When does a single iTunes song cost $35.99? When the purchaser uses a debit card to buy it for 99 cents, goes over his bank account balance, and gets slapped with a $35 overdraft charge. This happens more than you think — often to young people.

These days almost any basic checking or savings account comes with a free ATM or debit card. That means even a first-time bank-account holder — like your teen — will have immediate, convenient access to his cash anywhere, day or night. Great news, right?

Nobody but you is going to teach your teenager how to handle that card responsibly. The bank won’t do it. Teachers won’t do it. So it’s up to you. Here are a few common pitfalls of mismanaging a debit / ATM cards — and ideas to teach your teen how to avoid them.

Mistake 1: Wasting money on ATM fees.

If your teen is out with friends and needs cash, she’ll be tempted to use her ATM card at whatever machine is close by. Usually, that will mean an ATM not owned by your teen’s bank — and using it to pull out a few bucks will probably result in a high fee.

Bankrate.com’s 2011 Checking Account Survey found the average ATM charge in the US was $2.40. Plus, your teen’s bank might charge an additional fee for using another institution’s ATM. That could mean paying $4 or more just to access $20 — an insane 20% interest charge just to pull out her own money! If your teen uses her ATM card regularly (say, once a week), she could pay hundreds of dollars per year in needless ATM fees.

The lesson: Plan ahead.

Teach your teen to plan ahead, to withdraw money only from her bank’s ATMs, and to do so before she needs the cash. You can also use this opportunity to teach your teen how to budget.

Mistake 2: Overdraft charges.

Most bank accounts allow overdrafts on ATM card usage at stores or for other purchases — and charge high overdraft fees for the privilege. Worse, your teen won’t have any notification he’s about to go over his account balance — and get hit with a big fee — until it’s too late.

If your teen spends just a few dollars over his balance using his ATM card, that mistake could cost him $35 in overdraft charges (the average fee for overdrafts in 2011, according to Bankrate.com).

If this happens regularly, because your teen does not keep accurate records of his account and does not know how much he has at a given time, your teen could face hundreds of dollars in fees each year. Over time, these mistakes can negatively affect your teen’s credit report — which can be extremely costly in the long run.

The $35.99 iTunes song

This actually happened to someone I know. She bought a few songs on iTunes using her ATM card; and the last song apparently took her bank account into negative territory. Meaning that last song, at 99 cents, actually cost her $35.99!

The lesson: Know what’s in your account at all times.

Teach your teen to keep accurate records of his bank account, and to monitor it regularly, so he never spends over his balance and gets hit with nasty overdraft penalties. Tell your teen the above story to illustrate why it really does pay to know how much he has in his bank account before using his ATM card.

Related suggestion: The “carry-the-receipt” rule.

If your teen uses her debit / ATM card at a store, a gas station, the movie theater and an ATM — but doesn’t keep a record of these transactions — how will she know at any given moment how much money she actually has in her account?

Teach your teen to carry each receipt, for every withdrawal or purchase she makes with her ATM card, until she’s back home and able to record these items in whatever she uses as her official record for managing her bank account — her checkbook register, for example.

I purposely fold my receipts and tuck them into my wallet so they stick out. That way, I can’t help but notice them when I pull out my wallet, and therefore I can’t forget to record them. Only after I’ve recorded a receipt in my checkbook register will I throw it away (or file it).

Problem 3: Physical danger from thieves.

ATMs attract muggers and other bad characters, because they know that anyone using one is just a few seconds away from having cash in their hands.

The lesson: Use ATMs only in safe situations.

Teach your teen to minimize the danger of ATM withdrawals by limiting her ATM usage to certain situations, like these:

  • Use an ATM only during the day, if possible.
  • Find an ATM indoors, either enclosed in a vestibule at a bank or inside a store, such as a supermarket, someplace that is populated and well-lit.

Taking the time today to teach your teens how to handle a debit / ATM card responsibly can make a huge difference in their financial future — the difference between enjoying the card’s convenience over the long term, or suffering serious financial problems from mishandling it.

Featured photo credit: Junk ATM/Robbie Hyman via Shutterstock

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