Is the next generation already wrapped in plastic?

By glblguy

This is a guest post from Connie Prater, a senior writer at Connie considers herself a savvy consumer, a mom, a penny-pincher/tightwad and an above average Scrabble player.

We’re raising a generation of kids bound for a plastic culture. That’s a world where paper currency is obsolete, where you buy and sell goods and services through electronic, wireless or remote transfers of dollars, pounds and Euros. But you never, ever use cash.

Ask my 12-year-old daughter. Her initiation into the plastic culture has already started. Instead of getting cash for Christmas or birthday presents, she and her friends now get gift cards to their favorite stores. At Disney World — the child fantasy powerhouse — plastic cards allow youngsters to swipe their way on to rides and through gift shops and eateries.

Kiss your lunch “money” goodbye

And now school lunches are going plastic. Remember the days not that long ago when you gave your child lunch money everyday and told them to put it in a safe place so it wouldn’t be lost — or stolen by a bully. Some kids tied their lunch money in handkerchiefs or put it in their pockets or shoes for safekeeping. Many kids across the country may still do this. But their numbers may be dwindling.

The new thing in school lunches is cashless lunch lines. It’s all electronic now. Swipe and go. My daughter got a taste of the future when she recently transferred to a new middle school. She was the new kid and didn’t know about swipe and go.

On her first day at the new school, she dutifully kept her $2.30 lunch money in her pocket and went through the lunch line filling her plate. But when she got to the cashier, there was a problem. She had cash.

All of the other students were whizzing by the register with bar coded student ID cards. They swiped the cards and their weekly lunch money accounts were debited the appropriate amount. No digging for that last dime or explaining that they may have lost their lunch money. Lunch accounts are replenished once a week — on Mondays — when students pay for the entire week.

My daughter hadn’t gotten her ID card yet and her first day fell on a Tuesday. She paid cash the rest of that first week and felt the sting of being low-tech. Her cash payments slowed down the lunch line and had fellow students behind her in line looking and sighing:

“What’s wrong?”
“It’s the new girl.”
“She’s paying with cash.”
“She doesn’t have a card?”

My daughter got the message loud and clear: paying with cash is definitely not cool. She was glad when she finally got her “card.” That same plastic card features her photo and doubles as a library card to check out books. She’s learning that that plastic gives her access, speeds things up and gives her status and legitimacy.

I learned about her lunchroom difficulties while we were watching television one evening during her first week at school. The Visa commercial aired showing customers zipping through checkout lines and happily swiping or waving their credit cards over sensors. But when one poor cash-carrying dolt hands over dollar bills, the party’s over. The fun stops. Everyone stares.

“That’s me in the lunch line,” my daughter says. “That’s exactly how I felt when I paid with my money. Like the oddball.”

Her plastic culture indoctrination is complete.

A part of their culture

“Everything has become electronic and the kids are very comfortable with that,” says Mary Beth Pinto, director of the Center for Credit & Consumer Research at Penn State University. I was interviewing her for another article and our conversation veered toward children and credit cards. “Look at the toys that are out on the market today.”

I nodded as she spoke because a few years earlier I had purchased a grocery store toy for my daughter. It came with miniature food items, a checkout conveyor belt and a cash register. Attached to the register: a swiper machine and fake plastic credit cards.

Toy manufacturers are just mimicking what’s happening in our culture and what children see their parents doing every day. According to a Visa USA survey, nearly one in every three consumer purchases in the United States is made with a payment card of some kind — either credit card, debit card or prepaid cards. And a Center for Media Research study says 51 percent of the U.S. population has at least two credit cards.

Should we be surprised that our children are growing up plastic? Says Penn State’s Pinto: “The informal message that we’re sending is ‘This is the norm and this is how you do it.’ ”

She cautions that since it’s easier to lose track of how much you’re spending when you use credit cards, we should counsel our children about using the cards wisely and budgeting their money.

Another cautionary note: counting out pennies, nickels, dimes and dollars years ago may have helped a generation of children learn and understand math more easily. My daughter’s first grade teacher — a 20-year veteran — once lamented that  students today weren’t catching on to counting money as quickly because adults weren’t giving them change anymore. Everything was bills or plastic gift cards.

Pinto says new technology currently being developed may soon make plastic cards obsolete. School lunch lines of the future may be able to use sensors to determine which child is selecting what food items and automatically debit their accounts.

Maybe the next generation of school children won’t have to dirty their little hands with money — or plastic.

Photo by: kalleboo

7 Responses (including trackbacks) to “Is the next generation already wrapped in plastic?”

  1. J. Carlton Ford Says:

    It seems that the new power is in the ‘swipe’. It’s become a self-esteem thing. People request gift cards (for Bdays, Holidays etc) But it’s estimated that 50% of gift cards go unused and expire.

  2. Anne Says:

    Our high school is going one step farther and signing all the kids up for a fingerprint scan. No need to carry a card, just scan your finger. Unreal. We opted out, I just find it creepy. I keep thinking about the movie ‘Idiocracy’ where everyone had a tattoo that was scanned that carried all their personal info, money etc. We are headed there.

  3. Monroe on a budget Says:

    Something to keep in mind is that the cards and fingerprinting at the cash register maintains the privacy for families who are on free and reduced price lunches. After all – only the cashier knows how much you paid.

    Now, to be fair, if your kid is getting free lunches, there are other ways that the classmates will note that your family is broke.

    But there are people who don’t want others to know they are getting a break on school lunch prices. When everybody pays by card, the embarrassment is gone.

    By the way, I was using a cash / swipe card at my college cafeteria in the 1980s. It’s just new at the K-12 level, that’s all.

  4. Savings Toolbox Says:

    interesting thoughts, though I am sorry to hear that your daughter has felt the affects of the imminent future like she did. I admit, the first thing I was thinking of as I began reading this post was that Visa commercial. Hopefully, she’s cool with life in school once again.

    I can not believe how much things have changed in such a short period of time involving money technology. Hopefully, the convenience of all this plastic does not mislead our youngsters down the long, bumpy road of debt. Parents need to instill the realities of the numbers that are hidden in that plastic jungle they will all be living in…

  5. RDS Says:

    It is certainly true that kids are getting into plastic earlier and earlier. However, that can be a good thing.

    Credit cards are a tool and are neither good nor bad. If a child is using a plastic card to pay for lunches in grade school I think that could be a great opportunity to teach them about budgeting and how little purchases made on a plastic card can add up to be a pretty big bill at the end of the week or month.

    I believe that one of the reasons that young adults are often irresponsible with credit is that nobody ever taught them how to use credit responsibly. If school lunches, gift cards, and trips to Disney World offer the opportunity to teach your kids about proper money management, more power to them.


  6. Jeff Says:

    I’m torn about this. I get what RDS is saying in the above comment, and generally I agree, but I can’t help but lament that kids today are probably going to have more financial difficulty because it’s SO easy to disassociate when using plastic. If you’ve got cash, you know what’s left. If you’ve got plastic, you’re either guessing or paying close attention to your account (which most people don’t).

  7. tiffanie Says:

    i’m not sure i like that they’re teaching kids about the ease of credit! i think it is misleading and gives a false interpretation of what is really happening during the transaction! it’s definitely something to educate the kids about.