self worth and a piece of plastic

December 31st, 2007

Self Worth and a Piece of Plastic

When we left for our trip to visit relatives the Friday morning before last, I pulled into the local ATM and withdrew some cash to buy food and pay tolls on both the trip out and the trip back, and then we went over to the local gas station to top off my tank (it was about half full) before heading out on the highway. We make all our gas purchases at the pump with our debit card, and today was no exception. But instead of staying outside with my spouse while he pumped gas I headed inside to buy a cheap coffee to keep me alert (it was very early in the AM when we left) while my spouse paid for the gas at the pump.

Or so I thought.

When I got back outside after getting my coffee, my spouse said his debit card was repeatedly declined. Since my debit card is attached to the same account and I had just used it 5 minutes ago to withdraw cash at our ATM (and my receipt assured me we had plenty of money in our checking account left) I used my card instead, thinking there was something wrong with his card. But, no dice. Mine was declined too.

And I felt my cheeks turn about 15 shades of red – even though I knew it wasn’t me, it wasn’t my account, and there must be a problem either with the gas station or our bank network. But I felt like it was. I felt ashamed and embarrassed and downright awful.

We debated using some of our cash to buy gas, but decided to leave and get gas a little later while I called our bank to find out why our cards weren’t working. We hadn’t pumped any gas yet, and I had paid for my coffee inside with cash, so we just left. And honestly, even though we had done nothing wrong, I felt like a deadbeat and sort of like a criminal.

It turns out that that morning, there was some sort of problem with our bank’s network in specific states only (like ours… yay) where the debit card registered as being above its daily limit even though it was not when you used it at any merchants. Which is why I could use it just fine at the ATM but then not at the gas station. I found this out by calling the phone number on the back of the card, and I was somewhat placated, even though it was a big inconvenience. It was fixed by the afternoon. But this isn’t about that, and all the backup plans we had to come up with in case the card continued not to work. That’s a story for later. This is about my brain and the revelations I went through that morning.

I never realized how much of my self worth was tied up in my ability to successfully swipe a piece of plastic. I’d only been rejected one time before, over ten years ago, and that time, the card (a different card) told the merchant the network was down, so it was clearly not my issue at all. This time, it just said “card declined”. Which, to me, sounds like my card is maxed out or I have no money in my checking account.

It was depressing. It was embarrassing. The attendant came out to talk to my spouse to see if he was scanning his card correctly, and that was embarrassing too. And I thought about all the times I’d been in line behind someone at the grocery store whose card had been rejected (there have been several) and the judgments I made in my head about their financial situation because of their card being declined. And then, I was angry at myself for being so quick to mentally judge others. Especially after the second gas station we tried that morning rejected the card as well (which is when I called the bank to find out what was wrong).

Just a piece of plastic. But my cheeks still feel warm when I think about it being declined.

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20 Responses to “Self Worth and a Piece of Plastic”

  1. I felt the same way when I was trying to get a temporary apartment in a state that was different than my bank was in. I needed $600 cash and I couldn’t get it from an ATM that day (my limit being $300/day). I ended up getting a cash advance on my debit card (being used as a credit card), but the experience felt embarrassing anyway!

    I wanted to tell the bank teller that I didn’t really need the cash advance, but I didn’t. I bet she thought I was one of “those” people!

  2. That does not sound like a fun experience. It never hurts to carry a backup card (even if it is a credit card, which I know you despise!). My wife and I each carry 2 cards, from non-related banks or credit card companies. This allows us to have options if necessary.

  3. When we went on our 2 week summer vacation this year, we got all the way from home to about 20 miles from our 2000 mile away destination and had our debit card rejected. We hadn’t even thought to call the bank and inform them of our travel plans and sure enough they cut it off thinking it was stolen. Thankfully we had cash to cover the expenses we had over the 2 day period before it was straightened out. I so know the frantic embarrassed feeling that you are talking about.

    I’m not a backup credit card user but hubby and I hoard cash throughout the year and make sure we have plenty of backup cash on hand for stuff like that when traveling.

  4. I’ve been there- no fun at all! It was years ago, but my debit card was denied for groceries. It was denied because I bounced several transactions, my account was negative. It’s too bad it took me so long to take action and improve my finances, but memories like this really help motivate me to never lose control of my financial life again.

  5. I had an experience similar to Emily’s. I was traveling and I was almost home and my debit card was denied. I shouldn’t have to call the bank and tell them where I’m going and what I’m doing. I called when I got home, and they said that they blocked it because they thought someone stole my card. I guess I’m ok with that, but it’s still a pain. In the meantime, I had my cc as a backup so I was still able to get gas. The worst part is that if I didn’t have my cc, I really would’ve been in trouble because my debit card is also my ATM card in case I need cash.

    I think it’s admirable of you to admit that you looked down on people in the past when their card was denied, and now you know how it feels. A lot of people wouldn’t admit that. You never know anything about someone until you walk a mile in their shoes, so I’m glad you learned something from your experience. :)

  6. It seems my card does not care when we travel, since it has worked fine on all of our random trips. But that’s something for me to remember in the future, especially if I get back into tkd competing again. For that I travel a lot.

    We did come up with some backup plans, which I’ll write about later today or tomorrow. I still carry my credit cards on me so that was one of the backup plans actually. lol

  7. Interesting, I had the same thing happen to me recently and I felt horrible too. I left the store and went immediately to an ATM to check my card. Sure enough, I had the money, but I still had the burning in my face as well. Stupid cards!

  8. Micah and I have different accounts (right now) so we’re each other’s backups. That happened to me once with groceries…I still don’t know why, I guess it was a fluke. Fortunately, self-checkout means no cashier. But I was really embarrassed thinking about what the person behind me must be thinking.

    I think half of “Judge not so you won’t be judged” is that when we develop judgmental attitudes towards others, we’re more sensitive to perceived judgments of us.

  9. caryn verell Says:

    December 31st, 2007 at 9:37 pm

    check out the article in the jan 08 issue of readers’ digest regarding debit cards…may explain alot for you. many people have had their accounts frozen for days due to purchases of fuel at the pumps using their debit cards…very inconvenient!

  10. I will check it out. That isn’t why ours didn’t work, it actually had nothing to do with us specifically, but knowledge is power too.

  11. The same thing happened to me here in Florida, probably the same day as your experience. I had just used the card at Target, then walked next door to Publix, grocery shopped for about a half hour, and when I tried to check out, the card was DECLINED. I was mortified. I knew I had plenty of money in the bank (B of A), but I could just imagine what the people in line were thinking. They probably thought I spent all my money on Christmas nonsense and couldn’t buy groceries. Just then, an angel of a manager walked up and announced that the network for B of A was down and every transaction was being declined. Thank goodness I had a credit card in my wallet. So I broke my own rule and charged groceries. Then I drove to the nearest bank ATM and took out some cash for the weekend in case the problem persisted. I wanted to go back to Publix and wave my statement around just to prove I had money (not really). I truly empathize with you, it was most embarrassing.

  12. I know exactly how you felt. When it last happened to me, I was so embarrassed and had to leave the drive-thru line it was just awful. I felt like such a loser.

  13. My card was once getting denied. It turned out I had a pattern of use that flagged me. I had gassed up my car in the morning, had a mechanical breakdown later which I tried to fix by getting some oil from another gas station that I walked to, and then, to be nice, I put some extra gas into the car I borrowed while my car was having it’s problems and my then fianceĆ© car. Anyway, apparently this pattern of excessive gas station usage is a way that people who steal cards tend to use them so it got flagged as possibly stolen. After being declined a couple times, I called and got it straightened out pretty quickly.


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