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Peterson: Debit card doubles fears about checkbook

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I was set free with the debit card the other day to do some grocery shopping. And that can’t be a good thing.

I’ve never trusted debit cards because I’ve never trusted myself with them. Too many chances for purchases to go unrecorded in the checkbook register, which is where the money comes from.

And I can’t even be trusted with a checkbook. Never could make it balance, and that spelled trouble routinely. If your checkbook doesn’t balance, you are going to overdraw your account.

It never was my mistake to make an error to the positive. It seems like I never wrote checks when I had too much money in the account. I regularly was caught with not quite enough money, and I wouldn’t find out until the overdraft notices started appearing in the mail.

I became so adept at overdrawing my account that I didn’t even need to open the letter from the bank, nicking me for $20 for an overdraft fee. I could tell by the weight of the envelope. And if things were bad, the overdrafts would pile up over a few days.

I had a friend in the checking department at the bank who would help me out from time to time, trying to come up with a correct balance for my checking account, sometimes voiding overdrafts. But I really was beyond help.

Balancing a checking account should be a relatively easy thing to do: You start off with a pile of money and write checks against it, doing the simple subtraction every so often and adding in the every-other-week paychecks that were automatically deposited into your account. Then you would have to take into account the monthly checking-account fees, and the occasional fee to buy new checks.

Those last two had to be the culprits to collapsing my house-of-cards checking account. They were variables that I couldn’t keep track of, and over the period of several months or a year, they could add up to quite a subtraction.

From the day of opening my checking account, I think only the first month might have balanced, where I had exactly the same amount of money as the bank said I did. After that, it was guesswork. Throw in the regular fees plus the overdraft fees, and I was in real trouble on almost a monthly basis.

Once I got married, I surrendered to my good wife, and we opened a joint account. My paycheck would be deposited, and that’s all I had to worry about. She was able to make the checkbook balance every month, and I could only marvel at her mathematical and financial abilities.

Somewhere along the line, the bank offered a debit card, which eliminated the need for writing out actual checks. And it gave you the option of charging the purchase against your checking account or credit card. All you needed to do was swipe your debit card on the machine, enter your four-digit personal identification number, and the purchase was finalized.

I didn’t want to carry a debit card. What would happen if I made a purchase and forgot about it, not recording it in the check register? What would happen if I made a purchase and there wasn’t enough funds in the account to pay for it? What if my brain froze and I couldn’t remember the secret personal identification number?

So, if I was going to use the checking account, I would bring along the checkbook. I would fly against the face of progress.

I was going to go shopping for groceries the other day after work, and when I asked my good wife for the list, she asked whether I wanted a check, the checkbook or the debit card. I swallowed hard and said debit card. I was nervous all day.

I did my shopping, stood in line making sure I remembered the personal identification number and waited my chance to use the debit card solo. I swiped the card, told the machine I didn’t want any cash back, then proceeded to make a mistake on the secret number.

I canceled the transaction, and the machine responded with a number of acronyms that made no sense, although the one called EBT, or something like that, seemed close to “debit,” so I chose it. And I was wrong, so I canceled that, and started all over. The line was long, and I was certain everyone in line was wondering what I was trying to get away with.

The second time through worked without fault, and I was on my way, making sure I had my receipt in hand to prove the amount of the purchase for the checkbook register.

I succeeded, but more than that, I proved a point: I could make a debit card work. But I don’t think I want a repeat performance. Give me the check, please.

• Dick Peterson, who lives in Woodstock, is a mental-health advocate. He is a freelance writer and a former Northwest Herald Opinion Page editor. He can be contacted at dickpeterson76@gmail.com.

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