Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

June 2, 2013

Loss of plastic opens eyes to finances

By KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— It wasn’t until this past week that I realized how important one little piece of plastic has become to my everyday life. My debit card expired this week and the one the bank was supposed to send to replace it never arrived, giving me an estimated two weeks before I will get a replacement.

I don’t carry cash regularly and I don’t have credit cards. I also try to avoid carrying checks around with me, so my debit card is pretty much the way I pay for everything. I suddenly found myself with a $1.69 and a worthless piece of plastic the day my card expired.

As a result, I had to dig out my checkbook. I’m not fond of writing checks or keeping track of them. I didn’t learn how to write checks until my senior year of high school. I had to make some payments for college and my mother decided to teach me the importance of financial responsibility by making me write some checks myself. The problem was I had no clue how.

Mom had thought the school system would teach us things like writing checks, keeping track of bank accounts and financial responsibility. However, filling in circles and meeting standards on a myriad of standardized tests took precedence in the education system over teaching kids useful things like how to write checks, balance a budget and what exactly the stock market does.

Of course, as soon as my bank let me know I could make the same purchases my checkbook would allow with a debit card, I was sold. The plastic was less time consuming and I didn’t have to remember what item had to be entered where on a piece of paper.

Not to mention I didn’t have to wait for the check to go through and deal with the complication of floating money. I could see my withdrawals from my account instantly online through the debit card and manage my money that way. Maybe it didn’t make sense to my parents and their generation who were used to paper checks and balancing the checkbook every month, but it seemed like a no-brainer to me.

I don’t think I should be considered financially incompetent for relying on computer updates to confirm my purchases have gone through and keep track of my money. Technology has actually helped me keep a budget better than ever before. I start every month on a financial planning website, create the budget for that month and then check in once every other day to make sure I haven’t gone over my budgetary limits.

This completely baffles my parents. They don’t understand why I think it is better to check my balance online rather than balancing a checkbook every month. They have had a hard time with the fact that I use a website to help set up monthly budgets. For them, money and the Internet are too risky to mix. Of course, they will admit they are glad I’m at least trying to be financially responsible, even if it is in a way they don’t completely agree with.

I hardly write checks for anything now. Most of my bills are synched to paperless automatic withdrawals. The only check I regularly write is for my rent each month. As a result, I keep my checkbook in a secure location and don’t take it with me.

This past week, however, the checkbook has been my constant companion as I try to pay for things. However, I have also learned writing checks isn’t the answer to everything. I am surprised by the number of businesses that won’t take checks. They were fine taking my debit card but when I flip out my checkbook they inform me that I need cash or a card to make a purchase. It was after about the fourth time I asked if a business took a check only to receive a “no” that I realized I’m not the only person dependent on that little piece of plastic.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who hardly ever uses cash or check when there is a debit or credit card around. The recent financial crises such as the so-called “recession,” the entire real estate collapse created by the “subprime mortgage” craze and all those “get out of debt free” commercials on TV are enough evidence that we have a national obsession with using plastic cards in lieu of cash.

I think we might use these cards so much we forget what they really mean. A simple swipe of a card doesn’t take as much out of you has handing over $100 in small bills or taking the time to write a check. Maybe that is why we have gone haywire with our spending.

The one good thing about this week is it has made me look at my personal finances in a different way and really think about what I’m spending my money on and how I’m spending. I do miss my little piece of plastic and hope to see my new one soon.

Kate Coil is a reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at kcoil@bdtonline.com.