Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Get the Check Out of Here!

Try to settle up at the drug store by producing a pouch of cowries and the clerk will likely respond with a dumbfounded gape. Fork over a few wampums in exchange for that basket full of groceries, and the cashier will immediately reach for the switch to his blinking distress light. Yet despite modern merchants’ aversion to primitive currencies, for some reason they still accept checks.

'Tis the season to have the holiday spirit squashed by some emptor from an earlier age who forces you to wait in line while she scratches out an IOU on check #542220 from the Deluxe Garfield the Cat series.

I’ll spare you the usual harangue about check writers clogging up the checkout lane. How they always seem surprised when after watching $200 worth of groceries pass over the scanner, the cashier suddenly and unexpectedly asks them to pay for it. How they are always unprepared, and sometimes put out, when they are asked to show their driver’s license, invariably buried deep in their purse. How they believe that their place at the head of the line entitles them the extra time needed to balance their checkbook before packing up and moving on. I won’t get into all of that.

What makes the check’s continued propagation in the retail environment frustrating is that thanks to recent legislation, merchants are no longer required to process the paper copy. Many retailers now scan the check, much as they would a debit card (hint, hint), and immediately return it. See, they don’t like your handcrafted tender either.

So why do some people insist on “spinning their 78s” when there is a more efficient means for cashless transactions?

I’ve heard some champions of checks claim that using a debit card would make it too hard to track their account balance. The obvious solution to this concern is to point out that retiring the checks doesn’t mean you have to stop using the check register. There is also something called a receipt that comes free with every purchase and can be used for record keeping purposes.

The more complex solution, however, involves facing up to the fact that an irrational fear of debit cards is a symptom of a deep-rooted fiscal irresponsibility that will eventually, if left untreated, spiral into personal bankruptcy.

Belying their fate, some check writers will try to pass themselves off as throwbacks to an earlier time or as rebels resisting the swarming tide of technology. I understand the intimate appeal of a handwritten letter when compared to an email, or the retro panache of a rotary dial telephone in a world besotted by wirelessness. But check writing does not lend an air of classicism or portray a vintage appeal. Rather, it divulges a profound “fogieness” that serves no purpose except to shave valuable minutes off of the lives of those stuck in the queue while the check writer snubs his nose at progress.

There is a matter of fraud and debit cards are certainly not immune from foul play. But the key information coded on a debit card, the user’s bank account and tracking number, is also printed for all to see on the bottom of a check. I suspect the real concern involves people’s suspicions as to what other personal and confidential information might lurk on that magnetic strip. Technology is always ripe for conspiracy.

I’m not the environmental movement’s most loyal soldier, but I will play the “green” card when it suits my purposes and ridding the world’s checkout lines of checks is certainly one of my more noble causes. So here goes:

Why must our nation’s once lush forests continue to be depleted because of antiquated methods of monetary exchange?

How many more majestic trees will be toppled because of unfounded fear of electronic transactions?

Why can’t Pamela Anderson use her considerable persuasions to lead a boycott of Image Checks, as she did of KFC?

It's nice when the resolution of a pet peeve can also serve a greater good. Someday paper checks will surely go the way of the cowrie and the wampum. Let’s just hope their passing isn’t preceded by the pine’s because I’ll never give up my morning newspaper.


Will said...

US Bank recently started charging overdraft fees when holds on my check card went over my projected "available" balance. Many places, like restaurants and gas stations put on a hold for a certain amount that is more than the amount of purchase, and it sometimes takes several days for the actual withdrawal to take place. That means I was getting charged fees even when my actual account balance was never overdrawan. Once that cost me several hundred dollars I switched to a credit union and switched back to checks or cash whenever possible.

Wama said...

You are absolutely correct. There are many instances when the hold put on your card exceeds the amount that you've actually spent. On a related note, US Bank is notoriously bad about its fee policies. I called their customer service line recently and was actually charged 2.00 because I talked to a person when I could have gotten the information via the internet or phone voice response system. I am looking for another bank.

BlogFreeSpringfield said...

I've never been charged a fee for using a debit card, but I guess it doesn't surprise me that banks are developing obscure rules so that they can impose more penalties.

Write your checks if you must, but be quick about it for God's sake.