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    How to Handle Your Money

    What you need to know about credit cards, checking accounts and debit cards.

    Jon Watters

    I 'll admit it right off: I'm not a money whiz or one of those "experts" from an infomercial who can tell you how to turn a buck into a thousand overnight. But I do know a few things about late-night pizza runs. I've had to buy books for a few semesters. And I've also been hit up for pocket change by "needy" roommates.

    These experiences have taught me a thing or two about day-to-day money handling. So I believe I have some tips that can help you avoid many headaches, and keep you from begging Mom and Dad for "just another $10 to get me through the month—please!"

    What About Credit Cards?

    The credit card! What a great invention. You can actually buy stuff without having any money. Sounds awesome, doesn't it? But credit is not free money. Far from it. When you present your card to a cashier at a store, a waiter at a restaurant, or the guy behind the snack counter at the movie theater, you've just taken out a loan. The credit card company has paid for your purchase, with the understanding that they will bill you for it. And when that bill comes, if you don't have the money to pay the credit company for your purchase, then you owe them the original amount plus interest.

    Let's be real honest. Buying on credit can be costly and dangerous. You can rack up big debt. And if your bills go unpaid, it can hurt your ability to buy things on credit in the future. Paying with cash is almost always the best way to go.

    Bank on It

    Now let's talk a bit about a checking account. You know how this works: To use checks, you first set up an account with a bank and deposit money into it. Unlike a savings account, you usually do not earn any interest on your cash. Also, checking accounts do not work like credit cards. What you have in that account is all that you can pay with in checks. In fact, most banks have a minimum amount that always must be in your account. Fail to keep that minimum balance and you may be charged a fee, or you may lose your account with that bank. These amounts vary from bank to bank. It could be $50 at one bank, $100 at another.

    Shop around. Talk to people at several banks and any credit unions that may be available to you. Find out what services are offered, and also find out if there are any additional charges for those services.

    Did I Say "Debit"?

    One of the greatest things around is the debit card. Looks like a credit card, right? Rectangular piece of plastic. Has your name on it. Comes with an expiration date. But unlike the dreaded credit card, debit cards are all about using money you actually have. A debit card is just another way of getting to the money in your checking account, without using checks.

    They're also convenient: Most stores and restaurants that accept credit cards also accept debit cards. Additionally, you can use the card at ATM machines to withdraw or deposit money into either your checking or savings account. You won't want to use your debit card at just any ATM machine, though. If you use an ATM machine not owned by your bank, you may incur a usage charge, which can be two bucks or more.

    How do you get a debit card? When you open your checking account, your bank or credit union will often issue you one. If they don't, be sure and ask about this important service.

    A Balancing Act

    Now here's an amazing little piece of trivia: If you use a check or a debit card, money disappears from your account. OK, I know that's a big "duh." But it's amazing how many people quickly lose track of that fact. To avoid these "mysterious disappearances," you must keep your bank records in order.

    Anyone who has a checking account receives a monthly statement that shows their checking account balance. This balance will list every single deposit or withdrawal made, amounts of checks written, and amounts of debit withdrawals racked up. Now we all secretly hope our personal record will match our own bank record, but that doesn't always happen.

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