Sunday, August 01, 2004

Bank on it

Here's a fairly horrifying concept that turned up on a postcard from my bank the other day: checking accounts for teenagers. "Has your teenager turned you into a human ATM?" the come-on blares, and then proposes a solution: giving your teen his or her very own debit card. You transfer funds from your checking account to theirs, and they can charge, write checks or pay bills online (what bills, exactly, do teens have to pay online? Maybe for all those cell phones parents seem to be buying them.) Do kids really have so much disposable income now that they need plastic to handle it all? Do we want them to spend that much money without Mom or Dad looking over their shoulders? Could be, I guess. Certainly if a teen has a job, it makes sense to give them a way to manage their funds. And if a teen refuses to be seen with a parent in public, giving them their own account is probably safer than loaning them your credit cards.

Yet it seems to me that a major rite of passage is being lost here. I remember getting my first checking account when I went away to college, and it was a Big Deal -- a tangible sign that I was moving up and out and on my own. Does it pack the same punch when you're still in high school, living at home, and your folks just don't want to have to keep passing you $20s? The bank would say that it's a good way to teach kids how to manage their money and operate in a grown-up financial world ... but then, the bank would think this is a good idea, since it's charging a fee if your kid makes more than five transactions a month, and you can't tell me you can give a teen a debit card and a bunch of checks and they're only going to buy five things. Learning how to manage a checking account may be a good life skill, but so is learning how to pay cash, and I wonder if we're not raising a generation of kids who won't know how to make change. My daughter has huge problems figuring money out -- we have to give her exact change to buy her lunch every day, or she has a panic attack -- and I'm sure she would love to just have an electronic account somewhere and never have to handle actual paper and metal money again. Sadly, however, she does not have parents who believe in checking accounts for teenagers, no matter how much our bank prods us. I'd rather be a human ATM than a human Direct Deposit.

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