Getting over the overdraft: How I started saving

A few years back, I got a paycheck in the mail and went to deposit it. I left the bank, dropped off a rent check, bought groceries, a sandwich across the street, gas on the way home, and a new album from iTunes to listen to while cooking.

I forgot to endorse the check. Normally, this is no big deal for my bank. That day, they decided it was. Originally, they cashed the check, the money went through and popped up on my online banking sheet. Then someone else caught the check down the line and didn't like that it wasn't signed. They took the money out of my account, stamped the check to be returned, and sent it back to me for endorsement.

Here's the thing: I didn't have any other money in the bank.

The Cost of One Missed Signature

Because I forgot to sign the back of my paycheck, I incurred the following fees:

  • $100 for rent. That rent check bounced. $50 for the bounced check from my management company. $50 late fee for that month.
  • $35 overdraft fee for groceries. I bought $27 worth of groceries.
  • $35 overdraft fee for the sandwich.
  • $35 overdraft fee for gas. I drive a scooter and can hold about a gallon in my tank. Gas was less than $2.50 per gallon.
  • $35 overdraft fee for the iTunes album.

That's a grand total of $240 in charges and overdraft fees.

I spent less than $50 on food, gas, and an album, and it cost me an additional $140 in overdraft fees. Later I found out that's the maximum for one day, so there is some pity in the world. I didn't need that sandwich — why didn't they just reject my card?! They explained to me that it's because I never told them to do so. As to whether or not that's all criminal or how to effectively talk your way out of overdraft fees, that's another subject. Neither of those fixed the larger problem: I needed to change my habits.

I was living paycheck-to-paycheck and really had no reason for it. I wasn't in debt. I made enough money for me. Yet somehow at the end of each month during those last few days before payday, I always ended up eating a lot of rice. So what did I do when I had $240 in late fees to pay? I paid them. I didn't max out a credit card. I found $240 in my budget (and I use budget in the sense that everyone on earth has a budget, not that I'd ever sat down and actually made a budget or looked at budgeting) and still ended up with the same result at the end of the month: rice on the stove.

It occurred to me that if I could put $240 aside one month for bank fees, I could probably do it another month for savings.

Making Cuts

To start my emergency fund, I cut back on several things I normally would have purchased, such as the following:

  • A plane ticket to New York to visit my college roommate
  • Mountains of books
  • An über fancy date with my girlfriend
  • Two months unlimited yoga at that swanky new studio
  • The NFL Sunday Ticket package from DIRECTV
  • A trip to IKEA for random non-essentials (New champagne flutes? Yes, please. Lingerberry juice concentrate for all! Yes, I should buy a new pillow. This faux leather chair is only $75! With NFL Sunday Ticket, I would pretty much need it.)

Nope, no plane tickets. I finished a book or two off my shelf. No swanky dates, just a pot of specially seasoned beans (and she loved me all the more). I waited for a friend to get me in on her pass to the new yoga studio. I went over to a friend's house for the Bears game, and yeah, I guess I bought a six pack. And look, I lived without the chair!

Two or three months in, I had a decent stash saved. This was the start of my emergency fund.

Why Set Up an Emergency Fund?

Most GRS readers understand the importance of an emergency fund, but for someone starting out, it's not always clear how often a cash cushion will come in handy. The following are some reasons I've used mine:

  • I moved into a new apartment. I needed to pay one deposit before I got my last one back.
  • My ear was clogged and I couldn't hear. I tried the over-the-counter stuff and it made it worse. After 10 minutes at the doctor's office, I could hear again. Initial visit cost me $85 plus $10 for the gunk they used.
  • I was tired of fishtailing every time I rode my scooter in the rain. After getting yet another flat, I swapped out the Chinese-made tire the bike came with and got the super-tread ones. I haven't fishtailed since.
  • I only get paid once a month, and sometimes things come up right before the next paycheck. When I first started saving, it got me over that rice-eating hump at the end of each pay cycle.

I think those were valid reasons to use my savings. Just for fun, here were some reasons I have not used my emergency savings account:

  • My friend wanted me to go to a Josh Groban concert.
  • Two of my high school friends were getting married. They registered at Neiman Marcus.
  • NFL Sunday Ticket.
  • It's getting cold at night. I want a car.

