Returned Item Fees: What They Are & How to Avoid Them

By Kelly Boyer Sagert · May 20, 2024 · 8 minute read

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Returned Item Fees: What They Are & How to Avoid Them

Returned item charges are bank fees that are assessed when you don’t have enough money in your account to cover a check (or online payment) and the bank doesn’t cover that payment. Instead, they return the check or deny the electronic payment, and hit you with a penalty fee. Returned item fees are also called non-sufficient funds (NSF) fees. While these fees used to be ubiquitous, some banks have chosen to eliminate them.

Read on to learn exactly what NSF/returned item fees are and how you can avoid paying them.

Key Points

•   Returned item fees, also known as non-sufficient funds (NSF) fees, are charged when an account lacks enough funds to cover a check or electronic payment.

•   These fees can be avoided by closely monitoring account balances and setting up bank alerts for low balances.

•   Linking a savings account to a checking account can provide a backup to cover shortfalls, potentially avoiding NSF fees.

•   Using a debit card strategically can prevent large holds that might lead to NSF fees for other transactions.

•   Choosing a bank that offers no-fee overdraft protection can also help avoid these fees.

What Is a Non-Sufficient Funds (NSF) Fee?

A non-sufficient fund or NSF fee is the same thing as a returned item fee. These are fees banks charge when someone does not have enough money in their checking account to cover a paper check, e-check, or electronic payment. They are assessed because the bank has to put forth additional work to deal with this situation. They also serve as a way for banks to make money. The average NSF fee is $19.94.

In addition to being hit with an NSF fee from the bank, having bounced checks and rejected electronic payments can cause you to receive returned check fees, late fees, or interest charges from the service provider or company you were attempting to pay.

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How Do Non-Sufficient Fund Fees Work?

Here’s a basic example. Let’s say that someone has $500 in the bank. They withdraw $100 from an ATM and forget to record that transaction. Then, they write a check for $425, believing that those funds are available:

•   Original balance: $500

•   ATM withdrawal: $100

•   New actual balance: $400

•   Check amount: $425

•   Problem: The check is for $25 more than what is currently available.

The financial institution could refuse to honor this check (in other words, the check would “bounce” or be considered a “bad check”) and charge an NSF fee to the account holder. This is not the same thing as an overdraft fee.

An overdraft fee comes into play when you sign up for overdraft protection. Overdraft protection is an agreement with the bank to cover overdrafts on a checking account. This service typically involves a fee (called an overdraft fee) and is generally limited to a preset maximum amount.

Are NSF Fees Legal?

Yes, NSF or returned item fees are legal on bounced checks and returned electronic bill payments. However, they should not be charged on debit card transactions or ATM withdrawals.

If you don’t opt in to overdraft coverage (i.e., agree to pay overdraft fees for certain transactions), then the financial institution cannot legally charge overdraft (or NSF) fees for debit card transactions or ATM withdrawals. Instead, the institution would simply decline the transaction when you try to make it.

No federal law states a maximum NSF fee. But The Truth in Lending Act does require banks to disclose their fees to customers when they open an account.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been pushing banks to eliminate NSF fees, and their efforts have paid off. Many banks have done away with NSF fees and others have lowered them.

Are NSF Fees Refundable?

You can always ask for a refund. If you’ve been with a financial institution for a while and this is your first NSF fee, you could contact the bank and ask for a refund. The financial institution may see you as a loyal customer that they don’t want to lose, so they may say “yes.” That said, it’s entirely up to them — and, even if they agree the first time, they will probably be less willing if it becomes a pattern. (Or, they may say “no” to the very first request.)

Recommended: Common Bank Fees and How to Avoid Them

Do NSF Fees Affect Your Credit?

Not directly, no. Banking history isn’t reported to the consumer credit bureaus. Indirectly, however, NSF fees could hurt your credit. If a check bounces — say, one to pay your mortgage, car payment, credit card bill, or personal loan — this may cause that payment to be late. If payments are at least 30 days late, loans and credit cards can be reported as delinquent, which can hurt your credit.

