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How to be your own ATM

Do cash withdrawals just evaporate from your wallet? Plug those leaks by avoiding the machine.

By Donna_Freedman Aug 24, 2012 1:57PM
Image: bank ATM (© Image Source/Corbis/Corbis)You got $60 from the ATM just the other day, but your wallet seems suspiciously light. Where did the money go?

Frittered away on this and that, probably. Once you break one of those twenties, the smaller bills seem to take flight.

Instant, easy access to cash can encourage inattentive spending. Over and over, financial advisers have told me clients withdraw money regularly but can't account for how it gets spent.

One way to break this pricey habit: Become your own cash machine.

Think of it: no bank fees, no accidental overdrafts and no driving around at night in search of a safe, well-lit ATM. Here's how to do it.

The 'coffee-can ATM'

I've written about the cash cache, i.e., a stash of folding green hidden at home. Personally, I aim for $200 in large and small bills. When I want to check out a yard sale or give my hairdresser her tip in cash, I open up the coffee-can ATM.

It's not really a coffee can, although it once was. Then it occurred to me that a coffee can is one of the places burglars are likely to look. For that reason, I don't recommend keeping money in a cookie jar or teapot, either. People who steal for a living generally know all the usual hiding places. (Post continues after video.)

Even die-hard debiters should keep some cash around for things like class trips, paying the baby sitter or supporting the Girl Scout cookie sale.

Another cash source
But what if you're nowhere near home and need money? Go to a supermarket or drugstore, use your debit card to buy something you need (toothpaste, not beef jerky) and ask for cash back.

Often these places will let you get an odd amount versus a round figure. If all you need is an extra $11 for the baby sitter, you can get it instead of the $20 that the ATM dispenses. If you need $25 but have to take two twenties, that "extra" $15 is likely to bleed from your wallet as described above.

Bonus: It feels safer to get cash back in a store than to stand at an ATM at 10 p.m.

No stores nearby? In that case, use only an in-network ATM. Free phone apps will help you find the nearest no-fee machine.


Doing the math
Before you withdraw money anywhere, though, ask yourself: Is this really necessary, or am I spending out of habit?

If so, maybe it's time to get new habits. Even small withdrawals become slow, steady budgetary hemorrhages.


Or major gushers. One reader told of a friend who withdrew $300 every Friday, "for the weekend." She didn't always have specific plans; instead, she simply spent until she ran out of money.

I wonder if she ever did the math. I also wonder whether her weekends were worth $15,600 a year.

More on MSN Money:

Aug 27, 2012 2:26PM
Kind of hard to track your money this way, but whatever works I guess.  I have free ATM withdrawals, and work right across the street from my bank, so it's not an issue for me.  I do pull out my spending cash though, same amount twice per month, so I can keep on budget.  If I'm out of cash, I don't spend.   
Aug 25, 2012 12:29PM
I don't like using ATMs either - because of the fees and safety issues.

Rather than cash, use a cash-back credit card that doesn't charge a annual fee. Then, towards the end of the year, call the company and ask them to apply your credits to your next bill. You can save many hundred of dollars per year if you use the card for gas and groceries.

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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.