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Americans still addicted to overdraft

September 26, 2012: 6:00 AM ET

One of the financial industry's worst penalty fees is making a comeback.

FORTUNE -- The financial crisis was supposed to spur a new era of frugality and fiscal responsibility. It doesn't exactly appear to be working out that way.

Americans are once again increasingly overspending what they have in their checking accounts. In all, consumers were hit with $31.5 billion in so-called overdraft fees by banks in the past year, according to a new study from bank research firm Moebs Services. That compares to $30.8 billion in the same period a year before.

That was below the peak of $36.8 billion in the same period in 2008. But this year is still the first time overdraft fees have risen since the financial crisis. From mid-2008 to mid-2011, the number of times consumers were hit by overdraft fees had fallen by roughly a third. Now in the past nine months, the levying of overdraft penalties appears to be on the rise again, up 10% in the past nine months.

MORE: Card companies keep low rates for themselves

The question is whether this a a result of shady bank practices or poor money management. On the margin, it appears that overdraft fees have gotten a little more fair. Banks have shelled out hundreds of millions to settle claims that they re-ordered consumer purchases in order to trigger overdraft penalties as often as possible. And the Card Act made it illegal for banks to automatically enroll customers in overdraft protection, limiting the number of people who get hit with fees they didn't even know about.

There's probably still more work to be done to make these fees fair. Earlier this year, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said it was looking into way banks impose overdraft fees. Clearly, the pricing of overdraft fees, which average $30 per penalty, by banks still seems unfair. A similar loan from a payday lender would run you $17, according to Moebs.

But the most unfair thing about these fees might not be how they are charged, but who gets charged. Earlier this week, Bankrate.com came out with a study that said ATM fees and high minimums basically means free checking accounts are dead.

MORE: ATM fees rise, free checking accounts fall

Still, while more people, though still not nearly everyone, pay something for the use of their bank account, most of us don't pay very much. There are about 150 million bank accounts in America, which generate around $41 billion in fees for banks. About three quarters of that, though, comes from overdraft penalties. And, according to Michael Moebs, 90% of overdraft fees are generated by just 18 million customers. The result: As with many other financial products, the vast majority of the costs of banks accounts are hoisted off on a relatively small population, and generally it's a population that is the least able to pay.

During the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement last year, Bank of America announced that it was considering charging all of its debt card customers a $5 monthly fee. The Occupiers reacted with outrage and disbelief. They organized sit-ins at bank branches, and called for people across the country to close their accounts at big banks and move their money to community banks. Eventually, Bank of America relented, and that was seen as one of the few big wins for the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Bu in retrospect it's not clear it was. The Occupiers may have squashed a move that might have made the financial sector a heck of a lot more fair. Banks should be scrapping overdraft fees in favor of lower broad based fees that everyone has to pay. The Occupiers underscored how hard it will be hard for banks to do that.

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About This Author
Stephen Gandel
Stephen Gandel

Stephen Gandel has covered Wall Street and investing for over 15 years. He joins Fortune from sister publication TIME, where he was a senior business writer and lead blogger for The Curious Capitalist. He has also held positions at Money and Crain's New York Business. Stephen is a four-time winner of the Henry R. Luce Award. His work has also been recognized by the National Association of Real Estate Editors, the New York State Society of CPA and the Association of Area Business Publications. He is a graduate of Washington University, and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children.

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