Just when you thought it was safe…

SharkMoneyNo, it’s not Jaws 2, but there is definitely a menace out there that is lurking and ready to take a bite…out of your wallet.

Over the past few years you have heard me sound the alarm regarding the fees that banks charge – definitely one of my favorite topics. Allowing bank fees to slowly but surely erode your bank account is a great example of what I refer to as “unconscious spending”, something that happens out of sight and out of mind, doesn’t require any action on your part, and is often ignored or thought of as inevitable. It’s not!

One thing that has happened over the past few years has been the passage of legislation intended to help protect you from at least some of these fees. Examples of those changes include the requirement that you now choose to “opt in” to take advantage of overdraft protection and other services that require a fee. In fact, we even have a newly created governmental agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is there specifically to be your guardian and advocate for all things financial.

The problem, of course, is that no matter who is out there to protect us, we are all adults making our own decisions, and sometimes those decisions are not good ones. In fact, even with the new requirement to opt in for overdraft protection, bank customers paid $31.6 billion in overdraft fees in 2011. Now, to be fair, that is down from $33.6 billion in 2010, but collectively we gave the banks more than $30 billion in fees that could have been avoided with better financial planning and record keeping.

One disturbing statistic that has not changed has been the repetitive nature of habitual overdrafters. In fact, more than 15 million Americans overdraw their accounts 10 or more times each year, resulting in a huge negative impact on their account balance, as the overdraft fees chip away. It’s like doing business with a loan shark, but instead of illegally high rates of interest, the bank is simply charging you $35 every time you’re a few dollars short in covering a transaction. Those 15 million folks spent at least $350 they didn’t really need to spend. That’s a lot of dinners or gas or movies or anything other than just handing it to the bank!

So the sharks are still circling, only this time they’re dressed as bankers. Maybe it’s time for you to get out of the water.

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