What is it with these banks that are so quick to hit you with a fee for spending more than you have in your checking account but take their own sweet time in crediting deposits?
My colleague Andrew Martin and I heard that complaint repeatedly from readers after we wrote about overdraft fees earlier this month. The angry questions happened to arrive as we approach the five-year anniversary of when the federal law known as
Check 21 took effect. The law allows banks to turn paper checks into digital images and settle them electronically instead of shipping bags of paper around the country on airplanes.
Once banks embraced the new procedures, money disappeared from your account much faster when you wrote a check. But the old laws on how quickly banks must credit your account when you make a deposit did not change at all. They still haven’t. In fact, they haven’t changed in more than 20 years.
In part because of that, consumers are suspicious that banks earn more money by not making the funds available until they absolutely have to. Banks, meanwhile, say that they often make deposited funds available before they know that the checks haven’t bounced.
The banks and the Federal Reserve have made some progress in speeding up many deposits. But the rules — and especially their exceptions — still trip up plenty of people.
So first, a refresher course on the rules, the ones the bank explained to you when you signed up for an account in a fine print document that you probably ignored. (I’ve posted links to more detailed explanations from the online version of this article.)
Banks are supposed to allow you to withdraw the following types of deposits no later than the next business day after the bank receives them: cash, electronic payments like paychecks and other direct deposits, government checks, postal money orders and cashier’s checks. That said, if you don’t make the deposits in person (say, if it’s through an A.T.M.), there may be further delay.
For other checks, the Federal Reserve rule that governs deposits makes a distinction between local checks and nonlocal checks. Once you deposit your check in your own bank, it may go to a Federal Reserve check processing center before it heads to the bank of the person or company who wrote it. If the same center services both banks, then the check is local. If not, it’s nonlocal.
Banks must make your deposits of local checks available no later than two business days after you hand them over. But they get a full five days on nonlocal accounts. In either case, they must make $100 available to you the next business day after the deposit as a sort of good-faith advance. That number, too, has not changed in two decades.
One piece of good news here is that because of the rapid adoption of electronic check imaging, the Federal Reserve is a year or so away from completing the consolidation of all its processing centers. As a result, many more checks are already local. So when you deposit them, they hit your account more quickly.
The bad news, however, is that there are still a number of exceptions that allow banks to put a hold on part or all of the deposit, often for at least five business days. Any deposit over $5,000 is automatically suspect. If your account has been overdrawn at least six days in the last six months, then the bank can delay all deposits to your account. If your account is less than 30 days old, then your bank gets the extra time there, too (plenty of fraud happens in new accounts).
The large deposit exception ensnares plenty of people, according to Gail Hillebrand, senior attorney for
Consumers Union. They include those who are paid on commission or quarterly and those earning royalties, and a large number of others moving money around from, say, a brokerage account to their checking account to pay big medical or tuition bills or buy a car or house.
She suggested taking an active approach with the bank when big money is involved, deposit by deposit. “Ask the bank if there will be a hold and how soon you can have the money. Don’t assume it’s going to be there because the teller smiled at you and accepted it,” she said. “If you’re moving money for a big payment, do it well in advance.”
Banks can and do move faster than the regulations require. And some have pushed their daily deadlines for depositors later by a few hours. Credit unions, in particular, tend to clear deposits more quickly, according to a 2007 Federal Reserve study of the effect of Check 21.
But you can’t count on that happening. So if you can’t keep a cushion in your checking account to protect yourself from running out of money while waiting for deposits, there are a few other available tactics.
Use direct deposit for everything you possibly can, from government benefit checks to tax refunds to reimbursement from your health insurer or flexible spending account administrator. Freelancers who do regular work for large companies can often receive payment via direct deposit, too.
If you’re sending money to a child in school or supporting a relative in some other way, you’ll spare yourself a lot of desperate phone calls if you can find a way to transfer money electronically into their account from your own linked account, say by listing yourself on the account with them.
There’s one big win for consumers arising from Check 21 that should have happened by now but mostly hasn’t. It’s something bankers like to call remote deposit capture. In plain English, that means you scan the check using your home computer and send it to the bank without having to bother with envelopes and mailboxes or remembering to stop at the branch in person.
Banks were fairly quick to make this available for their biggest customers — businesses. But only a couple of hundred banks or credit unions have given it to consumers so far, according to
Bob Meara, a senior analyst with Celent, a financial services consulting firm.
The early adopters tend to be institutions like USAA Federal Savings Bank, which has only one branch but has lots of customers serving in the United States military who don’t want to send money in from an Army base. In fact, the bank has gone a step further and
created an iPhone application that allows many of its customers to take pictures of their checks and deposit them that way. One in four of the bank’s check deposits now arrive remotely.
Customers of bigger banks could get their deposits into their bank accounts a lot faster if only the institutions were willing to let them move money this way. So why don’t they?
According to Mr. Meara, 90 percent of all transactions with bank tellers involve checks. If everyone had an
iPhone deposit app, people wouldn’t come into the branch as often. That would be fine had banks not invested so much time and energy in training branch workers to persuade checking account customers to move into more profitable products.
“One the one hand, fewer deposit transactions could mean a headcount reduction,” he said. “But it invites the erosion of store profitability. The banks are struggling with the enormity of what it means.”
It can’t hurt to ask your bank for this sort of deposit-at-home service. But Mr. Meara thinks it will be many years before everyone gets to use it. That’s too bad. Until the Federal Reserve acts to tighten the deposit crediting rules further, having more ways to make deposits is one of the best benefits that can still come out of Check 21. If only your bank were in a bigger hurry to give you the tools.