OVERDRAFTS are the new danger debt.

From April, most banks will charge around 40 per cent, with some charging more. That’s double the cost of a typical high street credit card.

The regulator, the FCA, imposed changes in the hope to make things fairer and easier for customers; while it’s worked in some ways, it’s failed to boost competition and will see many overdraft prisoners pay far more.

Everyone who ever dips into their overdraft needs to read this and take action.

­— Shocking new overdraft rates

Most of the big banks have now announced their startling similar new chargeable overdraft rates (some do have small buffer zones where you don’t get charged).

• Charging 39.9 to 49.9 per cent AER (annual equivalent rate): Lloyds, Halifax and Bank of Scotland (all from 6 April) will charge this, the exact amount depends on your credit score.

• Charging 39.5 or 39.9 per cent AER: Nationwide (changed last November), HSBC (14 March), First Direct (14 March), M&S Bank (14 March), RBS (27 March) NatWest (1 April), and Santander (6 April) will all charge around 40 per cent AER.

• Charging 35 per cent AER: Barclays (22 March).

• Charging 15 to 39 per cent AER: Starling bank will charge between 15 and 35 per cent, and Monzo (both 1 April) between 19 and 39 per cent. The exact amount depends on your credit score.

­— Why have these changes happened?

Last year, the regulator the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) ruled that from 6 April 2020 current account providers must:

1) End extra charges for busting your arranged overdraft. This is the culmination of the campaign to reclaim unfair bank charges for busting your overdraft limit – which I was heavily involved in – more than £1 billion was paid out until the Supreme Court ended it. But, even still, if those charges contributed to you being in financial hardship, you can still reclaim (see www.mse.me/bankcharges).

Payments over your arranged overdraft limit can still be refused, but these charges, must now be reasonable, costing the customer roughly what the bank pays to refuse the payment.

2) All overdrafts to have a single interest rate. The aim is to make it easier to compare and drive competition and it’s certainly succeeded in making comparison easier. Previously some had daily charges e.g. Santander’s £1 perday, others interest rates like First Direct’s 19.9 per cent, and some a hybrid like NatWest’s £6 per month and 19.9 per cent.

Now they all have a single rate, so it’s easy to see. The problem is they’re virtually the same hideously high rate – which was unintended.

So much so, after I and many others complained, the FCA has written to major banks slapping them on the wrists by asking for evidence of how they’ve arrived at charging such high interest rates, and it’s gone even further to say that banks must help those most vulnerable customers who’ll be hit hardest by the change in overdraft costs.

­— Rates are high, but not everyone will pay more

Generally, if you only go into you arranged overdraft a little, and not for long, you’ll win – but the gains are small. For example, currently go £20 overdrawn with NatWest for one day, and you pay £6.01, under the new system it’ll just be a few pence.

However, for those who are constantly stuck in their authorised overdraft by a decent whack, the increase could be huge. Take someone overdrawn by £2,000, their costs more than triple, from around £180 a year to £680 a year, locking many in as long-term overdraft prisoners.

In fact this is worse than most credit cards, and threatens to turn the old financial logic on its head. Many use their bank account to pay off credit cards, yet perversely – as typical credit cards only cost 19 per cent annual interest, and overdrafts are 40 per cent – if you’ve got both debts you’d be better to pay the minimum on your credit card and focus on reducing the overdraft first. Once that’s gone, try to clear the credit card.


­— If you’re overdrawn, you’re not stuck

While not easy, there are solutions. For full help on what to do, see my www.mse.me/cutoverdraftcosts guide, but briefly:

Budget and switch direct debit dates. Let these new rates be a clarion call to cut back and go spending cold turkey for a while if you can. Plus move direct debit dates so they’re just before pay day rather than just after, it can mean you’re not overdrawn for long.

Switch to a zero per cent overdraft – if you’ve got a decent credit score. First Direct gives accepted newbies £100 and most a £250 ongoing zero per cent overdraft too. Nationwide's FlexDirect gives a year's zero per cent overdraft. The limit depends on your credit score, but it can be far bigger, and some get more than £1,000. See the zero per cent year as time to clear what you owe, as after that you'll be charged 39.9 per cent EAR.

Use a zero per cent money transfer credit card. A few specialist zero per cent money-transfer cards let you pay cash in to your bank to pay off your overdraft, then you owe it instead. This is complex. Do your reading first at www.mse.me/moneytransfer. Try and repay the card before the zero per cent period ends.

If these charges put you in financial hardship, complain. In the FCA's letter I was delighted the regulator followed my suggestion to tell banks that they must help those who could be left worse off – suggesting banks could reduce or waive interest, allow customers to continue using their overdraft at current rates, or agree repayment programmes.

This means, as the regulator has said it, it’s arguably now standard industry practice. That’s crucial because if you complain and the bank does nothing, you can go to the free www.financial-ombudsman.org.uk for a ruling. And it looks at both the law and standard industry practice.

Seek debt counselling help. If all else fails, talk to a free non-profit debt counselling agency like www.citizensadvice.org.uk, www.nationaldebtline.org, or www.stepchange.org. They're there to help, not judge – and banks take them more seriously than you trying to sort it yourself.