Putting together an initial emergency fund can be incredibly challenging. The first step is always the hardest. Bank fees spurred me into action. Others start with their tax refund. Some start small, some big. Just $50 in my account would have been enough to avoid those bank fees. Forget the excuses and start however you can. Track your spending – on your credit cards and everywhere else – for a month and give more consideration to what isn't necessary, then put that into a high yield savings account. Stash your holiday bonus into savings. Sell some things online or to a local clothing store. Get a roommate. Take on a small second job or even look for seasonal work.

Before you start worrying about how much you need to set aside or what your future financial goals should be, before you rule out buying a house or going on that dream trip you've always wanted to take, start your emergency fund. Paycheck-to-paycheck isn't the only option. Setting some money aside, whatever you can manage, is your first step. Do it today!

How did you first get started saving? What was your turning point?

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Miser+Mom
Miser+Mom
8 years ago

In the “not thinking” arena, the lightbulb moment for me was when I realized I could have the bank automatically transfer money from my checking account to my savings account each time my employer deposited my pay check. Money that I didn’t see in my checking account was money that I didn’t feel the urge to spend.

STRONGside
STRONGside
8 years ago

For me it was in high school when I bought my first car, and began realizing that my $99 per month payment had to come from somewhere. I learned very quickly that if you spent your money on fun items and entertainment, you had no money on future goals.

subhorup dasgupta
subhorup dasgupta
8 years ago

Your post rang very true for me at this point in my life. I am still in debt, but have started taking the first steps towards an emergency fund. I found myself in incredible debt after settling an expensive divorce, and without a job, my only option was to cash in whatever I had been able to save over the last 12 years. As that fund started depleting, I realized two things – how helpful that money was in my time of need, and the fact that now that fund was no longer there for the future. Other than food… Read more »

Kris @ Everyday Tips
Kris @ Everyday Tips
8 years ago

That day of overdrafts may possibly be the best financial thing that ever happened to you! Great job recognizing you needed to make some changes instead of just blaming the bank and keeping your spending habits.

We always saved for retirement, but had a lot of loans to pay off after college. Then we had 3 kids right in a row. We saved slow and steady since our mid 20s, but we never were big spenders. There wasn’t really an ephiphany moment for us like you had, my story is actually quite boring. 🙂

Sun
Sun
8 years ago

> instead of just blaming the bank and keeping your spending habits.

Bank does deserve blame. You don’t approve a check (unless it shows as pending with a temporary credit only) then bounce the deposit back.

Rob Madrid
Rob Madrid
8 years ago
Reply to  Sun

Yes time to switch banks, preferably to a local credit union.

smedleyb
smedleyb
8 years ago

Some of us actually use cash to make our everyday purchases, thus avoiding those dreaded overdraft fees. A similar fee barrage happened to my sister-in-law and my wife’s friend recently when each made similar innocuous mistakes with their work checks. I don’t think people understand how our growing credit/debit card based consumer economy drives the price up for everything (somebody has to pay those transaction fees, and it certainly ain’t the retailer), while lining the pockets of banks with usurious fee income. Once again, cash is king in the retail space. My business is cash only and my prices are… Read more »

Elisabeth
Elisabeth
8 years ago
Reply to  smedleyb

On the contrary, it is the retailer. Credit card processing fees are downright painful. The interchange fee can be as high as 3% on top of a flat per transaction fee. As a mom-and-pop retailer who accepts credit cards about it; you’ll probably get an earful.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
8 years ago
Reply to  Elisabeth

I think she meant that retailers pass along the costs to consumers. I imagine that some people think businesses are jacking up their prices an extra 3-5% to compensate for credit card fees. That wasn’t the case for the small businesses I worked for. Credit card fees were just the cost of doing business — like heat, electricity and marketing.

Mom of five
Mom of five
8 years ago
Reply to  smedleyb

I’ll start paying cash when the retailers give cash payers a better price. Until then, we’re going to continue collecting our credit card points.

