6 Steps to Stress-Free ATM Use

We all have them. Problem is, too many of us abuse our ATM cards and lose money in the process. Help is here.

By Gary Foreman


Consumers pay about $2 billion a year for the privilege using automated teller machines (ATMs). Despite the fees, it's not surprising that these are popular. An ATM card and pin number makes getting cash convenient.

If you and your partner have trouble keeping track of your ATM withdrawals and charges, it's time to take control.

Step One: Track All Transactions
First, make absolutely sure that you enter any ATM transactions in your check register. Failure will not only make it harder to balance the checkbook, but could also mean that errors in your bank statement could go undetected.

The idea is to make it a habit to record any transactions. We tend to remember things that are important to us.

Step Two: Cut Back on Use
Second, use the card less frequently.

Frequent use makes it harder to remember to list cash transactions. When we get home at the end of the day we typically think of dinner, not doing "homework."

Unfettered use can be an invitation to uncontrolled spending, too. Some people find it impossible to resist impulse purchases if they have easy access to cash. And while no single purchase might be large, when added up they can mess up a budget.

Step Three: Use the Card on a Schedule
Use the ATM card on a schedule.

Try to use it on the same day every week. This way, you'll remember that Fridays, for example, are cash day.

If you forget to enter the transaction in your checkbook, knowing that you follow a routine will make it easier to track.

Once-a-week ATM use means giving up a little convenience. But most of us have lives that are predictable enough that we should be able to estimate how much cash we'll need for the week.

Step Four: Withdraw Only What You Need
Take out a set amount of money every week and leave the card at home on other days.

This will give you a good handle on whether money is slipping through your fingers.

Step Five: Decide on One or Two Accounts
Decide if you and your partner should have one ATM account or two.

One account with two cards works well if you are both systematic.

If one of you does not enter transactions in the checkbook or withdraws more money than agreed upon, the state of your finances could deteriorate pretty quickly. This could lead to stress in the relationship.

If this is the case, opening a second account is a good idea.

Step Six: Know the Bank's Fee Structure
Understand the fee structure your bank imposes on ATM cards. And make no mistake: there are fees.

More than 80 percent of all banks impose a surcharge if a non-customer uses its ATM machine. It doesn't seem like much, but a 75 cent fee on a $50 ATM withdrawal amounts to 1.5% of your money.

Unfortunately, misuse of the card is not discouraged by the banks. Not surprisingly, it's a good way to boost their profits.

Often ATM issues are symptoms of a deeper financial problem. Frequent use of ATMs and a failure to record transactions can be the sign of an undisciplined approach to money. It's an easy trap to fall into.

Next time that you pull out the ATM card, make sure that you're using it as a handy tool. For you, not the bank!

Gary Foreman is a former certified financial planner who currently edits The Dollar Stretcher Web site .