Mama, Don’t Take My Debit Card Away

Ever your dedicated correspondent, I have once again put myself in harm’s way for your benefit.

Last year I cut up my Interac card. Yes, as a deranged sort of social experiment, I decided to try life without it. As you can see, I survived. Just barely.

For almost half a year, I suffered the slings and arrows of life
without access to ABM’s. I endangered my health and that of my family
by constantly handling filthy cash (who knows where it’s been?). I
sacrificed personal time in the teller line-up.

All so I could report to you about what life is like without our favourite piece of plastic. Well, let me say this: it is hell.

Since they arrived in 1986, debit cards have been embraced by
Canadians. In fact we are having a love affair with the debit card like
no other nation. On average, we lead the world, each using our bank
card at an ABM 47 times a year. The next closest country is the States
with an average use of 37 times a year.

It doesn’t sound like much but that’s double the number of cash transactions we engage in.

This isn’t a statistical anomaly. Canadians have always been early
adopters of new banking technologies. It started way back in the 60’s
with credit cards. ABM’s are now the single most common form of banking
for Canadians. Doing the teller thing is a close second, but if you
consider Internet and phone banking, we are dedicated bank geeks.

The banks aren’t oblivious to this Canadian idiosyncrasy. Two years
ago they spent about 4 billion dollars on technology development to
expand our ABM network and develop new self-help transaction methods.
That’s a lot of scratch.

But anyone who’s noticed the fees we pay for using Interac realizes
it’s not gonna take the banks long to make it back. Industry figures
indicate that an average ABM transaction costs a bank about 30 cents.
They charge consumers anywhere from 1 to 3 dollars for this service.

Interac fees were one of the reasons I ditched my card. I added them
up and realized I was flushing a fair amount of money down the toilet
in the name of convenience.

I figured I’d lined the banks’ pockets well enough over the years.
It was payback time. Real, live teller transactions cost the bank about
five bucks. So I figured I’d just go in there and cost them some money.

Well, if only it were that simple. Have you filled out a paper based
deposit form lately? Do you even know your bank account number or your
bank’s transit number?

Well, I didn’t. Fortunately for me, the tellers at the bank were
among the nicest people I’ve ever met. They all helped this neophyte
stumble through the murky waters of real life banking with endless
patience.

I figure my clumsy transactions cost the bank well above the
industry average, which brings me no pleasure because it also cost me
huge whacks of time. How much more quickly I could have accomplished
these meagre transactions at an ABM.

Living without a bank card also made me miss out on a key bit of national history.

On December 23, 2004, Canadians set a record with 13.1 million
Interac transactions. That’s 5% more than the previous record set a
year earlier. That’s a heck of a lot of Christmas shopping.

That’s one of the things about debit cards, though: they make it
easy to spend money. They add another layer of abstraction to the
concept of currency, reducing its perceived value.

Personally, after a decade of steady dependency on the debit card I
really didn’t know what money was worth anymore. It was just numbers on
a page to me, no different from a score in a video game.

I figured handling cash again might reinforce the value concept. Boy, did it ever.

I handled cash when I had a bank card, of course, but only in small
amounts. With ABM’s everywhere, why take out more than twenty at a time
unless you really have to?

No, without a bank card, I had to carry around enough cash to pay
bills, buy groceries, fill up my car with gas, and all sorts of other
expenses you just don’t think about when you have a bank card. That’s a
lot of cash to haul around if you’re used to being totally plastic.

Plus it’s dirty stuff, eh? You don’t know where a bill or a coin has been before you get it.

As dirty as I perceived it to be, I sure didn’t want to part with
it. Things I used to pay for without a second thought using my debit
card I now hesitated to trade a bill for.

Life without a debit card is a drag. The banks may make a killing
with their Interac network and ABM fees but, y’know, I’m okay with
that. The cost and the convenience just about cancel each other out.

I’m back from the trenches in one piece, a new debit card in my
pocket and a renewed sense of the value of money in my mind. Please
don’t make me go back there.

Andrew Robulack is an IT Business Strategist and Architect based in Whitehorse.

Originally published in the Yukon News on February 11, 2005.
Copyright Andrew Robulack 2005.

One thought on “Mama, Don’t Take My Debit Card Away

  1. In terms of the internet banking, you should be one to talk Andrew. You introduced me to MBanx! Here was an awesome concept when it first came out and catered really well to those who didn’t want to spend time in line or actually even have to leave the house to pay bills, etc. etc. In fact, the only time I needed to go into a bank was to either deposit a paycheque or obtain cash.

    BMO killing MBanx was a real downer. Thankfully, Loblaws and CIBC teamed up to create Presidents Choice Financial. The stars came into alignment for the geeks and the folks who are “with it” when it came to banking online and by phone and we now have a no-fee bank account. Cheques are free (if you don’t mind the design), cash is available free from any CIBC bank machine, paying bills is free (and until recently paid rewards), and even the Interac transactions at merchants are free.

    Yes, they don’t have tellers who can help unless you walk into a Superstore, but even then, the people are not much more than mere faces to voices that can do the same thing over the phone. I love the fact I can pay my bills in my housecoat at 10:40pm before I go to bed. When was the last time you could do that with cash?

    First and Last Pixelar Employee,
    Jon

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