We just bought a new $2000 mattress (bad backs) from Sears. After trying the bed out in the store, we came home and ordered online from Sears via the Discover Website and got ourselves $300 cash back. Sometimes paying cash is foolish.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
8 years ago
Reply to  Mom of five

One of the businesses I used to work for gave a discount on large purchases if people paid using debit or cash. I think it was 3% — equivalent to the credit card fees on the most expensive credit card to have. People were surprised at how much that amounts to, and it’s more than the 1 or 2% they get back from their rewards.

Now I ask if there’s a discount for not using a credit card and the answer is “no” almost all of the time.

Mark
Mark
8 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

That’s when I take my business elsewhere, usually. I pay cash for big ticket items. I can usually get a better deal than the “$300 cash back” that someone might get for using a cc.

mom of five
mom of five
8 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

@Mark – I think you need to be careful with that though. Clerks at places like Home Depot or Sears are only authorized to come down so far on price and that is typically in cases of damaged merchandise. And I have never heard they were allowed to come down due to cash over credit. I would be concerned that the employee was pocketing the money and not actually ringing the sale. I should add that the Stearns and Foster mattress set we ended up buying was already being purchased at a supposed 50% off so we were already getting… Read more »

Erik
Erik
7 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

I think most credit card companies forbid doing this now…

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
8 years ago
Reply to  Mom of five

I hope you looked at them all by yourself and didn’t ask for an associate to help you pick one out, if you did plan on ordering it online through the Discover website all along. Don’t forget there are still retail employees making a commissions, and time they spend on you (to then not even shop in their store) is time they could’ve spent elsewhere.

I work at Sears as a cashier (no commission for me to worry about), but I have seen this happen to many of the people selling on the floor.

Elisabeth
Elisabeth
8 years ago

This is a great post. I love that you turned a negative experience into a positive one. Just a side note, it wouldn’t have been your bank that returned the check for lack of endorsement. It would have been the paying bank. (Unless it was the same bank, of course). Just so you’re mad at the right institution. 😀 And, to be completely fair, it actually could have been someone at your employer’s who returned it. It’s unlikely, but possible. It is possible they approved your card for the sandwich because the check had not been returned yet, so there… Read more »

Jeff
Jeff
8 years ago

Your story is why debit cards can be far worse than credit cards.

Dan
Dan
8 years ago
Reply to  Jeff

Yup. Say I run up $1000 on my card, an “oops” happened, and there’s not enough to pay the expenses come due-date. On a card with an 18% APR, you’re looking at less than $20 for that oops. (That’s assuming you’re able to catch up and pay the bill in full.)

Nick
Nick
8 years ago

As someone who’s worked in the retail banking industry for the past 7+ years, I’m a bit confused as to why your bank turned down the deposit… the only time a signature is actually required is if you’re actually cashing the check (by which I mean exchanging the check for cash in your hand) or if you’re performing a split deposit (depositing some of the check and receiving some cash back), or if the check isn’t made out to you explicitly. Typically, if the “Pay to the order of” line matches the name on the account, then not signing the… Read more »

Savoholic
Savoholic
8 years ago
Reply to  Nick

Yes–I was wondering the same thing.

Dan
Dan
8 years ago
Reply to  Nick

Come to think of it, I had a “same-same but different” problem. My grandpa passed away a couple of years ago, and my dad had power of attorney on the account. Dad wrote me a check (grandpa’s bank was different than mine, and had no local branches in the area) which my bank rejected, because dad’s name didn’t show up on the check face. Imagine the annoyance when the check was returned to me. I actually had occasion to be in a town with my dad that had a branch of the bank grandpa used, and we went and had… Read more »

monsterzero
monsterzero
8 years ago

I recall a year or two ago when I got literally twenty emails from my bank trying to get me to sign up for “overdraft protection”. In some cases implying that OP was required, or that I would somehow be penalized for not opting-in to OP.

I ended up moving my $$ to a credit union, which I love. But I did get a couple of emails urging me to sign up for overdraft protection before they gave up. What a racket.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
8 years ago

Good post! Funny how one error can have such a big impact. For me the problem wasn’t saving, it was that I was saving/investing so much automatically that I felt like I was living pay check to pay check — and I put extra money in at end of the month. Then one of my pay checks got delayed a few days and I had to do a lot of rearranging to make sure a check didn’t bounce. Now I’m letting a balance accrue in my checking account even though my first instinct is to put it in savings instead.… Read more »

Bella
Bella
8 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

It’s amazing how we can think we’re doing the right thing but it’s doing more harm than good. I would always try to pay off my credit card balances every month – and I didn’t have the money – well I did when I made the payments, but by the end of the month – I was back to putting groceries on the credit cards, cause I had spend all my money paying off the credit cards. And I couldn’t tell month to month if I was making progress – but it sure didn’t feel like it.

