Negative Bank Balance: What Happens to Your Account?

By Sheryl Nance-Nash · February 27, 2024 · 9 minute read

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Negative Bank Balance: What Happens to Your Account?

Having a negative bank balance, or overdrafting your account, is a pretty common occurrence, but it can lead to costly fees and lack of access to your account.

A negative balance can start simply: You might forget to note a purchase you made with your debit card or an automatic payment you set up. Or maybe you had an emergency pop up that required you to spend more than usual…and more than the money you had in your checking account.

The resulting negative bank balance can have a serious impact, leading to overdraft fees, declined transactions, account closure, and credit impact. Read on to learn more on this topic, ways to avoid a negative bank account balance, and what to do if you wind up with one.

Key Points

•   Having a negative bank balance can result in costly fees, declined transactions, account closure, and credit impact.

•   A negative balance occurs when you make payments that exceed the funds in your account.

•   Overdraft protection can help cover the difference, but it comes with fees.

•   A negative bank balance can lead to overdraft fees, non-sufficient funds fees, account closure, and credit impact.

•   To avoid a negative bank balance, monitor your account, set up alerts, and consider linking accounts or using overdraft protection.

What Is a Negative Bank Account Balance?

Your account becomes negative when the balance goes below zero. It’s also called an overdraft. This occurs when you make payments that you don’t have enough money in the account to cover. If the bank accepts the payment, your account incurs a debt, making your balance negative.

To help you visualize this, here’s an example:

•   Imagine you have $500 in your account, and you write a check for $515, because you thought you had a balance of $600.

•   If the bank pays the $515, you end up with an account balance of minus $15. That’s the difference between how much money you had in the account and how much the bank paid the person that cashed your check. The bank did you a favor by making up the difference.

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What Makes a Bank Balance Negative?

Your balance goes negative when you have withdrawn more than you have in your account.

•   If you try to use your debit card, it will likely be declined, unless you have overdraft protection.

•   If you wrote a check, it will bounce, or be returned — unless you have overdraft protection.

•   With overdraft protection, the bank will typically pay the difference, and you will be charged a fee called an overdraft fee. Understand that you have to opt into overdraft coverage for ATM and debit-card transactions, but your bank may provide the coverage automatically on other transactions.

This kind of coverage means you can avoid the inconvenience and embarrassment of a check bouncing. However, the bank fees can add up. While overdraft fees vary by bank, you will usually pay about $35 a pop.

Here are a couple of the more common ways that a negative bank balance can occur.

Miscalculation/Mistakes

Overdrafts can happen easily with miscalculations and mistakes. These are the most basic errors — say, getting the math wrong on how much is in your account, or forgetting about an automatic dedication that hits and takes your balance down lower than you believed it to be.

Multiple Ways to Withdraw From an Account

With all that’s going on in your life, it’s possible you’re not exactly sure what checks you’ve written have been cashed and what incoming checks have cleared. You may unwittingly make a payment or ATM withdrawal thinking you’re good, but discover you’re certainly not. Or perhaps when you’re calculating in your head how much you have, you forget about the money taken out through one of your monthly automatic bill payments.

What Happens if Your Bank Account Remains Negative?

Here are some of the issues a negative bank account can trigger.

Overdraft Fee

An overdraft fee of about $35 may be assessed when you go into the negative balance territory. Or the bank could also decline the transaction and charge you a non-sufficient funds (or NSF) fee. This is sometimes called an insufficient funds fee, and it is typically the same amount as the bank’s overdraft fee. Also, the person who tried to cash a check that bounced may charge you a returned check fee.

Account Closure

What happens if you don’t pay an overdrawn account? If you don’t fix your negative balance by depositing money into your account, or if you overdraw your account so often the powers that be at the bank raise their eyebrows, your days as a bank customer may come to a close. They can opt to shutter the account, and it can be difficult to reopen a closed bank account.

Credit Impact and Debt Collection

If you have an ongoing negative bank account balance, the bank will likely notify a checking account reporting company (like ChexSystems) about your activity. They will keep the information in their records for up to seven years, which could make it difficult for you to open a new bank account with favorable terms.

