A few days ago, I was valiantly trying to convince a teller at my bank to put a check into my account as instant cash instead of having to wait until the next morning. I knew a rogue check I had written to my daughter's preschool was somewhere -- out there -- and if it went through that night, the consequences would be ugly. The bank would process the check, pummel me with $35 charges for not having funds to cover it -- and then they would deposit the money. Money, of course, that they had been holding onto for hours.
And so goes another typical day in the not-so glamorous life of a freelance writer.
I realize when it comes to complaining about the bank's tactics, I'm on shaky ground. As sinister as I think it is, I get it. Banks have rules; I didn't follow them. But I am wondering how we got to this point. Maybe I have a naive view of banks, shaped from how I've seen George Bailey run his savings and loan in about 467 airings of the classic 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life. But it does seem like bank policies have positioned these institutions to act more as a foe than friend. In fact, when bemoaning the city's foreclosures, the mayor of Cleveland recently likened banks to "organized crime."And then recently David Enrich of the Wall Street Journal reported, in a story making the rounds in newspapers around the country, that penalties are rising for having insufficient funds in an account-along with fees going up to $3, for using an ATM that doesn't belong to your bank. And Enrich had this to say: "Unless there is an unexpectedly fast rebound from the current woes, additional fee increases are on the way, analysts predict."
I'm not surprised. As my bank teller informed me that she couldn't put my check in as cash, sounding as sympathetic as a loan shark who says he doesn't want to break your arm and then does so anyway, I kept staring at a poster. It was promoting the practice of cashing out your home equity loan. The advertisement gave lip service to pragmatic choices if you're going to cash it out, like paying off debts or paying for a college education, but what struck me was that it also suggested using the money from a home equity loan to go on a vacation or even to buy a plasma TV. My very own bank was advising me to do what any financial expert insists is exactly the wrong thing to do. In other words, my bank has subtly decided not to even pretend that they have my best interests at heart. It made me kind of sad, until I popped in my DVD of It's a Wonderful Life, and I could start believing in my neighborhood financial institution again. No, it's not a great way to deal with reality, but I think it's better than what my bank is offering.
Geoff Williams is a freelance business journalist, primarily for Entrepreneur magazine, and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America.
My (unfriendly) neighborhood bank