Marcia
Marcia
8 years ago

My emergency fund began two summers ago when a few things came together all at once:
1. I read Total Money Makeover and decided I’d start following that road.
2. Windfall number 1: Retro-active pay on our new contract.
3. Windfall number 2: $500 (less taxes) health care spending – having an emergency fund = less stress = better health
4. Staff discount payout.
Since then I feed it a little bit every month and it grows – slowly but surely. It is indeed something that keeps me from worrying too much!

LaTisha @YoungAdultFinances
LaTisha @YoungAdultFinances
8 years ago

I think it was bank fees that did it to me too. I was pretty upset that I would get charged over thirty dollars for a 3 dollar card swipe that they could have just declined. I’ve been putting away money in savings ever since and now I shoot for 10% or more of my take home income.

Well Heeled Blog
Well Heeled Blog
8 years ago

I have gotten some overdraft fees because of frankly careless mistakes (i.e. forgetting the due date until 2 days later), but from my experience, if you are polite and generally a good customer, the bank / credit card company will be happy to waive the fees if you ask. If the customer representative doesn’t, escalate the issue to a manager. I’ve done that several times and probably saved myself around $200.

CincyCat
CincyCat
8 years ago

That is very true, and it works for just about any late fee/charge – not just bank overdraft charges.

I’ve done this myself in the past when our paychecks happened to be out of cycle with one of our major bills.

If you call & explain the situation calmly and truthfully, most places (including utilities) will waive late fees, etc.

PawPrint
PawPrint
8 years ago

So true. I thought I’d paid off my Lowe’s CC (it was recorded in Quicken), but it appears I had a senior moment and never actually transferred the money. When I got the statement indicating I owed $15 in fees (no interest–it was 0%), I immediately called and asked them to remove it. No problem.

cc
cc
8 years ago

high-five fellow scooter rider!! best form of transport for a city, $5 in gas every couple of months. good times! also, i hit an overdraft once and signed up immediately for overdraft protection. unless i’m missing something from the negative comments regarding Overdraft protection, i love it! i got one $35 fine once, and now anything that’s not in my account, i just have a tiny credit account that they bump the amount too. it shows up when i log into my bank, so there are never any nasty surprises, and i’ve never hit an overdraft fee again. i think… Read more »

Bella
Bella
8 years ago
Reply to  cc

I have overdraft protection from my credit union for free – well, they charge me a couple cents interest until I pay back the money – but my husband would have to pay for it at Wells Fargo. I think when banks charge for it is when people get irate. My lighning line prevents me from having to keep large amounts in my checking – extra protection from identity theft.

cc
cc
8 years ago
Reply to  Bella

i got mine for free at hsbc after an overcharge, the guy was very friendly and i haven’t had a fee since. looove hsbc. i’m so pleased that they haven’t pulled any crazy moves in the past couple years, or at least any that i’ve noticed. i can use the card internationally, the website is great. atms can be scarce, but i’m usually fairly close to one in nyc, and with a little planning it’s no problem at all. also they do no-envelope deposits at their atms- so cool. i found myself at a different atm once with envelopes, geez,… Read more »

Leah
Leah
8 years ago

My mom marched me to the bank with my first ever paycheck at 15, and we started an account. At the end of the summer, she made me buy a CD with almost all the money I had made so I couldn’t touch that money all year (I had an allowance for necessities and had never needed more than that, expense wise, to get by). I saved many summers worth of money and used that to study abroad in college. I graduated college with only $700 to my name, and I used my graduation money to get into my new… Read more »

Dan
Dan
8 years ago
Reply to  Leah

Leah,

One counter-point to your mom would be that for small expenses (I’d count $100 as small), you should have a plan for replacing it. For me, $100 for a real emergency is trivial. But, if I *needed* to hit my emergency fund because I couldn’t scrape up such a small amount, I’d be worried about how I’d replenish it — if your e-fund takes a $100 hit too many times, you won’t have much of an e-fund.

