The Most Costly Mistake You Can Make With Your Bank Account

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Bank mistakesBy Matt Brownell

There's nothing more expensive than spending money you don't have. That, of course, is a lesson you might learn the hard way if you carry a balance on a high-interest credit card. But spending beyond your means can be a pricey proposition even with a debit card.

Bankrate.com released its annual checking survey Monday, assessing the fees charged for various services associated with checking accounts. Perhaps the most notable finding was that only 39% of banks offer totally free checking with no minimum balance requirements, down from 45% in 2011. (With that said, customers have become adept at finding ways to get their checking services for free checking, with 59% of Americans recently reporting that they pay nothing for their checking account.)

But in addition to those findings, the checking account survey contained a good reminder to banking customers: The costliest thing you can do with your checking account is to overdraft your account while signed up for overdraft protection.

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Sure, your wallet can suffer death by a thousand cuts if you get charged for monthly maintenance fees (which average $5.48 a month, up 25% over last year, according to Bankrate) or use out-of-network ATMs ($2.50 to the ATM owner and $1.57 to your own bank, on average). But the biggest single fee remains the dreaded nonsufficient funds (NSF) fee, which now averages $31.26.

A new study by Moebs Services found that "overdrafts made a strong comeback," increasing 2.1 percent to $31.5 billion for the year ending June 30, 2012, from $30.8 billion in June 30, 2011. The $700 million bump up came from an increase in price and a decrease in the number of overdrafts.

The category of fee includes both bounced checks and overdraft protection on your debit card, but the takeaway is the same: If you try to spend money you don't have, your already meager balance will get hit hard. At Bank of America, for instance, bouncing a check or requiring the use of overdraft protection will each cost you $35.

The good news is that you'll need to opt in to the costly overdraft protection service (unless it's a store credit card), so if you're charged such a fee it's because you chose the sting of the fee over the embarrassment of having your debit card turned down. Still, with consumers expressing confusion over their banks' fee structures and banks ordering transactions in such a way as to maximize their collection of such fees, people continue to get hit with the mother of all fees.

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The Most Costly Mistake You Can Make With Your Bank Account

Credit card sign-on bonuses are certainly enticing, but you shouldn't be signing up for every card that's offering some cash back. This is because each application and subsequent credit pull will generate a hard inquiry that will appear on your creditreport. (Credit pulls that aren't used to decide whether you are actually getting a loan – for instance, one conducted by a landlord or by a bank when you are looking to get a checking account – are considered soft inquiries and will have no impact on your score.)

Each hard credit card inquiry will cost your score between three and five points and stays on your report for two years, though they only negatively impact your score for about half the time they appear.

One missed payment may seem innocuous enough, but in reality a single delinquency can cost a previously stellar credit score to fall more than 100 points. The good news: As long as the missed payment doesn't lead to additional woes, your score will start to rebound relatively quickly and it can get back to good standing in about 12 months following the delinquency.

(Those who already had poor to mediocre credit prior to the new missed payment will experience less of an initial ding, but their scores won't bounce back until well past the 12-month mark.)

To avoid taking the big hit, consumers can try calling creditors to ask for a good will deletion. They are more apt to oblige if the late payment was truly atypical behavior.

You should think twice before officially closing that credit card you opened back in college, especially if you're getting ready to apply for a new line of credit. Closing an old account can have a negative impact on yourcreditscore since it can lower your credit-to-debt utilization ratio, which is essentially how much credit you have at your disposal versus how much credit you are actually using.

According to FICO, it can also cost you points you might have been netting by having an ideal number of credit cards in your wallet.

The exact effect this has on your score will vary, depending on the rest of yourcredit profile, but the advice is consistent.

"If there is no annual fee, just charge something small every now and then," says Adrian Nazari, CEO of Credit Sesame. This will keep the issuer from deciding to close the account for you.

As MainStreet has previously reported, it's never a good idea to bump up against your overall creditlimit because your credit utilization ratio will appear sky-high. However, according to Chris Mettler, founder of CompareCards.com, maxing out a single card can negatively influence your credit score as well. (Again, the exact impact would depend on the rest of your creditprofile.) As such, if you do have a particular card that's bumping up against its limit, you'll want to pay that down as soon as possible.

"You don't want your balance due to be over 33% of the availablecredit line," Mettler says.

Credit card issuers typically only report two things to creditbureaus each month: whether you're up-to-date on all your payments and what your balance at the time is. As such, running up big purchases right before your statement closes – and the issuer reports the information – can negatively impact your credit-to-debt utilization ratio and subsequent score, regardless of whether you go on to pay off that balance on time or not.

"The trick is to make sure your balance is low before it is reported," Nazari says. This is why it can be a good idea to pay off purchases as you make them or prior to the end date of your billing cycle.

Even if you're not particularly credit active, it's a good idea to take advantage of the free annual credit report the Fair Credit Reporting Act entitles you to, if only to scour it for incorrectly attributed delinquencies, accounts or inaccurate balances, which can all do varying amounts of damage to your score. This is because errors on credit reports are all too common. As MainStreet has previously reported, about 30% to 40% of all credit reports have some type of error on them, some of which can unfortunately be difficult (and time-consuming) to remove.

You may think that you don't owe that unpaid medical bill that keeps getting sent to your house, but your score is still in jeopardy if you decide not to pay it. Many places that don't lend money, like a hospital or cable company, will send their unpaid bills to a collections agency after a certain amount of time and they will report you to the credit bureaus. Similar to a missed mortgage, credit card or auto loan payment, this delinquency can cost good scores 100 points or more.

"Whether you are right or wrong, [the bill] will negatively impact your score," Mettler says. As such, consumers may want to shore up the bill in an effort to spare their score or dispute the bill through proper channels to get it eradicated.

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