Baby’s First Debit Card
When my brother and I were small—more than 5, I’d guess, but less than 10—my mother took us downtown to our local bank and opened savings accounts for us. They came with little passbooks that probably don’t exist anymore, and every time I made a deposit, the teller would stick a page of the passbook into a machine and it would record the transaction, plus it would tell me how much interest I’d earned since my last transaction and my total account balance.
I loved that passbook with my whole heart. It felt so very grown-up and official!
I was in middle school when the proliferation of ATMs began. My parents remarked on how handy their new cash cards were. I was babysitting several nights a week and finally had something beyond allowance and birthday money to manage, so I asked my mother if I could get an ATM card for my savings account. “I don’t see why not,” she said. “We’ll go to the bank and get you one.” But when we went to the bank, they said that only checking accounts could have ATM cards. I seem to recall there was some spirited discussion over why this was so and whether or not they could make an exception, and finally my mother sighed and said, “Okay, that’s fine. She’d like to open a checking account, then.”
They didn’t argue. I was 13, and I had my first checking account (complete with the coveted ATM card).
Now, I probably didn’t write a check off of that account until I went to college, but as a high-schooler with my own ATM card (a rarity at the time), I felt pretty fancy. No more “can you take me to the bank before it closes” if I wanted to deposit my babysitting spoils or withdraw spending money. It was a brave new world.
Fast forward to the digital age:
My kids have had savings accounts in their names since they were born, practically, only I created them through an online bank, so it’s all managed via the Internet. I have no idea where the physical bank even is. (Or if it exists in brick and mortar at all! I suppose it must, somewhere.) Those accounts are their “savings you do not touch without permission” accounts, earmarked for college and/or buying a car, when the time comes. That’s where a designated percentage of their allowance goes straight off the top, and so far as the kids are concerned, that money may as well not exist. As for their allowance and birthday money type things, we have shared Google spreadsheets to manage their funds, and when they wish to make a purchase (more and more often, on eBay or Amazon or Etsy) or withdraw money, I handle it and update the spreadsheet. It works.
But now the kids are teens, and college is just a couple of years off (*gulp*), and my oldest does a lot of school competitions and such where she ends up needing to buy lunch or dinner and we’re always scrambling to give her cash as she’s on her way out the door. “You know,” she said, “this would be a whole lot easier if I had a debit card.” And… she’s right.
I did some research online—it looked like my bank was willing to do free “student” checking accounts for teens if I linked them to my accounts—and one afternoon we headed to the bank.
Here I must pause and tell you that my son is a saver and a careful spender, and money burns a hole in my daughter’s pocket. I swear they’ve been raised in the same house with the same sensibilities, and some of this must be inborn. Whenever my son wants a new, expensive video game (rarely), he has the money for it. Whenever my daughter wants something more expensive than a candy bar (all the time), she gives up before she saves enough. For either spending style, though, I figured their own local accounts with debit cards would be good practice. Right? Right!
Turns out that my bank only grants those student accounts to kids 16+. I have no idea why. My son—under the required age, and indignant about it—managed to make a couple of snide remarks about arbitrary rules and how he’s a much better with money than his sister, anyway, and I tried to squelch my laughter as he huffed his way back over to the waiting area. We got my daughter set up in about fifteen minutes, and then the nice banker helping us tried to sell me on overdraft protection. “It’s free unless you use it! You know, in case she gets stuck on a remote road with a blowout and has to buy a new tire but doesn’t have enough money in her account!” he insisted.
“First of all,” I said, partly to him, but mostly for my daughter’s benefit, “her stepdad and I would both have to be dead for her to be in that sort of situation with no one available to help her. And second, she is going to maintain a minimum balance which she will not touch except in case of emergency, otherwise I will close her account.” She nodded, next to me, aware of the gravity of these rules. “And finally,” I added, “overdraft protection is not free, because the fees you are charged if you do use it are exorbitant. Proper money management is a better strategy.” He backed down. I felt self-righteous. A debit card is a big deal; better for me to be overbearing and rulebook-thumping now than for my kid to experience the kind of financial pit so many college students end up falling into when they don’t realize that little card needs to have real money to back it up.
Her card arrived in the mail a week later, and she’s enchanted with it. It’s a symbol of adulthood, I guess, and one step closer to that independence that’s both alluring and terrifying. How does she put it through a swipe machine? What if she does it the wrong way? I assured her that plenty of full-grown adults who’ve had debit cards for decades occasionally swipe them through the machine backwards. It’s no big deal. How would we give her food money now? Would we put it right into her account? That’s so cool, and then she wouldn’t be stuck throwing change in the bottom of her bag, never to be seen again.
She signed her name on the back and tucked the card into her wallet with reverence. “I feel so grown up!” she said.
“Shhhhhhhh,” I said. I know that she’s still likely to buy a “lunch” of a milkshake and fries with it, and for now, that’s fine by me. There’s no rush; it’s all happening fast enough, already.Published August 19, 2014. Last updated October 12, 2018.