Banks Slowly Offer Alternatives to Overdraft Fees, a Bane of Struggling Spenders
Overdraft fees, initially marketed as a convenience, have proliferated in the past quarter-century. Rather than bouncing a check or other payment, these programs reassure customers that a bill won't go unpaid or an emergency purchase won't be denied — even though they can turn a $3 coffee into a $38 extravagance.
Since then, overdraft protections have become known as an aggressive way to siphon fees from consumers. Although customers must opt in to overdraft protections for debit or A.T.M. withdrawals, banks don't need their permission to charge fees for online payments or checks instead of letting them bounce. All told, overdraft fees are worth billions of dollars to banks each year. The charges were so lucrative to one midsize institution that its chief executive once named his boat after them. But the tide may be changing: An increasing number of banks are introducing services including grace periods and small short-term loans that provide less-punitive alternatives — if users qualify. Generally that means having a consistent deposit history, like regular paychecks, or other qualifications that may include a longstanding account. The biggest shift occurred this month when Ally Bank said it would eliminate its $25 overdraft fee altogether, giving customers six days to get in the black again before it potentially limits how they use their accounts.