If you're a banker, please whip out a pad of paper and start taking notes. I have some ideas.
Don't get me wrong. There have been some positive changes lately in how banks are treating their customers. For instance, while overdraft fees haven't exactly been eradicated from the planet, Bank of America is getting rid of most of theirs this summer, and other banks are softening the blow a little, too. Starting in April, U.S. Bank will have a kinder, gentler overdraft policy. It won't charge someone an overdraft fee for a mistake under $10, and won't give more than three overdraft fees a day, which, regarding that last part, is a little like a mobster telling their victim that instead of clubbing them over the head with a crowbar, they'll use a wrench instead.
It's an improvement, but as things stand, you're still going to wake up with a pretty big headache.
If banks really wanted to help us, if they really cared about their customers, there's a lot more they could do to prove that customer service is a priority to them.
So I have a few suggestions. The following list is what I would like to see banks doing -- and what I think customers should start demanding.
Put deposits in first, then take out checks. Not that I can speak for every bank and credit union out there, but it seems as if credit unions are pretty good about this and banks aren't. For the sake of making this easy to understand, let's say you have a checking account with just a few dollars in it. A $150 check arrives, and a $1,000 direct deposit has also come in. Frequently, banks will run the $150 check through first, ensuring that you're dipping into the negative so they're able to collect overdraft fees or non-sufficient fund charges -- and then they deposit the $1,000.
Now I understand that the bank has every right to do that. You probably shouldn't write a check if you know you don't have the funds to cover it. But if the bank really cared about their customers, they would institute a policy that required deposits to be made before charges are taken out, if the two arrive on the same day.
Allow a place for the customer to note on their online bank account that they have an outstanding check. Not sure what I mean? I'll explain in a minute.
I'm sure a lot of you are thinking, "Who cares? Who uses checks any more?" I admit, I don't use many -- I pay most of my bills online. But at some places, if you don't have the cash on you, you have to write a check -- no credit cards accepted. If our daughters' school has a fundraiser, for instance, we pay by check. Some small businesses, like my local shoe repair shop, only accept cash or checks. In other words, paper and digital checks are still around and probably will be for awhile.
So wouldn't it be nice to go online to your bank account and be able to note somewhere that you have an outstanding check or two? For instance, I currently have two outstanding checks made out to my daughters' Girl Scout troops that I know will eventually clear. So whenever I look at my balance, I have to mentally subtract $20. Not a big deal, just $20, but what if it were $70 or $135? It just seems that if we can send people to the moon, we ought to be able to have bank web sites that allow us to see an exact, accurate balance.
On my bank's site, there's an "available balance" and an "account balance." It would be helpful if there was a third option, like an "actually, this is what you have balance." (OK, so maybe we need to work on what we'd call that third option.) Or leave it as is but provide a "notes" space for customers to write messages to themselves, like "Don't forget you wrote a check to the water company!"
Banks should take cues from money management sites. It might be interesting if banks took a page out of the Mint.com handbook and made it easier for you to track your spending and discover how much you're actually spending on clothes, Starbucks lattes, video games or what have you.
Not that banks should have to hold our hand (and believe me, I'd be happy if they'd just adopt the first two ideas). But the technology is obviously out there, and it would be nice if the banks used that technology to help us identify our financial weaknesses, so, if we want to, we can make changes that help us use our money more wisely. It would probably help the banks in the end -- if we aren't wasting our money on silly purchases, we'd likely divert more money into our savings account, IRAs and other important investments, all of which would benefit both us and the banks.
My point to all of this? As the financial world increasingly goes digital and encourages debit card spending and we move farther and farther away from actually balancing a checkbook, banks ought to do what they can to help their customers keep better track of their money. For the most part, their record of spending our money through fees is very impressive. Their record of helping us actually manage that money in our accounts? I don't see much to brag about.
Geoff Williams is a frequent contributor to WalletPop. He is also the co-author of the new book "Living Well with Bad Credit."
If banks really cared about their customers...