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Swipe your debit card at the supermarket, and the cash instantly comes out of your checking account, right? Well, that's what some banks would have us believe. "The money from your purchases comes directly out of your checking account at the time you spend it," Bank of America (BAC
) says on its Web site.
But three Superior Court lawsuits pending in California against BofA, Wells Fargo, (WFC
) and Citibank (C
) charge that it isn't so. Many banks hold all transactions until the end of the day, then process them in order of highest to lowest charges. When that happens, you might incur more fees than you would have if funds were debited in the order that the charges were made, says Elaine Kusel, the Milberg Weiss Bershad & Schulman partner in charge of the case. How? Say you had four small debits, then the final one of the day was a biggie that exceeded your balance. If the bank pays the big one first, instead of getting hit with just one penalty for insufficient funds, you might have to pay four or five fees of about $35 each. Banks have long reordered transactions to pay the highest check first because it often was the most important expense -- a rent or mortgage payment, for example -- according to the American Bankers Assn. Bank of America and Wells Fargo had no comment. Citibank says the suit is without merit.
To avoid such charges, ask how your bank accounts for your debit card purchases. And log your transactions in your checking account ledger. It's not the Big Easy. But if you're put off by the obstacles to celebrating Mardi Gras in post-Katrina New Orleans, why not let the good times roll in Texas? Mardi Gras! Galveston, which dates back to 1867 and runs this year from Feb. 17-28, expects to draw more than a half-million revelers. It will salute the Gulf Coast in the wake of the past year's two hurricanes. Besides live music, parades, and masked balls, Galveston is hosting such New Orleans headliners as Dr. John and the Bards of Bohemia. Day tickets are $10 and $15; weekend passes, $25 (mardigrasgalveston.com). Most solar chargers work by storing energy from the sun in an internal battery and then using that battery to recharge your cell phone or iPod (AAPL
). The Soldius1 skips the intermediate step, recharging your gizmo directly from the sun. You can recharge a phone in about three hours, about as long as it takes using a wall outlet. With adapters for the various iPods, it costs $100 at mysoldius.com.