And if a payment bounces more than once, a company might send the bill to a collections agency. This information could appear on a credit report and damage your credit. If you don’t pay your NSF fees, the bank may send your debt to a collection agency, which could be reported to the credit bureaus.

Also, keep in mind that any bounced checks or overdrafts could be reported to ChexSystems, a banking reporting agency that works similarly to the credit bureaus. Too many bounced checks or overdrafts could make it hard to open a bank account in the future.

What Happens if You Don’t Pay Your NSF Fees?

If you don’t pay your NSF fees, the bank could suspend or close your account and report your negative banking history to ChexSystems. This could make it difficult for you to open a checking or savings account at another bank or credit union in the future. In addition, the bank may send your debt to a collection agency, which can be reported to the credit bureaus.

How Much Are NSF Fees?

NSF were once as high as $35 per incident but have come down in recent years. The average NSF is now $19.94, which is an historical low.

When Might I Get an NSF Fee?

NSF fees can be charged when there are insufficient funds in your account to cover a check or electronic payment as long as the bank’s policy includes those fees.

Recommended: Negative Bank Balance: What Happens to Your Account?

What’s the Difference Between an NSF and an Overdraft Fee?

An NSF fee can be charged if there aren’t enough funds in your account to cover a transaction and no overdraft protection exists. The check or transaction will not go through, and the fee may be charged.

Some financial institutions, though, do provide overdraft protection. If you opt in to overdraft protection and you have insufficient funds in your account to cover a payment, the bank would cover the amount (which means there is no bounced check or rejected payment), and then the financial institution may charge an overdraft fee. So with overdraft, the transaction you initiated does go through; with an NSF or returned item situation, the transaction does not go through and you need to redo it. Fees may be assessed, however, in both scenarios.

How to Avoid NSF Fees

There are ways to avoid overdraft fees or NSF fees. Here are some strategies to try.

Closely Watch Your Balances

If you know your bank balance, including what’s outstanding in checks, withdrawals, and transfers, then a NSF situation shouldn’t arise. Using your bank’s mobile app or other online access to your accounts can streamline the process of checking your account. Try to get in the habit of looking every few days or at least once a week.

Keep a Cushion Amount

With this strategy, you always keep a certain dollar amount in your account that’s above and beyond what you spend. If it’s significant enough, a minor slip up still shouldn’t trigger an NSF scenario.

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Set Up Automatic Alerts

Many financial institutions allow you to sign up for customized banking alerts, either online or via your banking app. It’s a good idea to set up an alert for whenever your balance dips below a certain threshold. That way, you can transfer funds into the account to prevent getting hit with an NSF fee.

Link to a Backup Account

Your financial institution may allow you to link your savings account to your checking account. If so, should the checking balance go below zero, they’d transfer funds from your savings account to cover the difference.

Use Debit Cards Strategically

If you use your debit card to rent a car or check into a hotel, they may place a hold on a certain dollar amount to ensure payment. It may even be bigger than your actual bill. Depending upon your account balance, this could cause something else to bounce. So be careful in how you use your debit cards.

Look for No-Fee Overdraft Coverage

You can avoid NSF fees by shopping around for a bank that offers no-fee overdraft coverage.

The Takeaway

Returned item fees (also known as NSF fees) can be charged when there are insufficient funds in your account to cover your checks and electronic payments. When you get hit with an NSF fee, you’re essentially getting charged money for not having enough money in your account — a double bummer. To avoid these annoying fees, keep an eye on your balance, know when automatic bill payments go through, and try to find a bank that does not charge NSF fees.

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What happens when you get an NSF?

If you get charged an non-sufficient funds (or NSF) fee, it means that a financial transaction has bounced because of insufficient funds in your account. You will owe the fee that’s listed in your bank’s policy.

Is an NSF bad?

If a financial transaction doesn’t go through because of insufficient funds, then this can trigger returned item charges (NSF fees). This means you’re paying a fee for not having enough money in your account to cover your payments, a scenario you generally want to avoid.

Does an NSF affect your credit?

An NSF fee does not directly affect your credit, since banking information isn’t reported to the consumer credit agencies. However, if a bounced check or rejected electronic payment leads to a late payment, the company you paid could report the late payment to the credit bureaus, which could impact your credit.

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