Living with credit, New products

Is the next generation already wrapped in plastic?

Connie Prater

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 That’s a world where paper currency is obsolete, where you buy and sell goods and services through electronic, wireless or remote transfers of dollars, pounds and Euros.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.

See related: Kids’ lunch money lost less often in cashless cafeteria lines

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  • John S

    The upside being in our school district you can login and monitor what your kids have been eating.

  • Yes, plastic reigns supreme with our kids. Money is no object any more because you just pay for it with plastic…we’ve got to be careful about showing the kids how the bill gets paid at the end of the month.
    Thanks for submitting your post to my carnival. Please feel free to submit more of your posts.

  • seekcity

    I love this blog post.

  • HereInTexas

    Our school does not use plastic – they use account numbers.