Technology can't replace the chequebook

Online banking, while wonderfully convenient, is no replacement for keeping track of your own finances.

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Close readers of this section will notice that we are no longer including a column titled, "My Financial Mistake," which featured an average person's confession about mismanaging his or her finances. After the week I had, I think maybe they should just slap that headline over this space. Earlier this month, it came time for me to make the next payment on the Mazda coupe I bought from my friend, Luke, before he moved back to the US.

I was hoping to get close to paying the car off entirely, but as I pored over my online bank statement, I could not see how I would be able to make that happen. In fact, it appeared that if I made any sort of sizeable payment, I might find myself relegated to a bread-and-water diet and several weekends curled up with a good library book instead of strolling the links. As far as I could tell, I was almost broke.

At the time I had several big payments and deposits criss-crossing through my account. My wife was in the US for some medical appointments and our insurance company required that we pay those bills upfront and file for reimbursement when she got back. We also joined a health club, which required the Dh6,400 annual fee before we could set foot on a treadmill. And then I was still paying off the many thousands of dirhams in start-up costs that virtually every expatriate accumulates.

The problem was that I knew the payments I make out of my account are not always reflected immediately online, and I suspected other transactions may be delayed before they are posted as well. I get text messages when I make a deposit or cash withdrawal - my favourite feature of banking in the UAE - but nothing for credit card charges or transfers between accounts. Simply put, I was confused about how much money I actually had. Why not just consult my chequebook?

Well, see, I would argue that as a responsible citizen of this earth I am committed to paperless banking. My wife would probably be able to make a stronger case that I am simply lazy when it comes to keeping track of my expenses in my chequebook. It is true that while I have a vague memory of receiving a chequebook when I opened my HSBC account, I could not tell you where it is. I have not written a cheque - or recorded a deposit or expense in the transaction log of the chequebook - since I arrived in the UAE. I swallowed hard and e-mailed Luke. I asked if he could give me a few weeks until I got my finances sorted out to make the next payment. He was relatively understanding, although he made it clear he had some expenses of his own to handle.

Then, on Monday, I returned from lunch (Dh8 from the felafel shop, as part of the new austerity measures put in place) to find a courier envelope on my desk. It was from HSBC. Inside was the last cheque my wife received from her previous employer - a cheque that we had deposited more than three weeks earlier. Turns out - even though I asked a cashier for instructions, he assured me there was no problem and I walked away with a receipt - the bank later rejected the cheque because it was made out to my wife and not to me. The cheque was obviously never credited to my account.