Let's say, hypothetically, that you give your husband a check to deposit in your joint checking account. Assume for a moment that this hypothetical husband never remembers the PIN for his ATM card, so he has to visit the branch when it's open.

Now, let's say, for the sake of argument, that this imaginary husband gets really busy and can't deposit the check for a few days. Say it's about a week, just for purposes of this example. And, purely theoretically, let's say he forgets to tell you he never deposited the check.

What happens?

An ex-husband?
For some couples, maybe. But what definitely happens is that eventually, you start spending money that isn't there, and you accumulate a truly embarrassing pile of fees. Then you kick yourself repeatedly for making an expensive and truly foolish (small-f) mistake.

As you've no doubt guessed, this story isn't exactly fictional. It's all too true, and this Fool must admit the foolish error of her ways. The worst part? While I'm no fan of out-of-control bank fees that charge customers for everything under the sun, including customer service delivered by a live human being, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

We could have avoided this problem with a little communication. But I'm also a proponent of doing everything possible to set up an automatic banking system that protects the monthly cash flow from the whims and frailties of human nature. With that in mind, I've been pondering how we could improve the family finances.

  • Direct deposit. I nominate this for one of the best inventions of the electronic age. Direct paycheck deposits and automated savings transfers have probably saved me thousands in bank fees over the years. In this particular situation, direct deposit isn't available, but we've adjusted our other transactions so that every other possible cent is directly deposited into the account. That should help smooth out the bumps.
  • More float. You can stop yourself from spending money you don't have by building an extra large cushion against your mistakes -- a sizable sum that you hide from yourself that buffers any potential overdrafts. This has appeal, but frankly, I'm not very good at pretending money isn't available to spend unless it's out of sight. My cushion could all too easily turn into a few fancy dinners. Besides, I'd rather put my spare change someplace where it can work for me.
  • Electronic checkups. Here's a frustrating fact about banking in the modern age. Your money moves at the speed of light, but it takes days for those bank notices to reach you through the mail. With that in mind, I investigated whether my financial software could help keep me in the loop. After about 20 minutes of noodling around, I eventually managed to get the automatic transaction download working. Bingo! This change alone will prevent millions of little miscommunications.
  • Fee deterrence. If you're not familiar with your bank's fees for various misdeeds, go look them up. Add up the costs of a possible transgression. Keep in mind that many fees apply by the transaction, not by the day. Just being aware of the punishment might keep you on your best behavior.
  • A new bank. We happen to hold this account at a credit union, so we didn't get as bludgeoned by fines as we might have someplace else. I'm happy staying put. But if you're paying too much for your banking or you want to protect yourself from costly mistakes, shop around for a better bank. Make it a priority to lower your fees and fines.

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Fool contributor Mary Dalrymple welcomes your feedback. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.