Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The ambiguous ATM balance

I admit it, I failed at owning a checking account when I went into college. I relied on the ATM to tell me what my balance was, and curb my spending accordingly. Naturally, I overdrafted a lot. Fortunately I quickly mended my ways and began keeping my checking account registrar on a digital PDA. It was a smart move, because now I knew what my balance was.

But it wasn't until I investigated that I realized what was happening to my ATM balance. Frankly, it would change almost every day for no apparent reason. For anyone who relies on ATM balances to track their accounts, surely they must be banging their heads against something in frustration.

I discovered that I wasn't the only one with this problem when a relative of mine complained of the same thing (unless of course its a genetic problem). She would overdraft because she would go to the ATM, check her balance or take out some cash, and then spend on her debit card. The ATM would show a balance of $100, she would go spend $70, and the next day her account would be overdrafted.

For me, it got to the point where I just regarded the ATM balance as a completely random number. I found it hilarious and useless that the banks even bothered to print it on there. With electronic transactions taking over it had become a useless feature.

The problem often stems from some merchants who do not run their transactions as soon as you buy the item. Sometimes they will wait until the end of the day, or a couple of days, to actually hit your account with the charge. Gas stations are the worst, as they will hit your account for $1 when you fill up. Then, 3 days later when it is supposed to clear, the dollar transaction vanishes. A day or two later, it reappears for the full amount. So even if you check your account online, you may or may not see all the charges there.

The bottom line is that you must track all your transactions manually. You must also take the time to learn how your various transactions are processed within your banks computer system.

1 comment:

Jim said...

I always have a problem writing down all the transactions and checks in a checkbook register like I should. Using the ATM balance and then trying to mentally figure out where I actually stood worked for awhile. I think I was only hit once or twice with an overdraft and it hurt. I absolutely hate paying bank fees, late fees, or fines of any sort, so this bugged me.

What I have discovered is I use a spreadsheet to record all the transactions as they happen. This spreadsheet keeps me on track no matter what that ATM balance says I have in the account.

I also hate the stupid $1 charge gas stations do but it is better than what it used to be. I had a station pre-auth $65 for gas even though I only got $25, so I had to wait 2-3 days for my $40 to come back to me. Needless to say I have never been back to that station. If a station has a debit button I have found that helps charge the exact amount you pump. All else fails, cash is the best option.