Bella
Bella
8 years ago

Nice article. I like that you pointed out that you still had to buy that 6pack to watch the Bears’ game. We have a neighbor who gets some of the boxing fights on PPV – I would never pay for it myself – but we like to go and bring the snacks – win win for all parties. It more fun to watch a match with friends anyway.

thefrugallery
thefrugallery
8 years ago

Your story is a lesson that everyone needs to learn! It is amazing how a little mistake can spiral into a huge problem. I am a faithful user of Mint.com and love how it tells you how to use extra money towards your goals. If you have an extra $50 in your budget it will tell you, “use this towards your vacation fund and you’ll reach your goal 5 months early.” You get the idea–every penny helps!

Laura
Laura
8 years ago

Great post. For me, I’d heard about keeping an emergency fund from different sources, but somehow it didn’t sink in until (a) we bought a house, and (b) I read Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover. Fortunately we always get a hefty tax refund because we have more taken out than necessary to make sure we have $ for DS’s summer day-camp tuition (yes, I know, this is not the best way to save, but it works for me so I don’t care), and we had $1K more than needed which became the fledgling Emergency Fund. I’ve only incurred serious fees… Read more »

Andrew
Andrew
8 years ago
Reply to  Laura

Funny, the one time something like this happened to me was when a teller put through my $680.00 check as $6.80–I just threw the receipt into my wallet and didn’t think about it again until everything started bouncing.

Never had any similar problems with an ATM!

OnABudget...Always
OnABudget...Always
8 years ago

A friend was judging me a little this weekend. I didn’t want to contribute to the office charity — my own favorite charity (Border Collie rescue) is in desperate need this year as so many folks are getting rid of their dogs. I have decided to donate all my planned giving to them. She said, well you are rich and everything is so easy for you and you should give to both. I am well off, but I pointed out that when she was partying in high school and dropping out, I was the ridiculed nerd studying to get into… Read more »

Diane
Diane
8 years ago

Interesting how you had so much extra money and was spending it so freely. Glad that this experience made you re-think how to spend. I hate when your hard earned money goes to wasted things like bank charges.

There is something to be said about being on your own and not having convince someone else what is necessary. I often find it hard to convince spouses to adjust their spending spending even when they are working towards common goals.

B'om
B'om
8 years ago

I am retired now, but when I was working my trick was to put half of every pay raise into the credit union. It was automatically deducted and deposited, so I never saw it or missed it. The additional amount in the first check containing the raise was always spent on a “damn I’m good” family outing, then I would call the credit union telling them how much to add to my automatic deposit. That extra cushion, saved me many times.

Courtney
Courtney
8 years ago

This post is striking way-too-close to home. Not me, it’s my boyfriend. He was stressing that he didn’t have enough money for xmas presents, so we decided to transfer money from our joint account to his until he gets his xmas bonus from work. To transfer money, we had to set up the link between the two accounts online. No problem, I’ve done this a few times before with other accounts. You know that test transaction that they use to prove you really are the owner of the account? Where they deposit and then withdraw two amounts that add up… Read more »

Rebecca
Rebecca
8 years ago

My favorite part of this article:

My high school friends are getting married. They registered at Neiman Marcus.

Hahahaha. Sorry, that’s just really, really funny to me.

Threadbndr
Threadbndr
8 years ago

I started my efund when I had to borrow $100 from my dad to pay for my son’s scout camp nearly 20 years ago now. Loved my late husband, but that man never met a dollar he couldn’t/didn’t spend. So I set up to split my check between the checking and savings. He knew that money was going into savings, of course, but it was ‘off limits’. Now that I’m living on a single income (his life insurance went to pay his medical bills), I’m so glad I’m used to budgeting and saving. Doing OK, and I don’t miss the… Read more »

bethh
bethh
8 years ago

Several years ago, I realized that the $5 check I’d written for a doctor’s office copay was going to bounce because I was short 17 cents. Fortunately I had a friend working at my bank and I called to see if he could give me the money. He gave me a quarter instead 🙂

But it really was a wake-up call that I was cutting things far too closely.

lmh
lmh
8 years ago

as much as i love rice and beans, i’m super pumped that Umi and Toulouse can still be in your culinary plan. Also, this is a really unfortunate example of how financial institutions take advantage of the little guy. Living paycheck to paycheck is an unfortunate reality for so many people that creating a budget to escape that cycle is not feasible, and $240 in fees is a total outrage.

anyway, celebratory lingonberry cocktail for you, timothy sullivan, you got the budgeting thing down pat!

