Paper Checks: Going, Going...Gone?
Many Americans still retain a checking account for the purpose of writing actual paper checks. Consumers continue to use paper checks out of habit, convenience, security, or having no other option with a vendor. But there are big changes on the horizon that may cancel the use of personal checks or paper checks in general. Are you ready to go paperless? (See also: Why I Still Write Paper Checks)
Who’s Changing and Why?
Many creditors, lenders, utility services, and even federal and state government agencies are shying away from issuing or receiving paper checks. For instance, those who receive child support payments now do so through a debit card and direct deposits. Banks and other vendors are offering incentives for customers to go electronic. Paper statements and paper checks are becoming a thing of the past.
The move to electronic payments and direct deposits essentially all comes down to the cost factor. In order to save money and cut expenses, state and federal agencies especially are making the switch. There is more cooperation between banks and government agencies to keep programs moving forward and organized.
While some feel the move is not such a great idea, there are benefits for both sides. Vendors benefit because their overhead is lowered. For consumers, the receipt of child support payments or unemployment benefits is seamless. No more waiting for the mailman or worrying over lost or stolen checks. Payments are now being made via direct deposit onto a debit card issued by the agency responsible for payment. For each payment, cards are reloaded automatically.
What to Watch For
While cost and convenience are certainly pluses to both vendors and consumers, this changes the rules. Without understanding the changes, consumers will likely end up making mistakes that will cost them cash because they didn’t know any better. Here are some essential things you need to know about going electronic:
Most governmental agencies do not charge a fee for money being reloaded onto a card. This may be the case now but not always. In the case where you receive a refund or a rebate from a retail store or other entity, funds issued through a debit/credit card may not be fee-free. You may have to pay fees for each transaction you make or for reloading a card with new funds. There may also be additional fees for use at an ATM or for maintaining an inactive card. Check with the terms and conditions of the card in refund situations. It may be better to ask for a store credit rather than getting stuck with fees and losing your access to the full amount you are owed.
With some cards you may incur a fee for using your card in any capacity at an ATM, including for a simple balance transfer. Find out if you are going to be charged for balance checks done over the phone or the Internet. If fees are incurred, it would be smart to keep tabs on your expenditures on a piece of paper rather than lose cash to a series of fees. This is also key because if you go over the amount of funds on the card when making a purchase, your card will either be declined or you’ll be hit with a pretty significant overdraft fee for each transaction you make over your limit. Not only will you be out of funds, you’ll be responsible for paying the overage charges.
Keeping Your Card Safe
While a plastic card may be much more convenient than a paper check, there is still a risk of having it stolen or losing it. A lost card may cost you up to $25 to replace, so make sure you keep your card in a safe place at all times. Not only do you face fees, you’ll also lose access to your funds during the processing time.
If you are making payments to vendors such as your utility companies, mortgage lenders, or loan providers, be very careful about your online security measures. While most banks and legitimate vendors will have established a thoroughly secure system for accepting payments online, you must make sure your own computer is safe. It is not advisable to store passwords online or on your mobile phone because of the potential for identity theft.
Federal assistance programs and refunds issued through debit cards may also come with special use rules that you need to understand. There may be limitations to what you can use the card for, and you need to be prepared to follow such rules. For instance, government programs such as food assistance programs will only allow for certain purchases to be made on the card. You may also only be able to use your card for a certain amount of transactions within a month’s time period.