What Overdraft Protection Means for Millennials

In college, on top of hours of schoolwork, difficult classes, and extracurricular commitments, the last thing a student would want to worry about is having to pay pesky overdraft fees. Overdraft coverage has generally been more of a nuisance than convenience for bank account holders, because while it allows clients to make transactions when their balance is low, the fees (typically $35 across most banks) can add up for those who tend to frequently overdraw their accounts. The average overdrawing transaction amount is $24, which hardly justifies the cost of the fee. In a sense, it provides account holders in times of need with a short-term loan to which a 17000% interest rate is attached.

Interestingly, a recent Pew survey has found that the majority of overdraft fees are paid by young adults in their late teens through early thirties. They tend to lose on average at least $100 to overdraft fees every year. These individuals already make up the most financially vulnerable age group, so why do they end up shouldering the extra burden of overdraft fees? Is it simply because millennials in particular are irresponsible and neglect to monitor their account balances?

The answer may actually lie in banks’ lack of transparency when encouraging clients to opt into overdraft protection programs, rather than account holders’ carelessness. Since banks earn approximately 61% of their yearly revenue from overdraft fees alone, they either heavily promote their overdraft protection programs, and even used to make it the default option for checking accounts before the Federal Reserve disallowed this practice in 2010. The name itself, “overdraft protection,” is misleading to many, since the Pew survey found that the majority of people who had to pay overdraft fees would have preferred their transactions been declined instead.

Fortunately in response to the survey, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is reevaluating existing rules on overdraft protection programs and possibly even implementing new, stricter ones to prevent account holders from falling victim so easily to overdraft fees. In the meantime, however, young adults should take extra steps to avoid these unwanted charges when creating their own checking accounts.

One important step you can take is to simply not opt into overdraft coverage. Many new account holders voluntarily choose overdraft coverage merely because banks advertise it as a form of protection, even though the reality means extra charges. As a general rule, read the fine print of any program your bank offers because when you are only just opening an account for the first time, less is more. While it may be a minor inconvenience to encounter declined transactions when your account balance is low, there is no real harm done. It is by far better than dealing with the financial burden of overdraft fees, especially if they accumulate over multiple instances.

However, if you prefer to have some overdraft protection, make sure to set up some type of notification system with your bank so that you are alerted whenever your account balance approaches its minimum amount requirement. Another precaution your bank may offer is an overdraft “transfer” option, which automatically transfers money from your savings account to checking when your balance is low. While there is usually a transfer fee, it is much smaller than the $35 you would be charged for an overdraft.

Until banks become more transparent with the way their overdraft programs work, young adults opening checking accounts for the first time must do their own research in order to select the option most conducive to their spending habits. College especially is a time to focus on personal growth and further exploring one’s interests, not getting caught up in fees that are an unnecessary blow to students who are already experiencing financial vulnerability. The least we can do as students is to research our options beforehand, and choose the right account options to protect ourselves and avoid having to pay in the long run