Also, a bank that closed your account because you had so many overdrafts might sell your debt to a collection company, which could negatively impact your credit score.

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Differences Between Overdraft and Non-sufficient Funds

Here’s a little more detail on the distinction between an overdraft and non-sufficient funds fee:

•   An overdraft fee is what a bank or credit union charges you when they have to cover your transaction when you don’t have enough funds available in your account. It’s typically about $35.

•   When a financial institution returns a check or electronic transaction without paying it, they can charge a non-sufficient funds fee. It’s usually the same amount as the overdraft fee they charge. The difference is, with a non-sufficient funds fee, the bank is not covering the shortfall; they are essentially voiding the transaction.

What to Do With a Negative Bank Balance

Fortunately, a negative bank balance is not a problem without solutions. You can take steps to get back on track.

Check Your Recent Activity and Balance

Determine what went wrong and triggered the negative balance. Check your bank’s app (or go online) and also see what charges haven’t been paid or received. Do the math. This will give you an idea of where you stand and how soon you may be back in the positive zone for your balance.

Evaluate Upcoming Automatic Payments

Automating your finances can be a convenient tool, but if you are in overdraft, automatic payments could pop up and derail your efforts. Make sure to account for recurring payments when figuring out how to get your account out of a negative balance.

Deposit Money into the Account

Once you understand your situation, take action. Deposit enough money to ensure that you won’t overdraw again. Remember to include not only the money you need to bring your balance back into positive territory, but ideally put in enough to give yourself some cushion.

Request a Waived Fee

Your bank or credit union may have a sympathetic ear. Make a request to have your fee waived. They may be feeling generous, particularly if this is your first offense.

Pay the Fees

If you knock on the door of fee forgiveness and you get a no, pay what you owe. If you don’t, you’ll just make your situation worse, meaning the bank could close your account, turn the matter over to debt collection, or take legal action. While the bank may not close your account right away, taking action sooner rather than later is usually best.

Recommended: 10 Tips for Avoiding Overdraft Fees

Tips for Avoiding a Negative Bank Balance

There are ways to steer clear of a negative bank account balance. Try these tips:

•   Set up account alerts to let you know when your account balance reaches a certain number. If you know your account is getting low, you can take steps to avoid going into the negative balance zone.

•   Do balance your bank account regularly so you see how much you have on deposit and how your money is trending. Downloading your bank’s app can allow you to do this easily.

•   Consider setting alerts about when automatic deductions are being made. That way, you can monitor your bank account and its balance to make sure you can cover the debit.

•   Explore what overdraft protection your bank offers. It could be that you can link a savings account to your checking which can be tapped to cover overdrafts. It will likely cost you a fee for that transfer, but it’s likely not as steep as an overdraft fee.

Your bank might allow you to link a credit card (watch out for high interest rates here) to your checking account or to borrow from a line of credit. Know your options. While you don’t want overdrafts to be a regular occurrence, you do want to be protected in case they crop up.

The Takeaway

Having a negative bank balance can lead to pricey overdraft fees and could trigger additional financial issues if this situation occurs often or isn’t remedied. It’s wise to keep tabs on your money and use tools that a bank may offer to help you avoid a negative bank account balance or resolve it if it occurs.

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FAQ

Can I still use my debit card if my account is negative?

Maybe, if you’re enrolled in your bank’s overdraft coverage. But even if you can, it’s unwise. You’ll likely incur a fee for each payment you make from a negative account.

How are non-sufficient funds different from an overdraft?

An overdraft fee is what a bank or credit union charges you when they have to cover a transaction that you made and didn’t have the money for in your account. In contrast, when a financial institution returns a check or electronic transaction without paying it, they can charge a nonsufficient funds (NSF) fee. Either way, the fee is typically $35 or so.

How do I avoid having a negative bank account?

Sign up for email alerts and texts for when your account reaches a certain low figure; monitor your bank account online; link your accounts to cover for one another; and consider signing up for overdraft protection.

Can you go to jail for a negative bank balance?

It is highly unlikely. Overdrawing your bank account is not a criminal offense.

How long can you have a negative bank balance?

Each bank has its own policy. While your bank account won’t be closed immediately if you have a negative bank balance, resolve the issue as soon as possible.


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