D S Wilson
D S Wilson
8 years ago

This is a good article, but seems to be missing something as I see it. There’s a distinction between an emergency fund versus a wad of money in every account as padding. The padding can cover when a bill is due two days before payday, or I accidentally picked up a $40 bottle of wine when I intended to grab the $9 one, and don’t notice. I have a small automated donation set up, but sometimes forget to account for it when paying bills and making other donations. Padding takes care of those, and doesn’t have to be a lot,… Read more »

Kurt
Kurt
8 years ago

The overdraft and other fees you were hit with have become major sources of revenue for banks, estimated at $16 billion in 2011. Also, see the Nov 23, 2011 Washington Times article “Banks’ Accounting Boosts Overdraft Fees” for a brief description of ongoing practices by banks to process debits and credits in an order designed and intended to maximize overdraft fees. I’d bet a lot that your un-endorsed check would not have been returned if the bank hadn’t seen an opportunity to cash in on overdraft fees. In fact, I’d bet the job of the person ‘down the line’ who… Read more »

michele
michele
8 years ago

My ah-ha moment was when an emergency vet bill gobbled up all my emergency fund, plus some. I was forced to charge the bill on my credit cards. A year later later, with 3 1/2 months of emergency fund in the bank, I cut up my credit cards and vowed to never be without enough money for things like that again. Even after being un-employed and underemployed, a year of law school (paid for with my severance check), a move to another state and yet more schooling (not law this time), I’ve been able to survive the past 2 1/2… Read more »

Peach
Peach
8 years ago

After months of stress, I sold my house in a short sale. I netted $1000. I didn’t think twice, I put it in the bank for emergency funds, and I don’t even think about spending it. I add to it every month. Debt-free is the way to go.

krantcents
krantcents
8 years ago

I started very young (7 years old). I learned a great deal about savings when I received a mall allowance in school (starting in the 7th grade).

Ziraldo
Ziraldo
8 years ago

Roughly 5 years ago, I became very alarmed because I had no emergency fund. I decided then to establish one. A week ago, the furnace went out. The technician came and informed me that the furnace was corroded, dangerous and essentially kaput. The cost: anywhere from $3500 to $4800 depending on whether the evaporation coil had to be replaced. As I type this entry, I’m in a back bedroom converted to an office with an electric heater (bought with my emergency fund) with the temperature currently at 68 degrees. I’m very comfortable as long as I stay in this room.… Read more »

Cat
Cat
8 years ago

Wow. That is a serious kick in the pants. Those fees were outrageous, but at least something positive came out of it.

Matt, Tao of Unfear
Matt, Tao of Unfear
8 years ago

First of all, thank goodness for credit unions. I’ve never seen them be anything but willing to work with members when something like that happens (also, have never had a problem with not signing a check when it’s being deposited into my account when my name is on the check. o_0) In other news, I would automatically pay all of the bills that would come due before my next pay check and then transfer anything in excess of $200 to my emergency savings. I knew I wasn’t going to need anywhere near $200 for food and groceries between then and… Read more »

Jamie
Jamie
7 years ago

It wasn’t any one thing. My husband and I decided we needed to get fiscally responsible and having an emergency fund was the first step. That was about four years ago and I can’t even begin to express how much difference that one little step of an emergency fund made in our lives. We now live the life we dreamed of because of that first step.

L
L
7 years ago

If it’s the first time you’ve incurred late fees with any of the institutions involved, chances are you can have them removed. I once forgot the the due date for my credit card payment and was a few hours late. Called and had the late fee removed. Ditto for an auto-repair loan. The first check I mailed took 10 days to clear, making my payment 4 days late. I called and explained, and they credited the money back. I have since switched to online payments for my credit cards that I schedule as soon as the bill arrives, and pay… Read more »

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