -- and in particular overdraft fees -- to cover the gap. Banks also are raising fees on credit, ATM and checking accounts.
Consumers can sidestep overdraft by following the ABA's tips:
* Have your paycheck directly deposited into your account. You will have immediate access to your paycheck.
* Always keep track of your balance and transactions, including automatic payments. You can track balances and transactions online, by phone or at the ATM, 24 hours a day. Some banks even offer mobile banking so you can check your balance on your cell phone. Remember, though, that those balances will not reflect transactions you authorized that have not been processed by your bank.
* Keep a "pad" or cushion of money in your checking account. Just to be safe.
* Link your checking account to a savings account or credit card. These are usually less expensive alternatives, but remember to pay them off.
* Ask your bank for an overdraft line of credit to cover you. Just be sure to pay it back as soon as you get the bill.
* See if your bank offers automatic notification when your balance drops below a certain level. Many banks will notify you by text message or email.
* Change banks if your bank doesn't offer the services you would like, or charges too much for overdrafts. There are literally thousands of banks competing for your business.