Consumers and members of Congress are up in arms about overdraft fees on debit cards, which were supposed to be the alternative to high-cost credit cards.

The classic example is the $3 cup of coffee, with a charge of a dollar or two triggering a mammoth penalty. Consumers can be hit with charge after charge without realizing it until the monthly statement arrives.

Legislation to curb the worst overdraft practices is moving through Congress. It would make it easier for customers to opt out of overdraft protection on checking accounts and would make overdraft fees proportional to the charge involved. The Federal Reserve is expected to write new overdraft-fee regulations by the end of the year.

This fall, some banks, including Bank of America (Stock Quote: BAC), JPMorgan Chase (Stock Quote: JPM) and Wells Fargo (Stock Quote: WFC) have begun to let customers out of overdraft programs, which are often automatic when you get a card.

But if you still have overdraft protection, because you want it or can't drop it, a number of steps can reduce the risk of fees, typically $25 to $35 whenever there’s not enough money in the account to cover a charge.

The simplest strategies are pretty obvious: Keep track of your spending and cash balance, use an old-fashioned checkbook, or look at your balance at an ATM or online.

When you do, be aware of the difference between a “pending” bank transaction, which can include a deposit that has yet to clear and is not available to pay charges, and a “processed” transaction such as a deposit that has cleared.

Couples can avoid confusion that leads to overcharge fees by keeping separate accounts.

Of course, you can keep a big cash cushion in the account. But don’t make it too big, as interest-bearing checking accounts earn almost nothing, just 0.135%, according to the Survey.

Try linking your checking account to a savings or money-market account so you can earn a bit more interest and quickly shift money into the checking account with a phone call or click of a mouse. Many banks have low-cost protection plans that automatically shift cash from savings to checking if an overdraft occurs.

Use direct deposit to get your paycheck into your checking account as quickly as possible. That way you won’t run short if you can’t get to the bank to make a deposit.

You may be able to opt out of the overcharge protection. Without it, a charge will simply be denied at the check-out counter if there isn’t enough money in the account. Keep a credit card with you to cover that situation. Just be sure to pay the credit card balance during the grace period to avoid an interest charge.

If the customer service representative insists you cannot opt out, fight your way up the line to a supervisor, and threaten to take all your business to another bank. You may win in the end.

Finally, if you do decide to take your business elsewhere, consider any credit union you are eligible to join. Many credit unions are more customer-friendly than banks.

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