What is a Returned Item Fee and Why Was I Charged?

By Guest Author | returned item fee | March 10, 2021

You’re not alone if you’ve fallen out of the habit of balancing your checkbook because you trust your online banking statement to indicate how much money is in your account. Why do the math when the number is so accessible? This amount is not always accurate, though, because it might not reflect recent purchases or pending transactions. 


As such, you might have tried to write a rent check with less money in your account than you believed. Your landlord attempted to deposit the check, but it bounced. Now you’re late on rent, and there’s a charge on your bank account that reads “NSF Fee – Item Returned.” You didn’t mail any packages that came back to you, so what does this fee mean, and why were you charged? 

What are Returned Item Fees? 

Your account’s charge is called a returned item fee, also known as a nonsufficient funds fee (abbreviated as NSF). It means you didn’t have enough funds in your checking account to cover your attempted transaction, and you don’t have overdraft protection. 

WalletHub notes that NSF fees are fixed and vary between states, but they are usually between $27 and $35. Because they are set, you can incur a $30 fee for overdrawing your account with $700 in it if you try to write a check or make an ACH payment for $800. Likewise, your bank can charge you the same $30 if you try to buy groceries at the grocery store using a debit card for $50 with only $2 in your checking account. 

Why do these fees exist? You’re not wrong to notice that they perpetuate the cycle of debt and poverty. The answer is in the name “returned item fee” — your bank is making you pay for the trouble of sending your money back to you. Your bounced check will be re-deposited into your account, but your bank won’t do it for free. 

Can You Waive a Returned Item Fee? 

It’s possible, but not common. It never hurts to call your bank’s customer service center and ask. The worst thing they can do is say no, and they may feel more inclined to help you out if you explain your situation or have never overdrawn your account before. The bank may not erase the charge entirely, but it’s always worth a shot. 

How are NSF Returned Item Fees Different Than Overdraft Fees? 

You might be confused about the difference between an NSF returned item fee and an overdraft fee. Overdraft protection is a service you can opt into that allows you to overdraw your account when you have nonsufficient funds. If you had overdraft protection in our previous example, your bank would loan you the difference or pull from your savings account, your rent check would still go through, and your landlord would be none the wiser. Your bank would then charge you a comparable overdraft fee for using this service. 

How to Avoid Returned Item Fees 

How can you avoid having an “NSF Fee – Item Returned” charge in the future? Check out the following tips: 

Access Your Money On Time 

Maybe one reason you had less money in your account than you thought you did is because your paycheck was delayed. You depend on punctual deposits to pay your bills on time (or your bills are due before payday), but you’re afraid to ask your employer for an advance too often. In this case, you can use an app like Earnin to access your pay when you want it and make payments. You’ll avoid a returned item fee, and you pay the app back without mandatory fees when your paycheck arrives. 

Use a Backup Source 

Link your checking account to a backup source of money, such as a savings account. You will likely have to pay an overdraft fee to pull from it, but this will hopefully be smaller than an overdraft fee for borrowing money or an NSF fee. 

Take Advantage of Overdraft Protection 

Overdraft protection can spare you from NSF returned item fees. However, be aware that there are caveats to this service. Your bank could report you to a debit bureau like ChexSystems if you rely on it too frequently, which could negatively impact your ability to open a new checking account in the future. 

Turn on Low-Balance Alerts

Link your account to an app with low-balance alerts or use your bank’s native feature. If your funds drop too low, an alert will notify you that you either need to replenish your account or avoid spending until further notice. Mint is an example of an app that enables low-balance alerts. 

Budget Carefully 

Besides making a significant amount of money, your next-best option to avoid returned item fees is to budget carefully. Make sure you balance your accounts and checkbook, so you know how much money you have at any given time. Your online banking statement and third-party apps can help, but it’s always good to be sure before you trust the number they display too quickly. Apps like GoodBudget and Cleo can help you manage your money wisely. 

It’s not fun to see a returned item fee on your statement, but you can avoid them by keeping an eye on your financial status and using resources available to you. 

DISCLAIMER: Please note, the material collected in this blog is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be relied upon as or construed as advice regarding any specific circumstances. Nor is it an endorsement of any organization or Services.

Photo by Damir Spanic on Unsplash