When you sign up for overdraft protection, your bank will use a linked backup source that you designate, whether a savings account, credit card or line of credit, to pay for transactions whenever the checking account lacks the needed funds. If you have no linked account, it may charge a hefty overdraft fee. 

The Upside 

The good thing about overdraft protection is that if you don’t have enough money in your checking account, the check will clear, the ATM will give you cash or the debit card transaction will go through. No more bounced checks, with the inconvenience and embarrassment that can come with them.

The Downside

The downside is that the bank will charge a transfer or overdraft fee, even if your own money is covering the shortfall. And, in the case of an overdraft line of credit, you’ll pay interest on the amount you borrow until you pay it back. In addition, your transactions still won't clear if you don’t have enough overdraft protection available to cover the shortfall.

It might not be a big deal to have a transaction declined but, in an emergency, it’s nice to have a source of backup funds. However, if your backup funding source is tapped out as well, you still won’t be able to complete the transaction. What’s more, if you know you can’t rely on overdraft protection in an emergency, you have to carry extra cash or a credit card, just in case. Paying cash for emergencies is your least expensive option; using a credit card could be more or less expensive than overdraft protection, depending on the agreement and conditions.

The Cost of Fees: Either Way You Pay

Without overdraft protection, your bank can still charge a non-sufficient funds (NSF) fee that can be comparable to an overdraft fee if there isn’t enough money in your account to cover the debit. In addition, the party receiving the bad check can demand reimbursement for the returned check fee and report you to ChexSystems, which is like a credit report for your banking history. 

Overdraft fees typically cost $30 to $35 per item. These fees can add up quickly if you make several transactions before you realize your account is in the red. If making a small purchase – or if you have another source of funds – don't write a check or use your debit card if you're even a little unsure whether your funds will cover the purchase.

Terms and conditions for overdraft fees vary significantly from one bank to another. Before you opt in, make sure to read the fine print. Some banks charge low fees while others limit the number of overdraft fees they will charge per day. If your bank’s overdraft fees are high, you may find it less expensive to pay using a credit card. This is different from linking your overdraft protection directly to a credit card, which can be pricey because the credit card treats the linked transaction as a cash advance with a high interest rate and no grace period.

Some Better Solutions

While it may be worth opting in if you don't want transactions to be declined, a better choice is to sign up for email or text alerts to flag low checking account balances so you can avoid overdraft fees altogether. These alerts will give you an opportunity to add funds to your checking account, wait to make a purchase or use an alternate form of payment.

You can also avoid overdraft charges with some banks’ free overdraft transfer services, which will automatically transfer money in preset increments (such as $100) from a linked savings account into your checking account when the balance is low. For more, read How Overdraft Fees Work and How to Avoid Them.