Problems with plastic

American consumers crave convenience - and no other modern convention describes that better than the ATM/debit card.

For Dayton resident Yvonne Rickman, 26, her Greater Nevada Credit Union ATM card symbolizes security. If she loses it, a thief wouldn't know the pass code and she could just call her bank for a replacement. The same isn't true with cash.

"They charge fees for everything nowadays, at the gas station if you use the ATM, or at McDonald's," she said. "My 15-month-old loves to go to McDonald's and if I'm in a hurry, I'm not going to stop at the bank and take out money. So I use my ATM."

Fast food, fast cash, for a fee.

Rickman, a Dayton mother of two, said carrying an ATM card is also a way to save money. If she's not carrying the cash she's not spending it.

But come to think of it, those fees do add up, Rickman said. She gets gas once a week and that's 35 cents per transaction. Each visit for fast food is about a $1 more. Then there's that time her car financing company charged her $10 for making a payment over the phone.

"This one time I was running to the bank on my way out of town and I stopped at my ATM, but they were down, so I went down to the Bank of America ATM and they charged me, and so does my bank, so that's $3 for the fact that their ATMs were down," Rickman said.

The specter of debit card fees

Think of an ATM card as a bewildered world traveler.

In home ports it's safe and secure: You won't rack up any usage fees. In foreign ports, meaning ATMs at banks that are not your own, life is costlier.

According to Consumer Reports, most banks will charge a fee of $1 to $2.50 per withdrawal from another bank's ATM. The foreign bank will add its own $1 to $2.50 charge, so the $20 you took out could end up costing $5.

If you need cash fast, make a small debit-card purchase at a grocery store and get cash back.

Ditch the high-interest credit cards

With annual interest rates averaging about 13 percent a year, consumer advocates urge credit users to look for no-fee cards at www.bankrate.com, or pay attention to credit card offers that arrive in the mail.

Credit card companies are competing for your business, so many offer zero percent annual percentage rates for up to a year on balance transfers, which could give a consumer enough time to pay off the balance.

According to Consumer Reports, card companies handle balance transfers in different ways and the fine print can be confusing.

Pay attention to:

• The rate you are getting.

• How long it lasts.

• What it jumps to when that rate is over.

If your credit history is less than stellar, and your monthly payment is getting eaten away just by the interest rate, consider partnering with a family member or friend who qualified for a no-interest or low-interest card. Then make monthly payments to that person, instead of a credit card company. Another smart option is paying off a credit card balance monthly, instead of letting the debt build up.

What do you pay in extra bank fees?

Martha Thomas, of Clovis, Calif., learned the hard way that transferring funds between banks costs a pretty penny, or many.

"It's ridiculous," Thomas said of the fees two banks will charge her for transferring funds. It'll cost her $40 to transfer $200 into her daughter's account. Her daughter, Carson City resident Michele Thomas, is battling a rare form of muscular dystrophy, and is taking donations through her bank account.

"I'm trying to help a handicapped person and it's difficult with all these bank fees they're trying to charge you," she said.

Fees vary by institution and location. The U.S. Federal Reserve has some jurisdiction over how national banks disclose their fees to customers, but not the setting of these fees, according to a Federal Reserve spokeswoman.

Chad Osorno, senior vice president for Wells Fargo Bank of Nevada, said those fees go to pay for bank infrastructure, ATM machines and bank staff.

n Contact reporter Becky Bosshart at bbosshart@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1212.

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