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Ulzheimer: Debit Card Discipline

Q. My granddaughter is 18, has her first job and lives with a roommate in her first apartment. Unfortunately, she uses the debit card from her checking account, has bounced it 3 times with huge fees -- like a Subway sandwich costing $30 -- so now she doesn't have the rent money. I have never used a debit card (nor will I) and don't understand the workings of one. Can you give any guidance for young people on a shoestring using these cards? --Connie, FL

A.Hello Connie - I'm happy to help you out with a little "truth" about debit cards. Debit cards (also known as check cards) are really nothing more than plastic checks. They are tied directly to a checking account and, as your daughter no doubt has learned, if you don't diligently manage their use you can end up bouncing paper checks and end up paying $30+ for a Subway sandwich. She'll have fun with that one someday.

There is more bad news for your daughter in addition to her lack of rent money. Each time she bounces a check that act is reported to a central database, which can be accessed by any bank or credit union the next time she tries to open a checking account. If she's not careful she won't have the luxury of check cards or paper checks and will have to depend on cash, money orders or pre-paid cash cards, none of which is nearly as efficient.

We live in a "self policing" personal finance system that penalizes those of us who choose not to properly manage financial vehicles such as rent, check cards, loans, etc. It's difficult to convince people that they should use these tools a certain way versus another. I know, I've tried. It's like convincing a smoker to stop smoking. The best I think you can do is simply explain the pro's and con's of proper use of her check card and then stand by and hope that she learns from your wisdom.

The alternative is simply not very attractive.

Good luck,
John