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Hate your bank? It could be your fault

You don't have to have a spending problem to waste hundreds of dollars on bank fees. You just have to be ignorant about your account.

By MSN Money Partner Apr 2, 2012 10:24AM

This guest post comes from Andrea Whitmer at So Over Debt.


Image: bank ATM (© Image Source/Corbis/Corbis)My 21-year-old cousin signed up for the National Guard recently. He leaves for basic training in a few weeks, where I'm guessing he'll be tortured with physical activity, then emerge a "real man" by the time he graduates. While I think this is a great idea for him, I overlooked one caveat: Someone has to take care of his bills while he's gone. And I'm sure you can guess who got nominated.


Yesterday we went to his bank to add me as a joint account holder. I was interested to visit the branch, since I've heard him complain over and over about excessive fees. His income is beyond adequate, and he's not an outrageous spender (especially considering his age), so I've never been able to figure out why a simple checking account has cost him so much money.


At the bank

After a short wait, we sat across from an "account professional" while she typed furiously at her computer. Several minutes passed, then she frowned and looked up at my cousin.


"Would you like me to just close out this savings account?" she asked.


He looked puzzled. "Why? What's wrong?"


"Well, you've been under the minimum balance for quite some time and the account is overdrawn by about $400. The minimum balance requirement is waived for military personnel, so I can just take the charges off and close the account for you."


Cousin nodded and she resumed typing. He leaned over and whispered angrily, "That account had $1,400 in it the last time I checked."


"Then how did it get to negative $400?"


"The minimum is $1,500. I thought I put more money in it, but I guess I forgot. That was a long time ago." He shrugged.


By the time we left the bank, I learned some additional facts about my cousin's banking habits:

  • For the life of the account, he has been charged $3.95 a month for a rewards debit card that he has never even owned. He noticed the charge on his statement but assumed it was just "some random bank charge" and never questioned it.
  • He has been locked out of online banking for about eight months because he entered the wrong password too many times. Until yesterday, he just assumed he couldn't use online banking anymore.
  • He didn't set up online bill pay "because it looked too complicated." He has paid hundreds of dollars in late fees because his work schedule makes it difficult to pay bills in person, and he can't use checks because he never ordered any.
  • Since he couldn't access his information online, he has been paying a $10 fee each month to make his truck payment by phone. He didn't know he could pay through the lender's website instead of the bank.
  • He lost his PIN, so he has just guesstimated his balance for the past 18 months or so, leading to more than $2,000 in overdraft fees in 2011.

Needless to say, the ride home was rather unpleasant for my cousin. He may never speak to me again after the lecture I gave him, and I think I'm OK with that. (Post continues below.)

Your banking rights and responsibilities

According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.  and the Federal Trade Commission, consumers have numerous rights when dealing with financial institutions. When you open a checking or savings account, you have the right to know the terms of the account, such as what fees you could pay and what events might trigger those fees. You have the right to receive a copy of the fee schedule written in plain English, as well as an accurate explanation of how your deposits are credited.


However, as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. No regulatory agency gives you the right to just do whatever you want and expect the bank to fix it.


It's your responsibility to understand your account. Your bank will provide a fee schedule and disclosures about your account, but you actually have to read that information. If you choose to throw it away, that's not the bank's problem.


It's your responsibility to contact the bank when there's a problem. Banks have thousands of customers. Believe it or not, no one sits around monitoring your account 24/7. If you notice something weird and choose not to pick up the phone, you will probably never get a resolution.


It's your responsibility to know your balance. For everyone, but especially for those of us who live on the edge, it's essential that you know your bank balance, as well as what purchases are outstanding. Seeing the numbers might scare you, but you can't stick your head in the sand. Guessing only results in overdraft fees.


It's your responsibility to keep up with documentation. When you get bank statements or those little envelopes with your PIN -- don't you hate those perforated edges? -- don't burn them or throw them away. Don't shove them in the junk drawer or put them in the shredder. Take three minutes to make a file folder called "(Bank name) checking account" and keep everything in one place.


It's your responsibility to ask for help. If you're paying bank fees left and right like my cousin, there is a problem. Sometimes your income is too low or your bills are too high. More often, though, there is a breakdown in the way you are spending and/or keeping track of your balance. Banks love fees. A teller will never call you and say, "Gee, you're overdrawing a lot. We'd love to help you stop handing us money!"

You don't have to hate your bank

At the height of my spending addiction, I cursed my bank on a daily basis. Damn their overdraft fees! Damn them for making my available balance so inaccurate! Damn them for bouncing all the checks I wrote before crediting my deposit! (Actually I still think that practice is pretty crappy.)


After a while, I had to admit that maybe the bank wasn't the problem. Just as my cousin did yesterday (with a little encouragement). No matter how much it sucked to admit it, I was the common denominator in every single one of my banking problems. Once I figured that out, I was able to find a bank that met my needs, and I'm proud to report that I haven't paid a single fee in 14 months.


Yesterday, I learned that you don't have to have a spending problem to waste hundreds of dollars on bank fees. Instead, you can choose to remain ignorant about the basics of your account. Or, for those of you who are tired of fighting and stressing and paying fees, you can take the reins and do something about it.


Where do you bank? What do you love (or hate) about it? Have you ever blamed the bank for something you knew was really your fault?


More on So Over Debt and MSN Money:

Apr 2, 2012 4:13PM
I'm concerned about your cousin carrying a loaded gun.
Apr 3, 2012 9:05AM
Good article.  More people need to be made to understand its not always the bank, company, etc they are dealing with that is the problem.  More often than not its their fault.  Personal responsibility and understanding the terms and policies is sorely lacking in our society these days.  Many have been conditioned to blame someone else. 
Apr 4, 2012 11:43AM
Every month I get a list of new rules. Some so small I can't read it. I know, that's my fault right. This is similar to insurance. New rules every month. I can't do like the government and say I didn't know that and it goes away. Go figure. I know, It's all my fault.
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