When it comes to buying power, debit card is king|[10/15/06]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 15, 2006

It’s just more convenient.

That’s the main reason Toni Alford and millions of others are opting for plastic rather than paper these days – and we’re not talking about grocery bags.

&#8220I use my debit card almost every day,” said Alford, 41. &#8220I used to use cash only at the gas pump, but then I learned I could use my debit card there, too. It’s so easy. Now if I carry cash at all, it’s maybe only $20.”

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While credit cards have been around for generations, debit cards are a relative newcomer. Instead of creating a bill to be paid, perhaps with interest, debit transactions remove money from an existing account.

That’s part of why Alford said she writes down every receipt immediately after the transaction.

&#8220I have to do that. I think as long as you keep up with it, you won’t have any problems,” she said.

Alford is a teller at Guaranty Bank & Trust, but she said her knowledge of the banking system is not the reason she has switched.

&#8220It’s just easier and so much more convenient,” she said.

And she’s not alone, said Howell Gage, chairman of the Board of Trustees for RiverHills Bank.

&#8220This is a trend we’re seeing embraced by younger people and better-educated people,” he said. &#8220Those who are more reluctant to switch to plastic are older people and those who are less educated on how the system works.”

Gage said the popularity of opting for credit or debit over cash or check is simple.

&#8220It’s the most convenient way to pay,” he said.

Having some plastic in your pocket means no more frantic trips to the bank for more cash or taking extra time to count out exact change.

More and more businesses are offering the option of plastic as payment.

McDonald’s, which also accepts credit cards, began accepting card payments about two years ago, said Clarence Griffin, manager of the Clay Street location.

Not all McDonald’s restaurants in the United States have the ability to accept &#8220cashless” payments, but all in Vicksburg do, Griffin added.

&#8220It’ll speed up the process,” Griffin said, adding that if store personnel don’t have to make change, it can increase their efficiency.

Billy Joe Quimby of The Home Depot said he thinks more customers are using credit cards. One reason is that the company itself offers MasterCard accounts that offer customers 10 percent off their first purchase and the option to delay payment for up to a year. A card brochure and application shows that annual interest rates on such accounts range from 15.74 percent to 21.74 percent.

At Family Dollar Store on Mission 66, most transactions are made using debit cards, store manager Patricia White said. The store does not accept credit cards.

Gage said there are risks involved with plastic, but there are risks with cash, too.

&#8220I think the least secure method of payment is carrying cash,” he said.

Cash and checkbooks can be lost or stolen. With credit or debit, there’s the risk of identity theft, but Gage said there are more safeguards with plastic.

&#8220I think, from the consumer standpoint, security is not really the issue. It’s just more convenient,” he said.

And from the merchant’s standpoint, using plastic assures payment, Gage said.

&#8220There’s automatic electronic verification as opposed to the ‘float’ time with a check,” he said.

Float time is the time it takes for a check to clear the bank.

&#8220The banking industry is changing the way checks are handled throughout the system,” Gage said. &#8220We operate on a cumbersome system. Float time can be an expense for businesses because the money isn’t there right away.”

But now, with legislative help, even checks are joining the push to electronic banking, Gage said.

According to information on the Federal Reserve’s Web site, Check 21 is legislation passed in 2003 aimed at improving the efficiency of America’s payment system. Today, when a check is written, there are many steps that take place for a check to clear. These steps rely on the physical transport of the checks to reach their final destination.

But with Check 21, electronic images of the checks are used by banks as legal copies in handling of money. The system eliminates float time, therefore making the transaction process nearly just as quick as using a debit or credit card.

&#8220It’s just another form of electronic payment that is making life easier,” Gage said.

Of course, cash and paper checks will remain an option. That may never change, he said.

&#8220I can see the day when people use more credit or debit cards to pay rather than checks, but I cannot foresee the day when checks are not around at all,” Gage said.