Banks: There’s no such thing as a free lunch

GREG BEAN

Here’s something that readers born after 1980 will find hard to believe: Before that, if you wanted access to your money, you basically had two choices. You could keep all your cash in a coffee can hidden behind the couch, or you could drive your covered wagon to the bank and write a check for cash, assuming you had enough money in your account.

In those days, it wasn’t that easy to get a checking account, but my mother helped me get one in my teens and spent a lot of time showing me how to keep track of my money, and balance my account to the penny when the monthly statement came in the mail. She thought that was a skill that would serve me well as an adult, and it did.

But those checking accounts had their limitations. Say you had plans for Saturday night, and figured you’d need $40 for dinner and a movie (things were much less expensive then). The bank wasn’t open on Saturday, so you had to think ahead and stop by the bank on Friday to cash a check. If you forgot, you were pretty much out of luck, unless a merchant, or Mom and Dad, trusted you enough to honor a check.

When my wife and I were young parents living paycheck to paycheck, we were delighted when our bank came out with ATM cards so you could get money from their machine 24/7. It was convenient. It simplified life. We called it the Magic Money Machine because you put the card in and bucks came out.

The Magic Money Machine at our bank had one other wonderful feature. The technology was in its infancy, and for some reason, every time we made a withdrawal, it added the amount to our account instead of subtracting it. It took a while for us to notice this (statements only came once a month), but when we deduced the pattern and saw that our withdrawals had put an extra $250 in our account, we went to the bank to tell them what was happening.

They took a look and told us nothing was wrong. When it got to $500, we went to the bank, spoke to an officer and asked her to audit our account. She did, and told us nothing was wrong. When it got to $1,200 about a year later, we went back to the bank again, and asked for another audit. They told us nothing was wrong.

“Then what should we do?” we asked.

“We don’t know; it’s your money,” they said.

What would you do? The guy who writes the ethics column for The New York Times would say that if you withdraw the money, you should donate it to charity. We spent it on rent.

There were never any repercussions, although the glitch stopped enriching us shortly after we took the money out. I don’t know if what we did was even legal, but I’ve never felt particularly guilty about it.

In the years since, banks have added a lot of other services to make our lives simpler. Debit cards meant that not only could we get our money whenever we wanted, we didn’t have to write checks for most purchases anymore. Online bill paying meant we had the option of making payments we chose immediately. The ability to link accounts meant we could tie our account to those of our kids — which was great when they were in school. We could put an extra 50 bucks in their account in the blink of an eye (it also gave us a way to keep an eye on what they were spending their money on, but don’t tell them we did it).

The beauty was that most of these services were free, or close to it. And we came to expect that it would always remain so, until the end of time. It’s sort of like online news content. People are used to getting it

for free, and news providers have a devil of a time getting them to pay even a nominal fee — even though deep down most of us believe there is a value to the products.

That’s why I’ve been so perplexed over all the outrage over the news that Bank of America will soon start charging customers $5 a month to use their debit cards. Lots of customers have threatened to close their accounts and move to another bank, but before too long, those banks will start charging fees as well. Just look at what’s happened in the airline industry.

With some companies we purchase products and services from, it’s relatively easy to disengage if they do something we don’t like. When Netflix announced last summer that it was raising its monthly fee dramatically and would charge for video streaming instead of giving it away, over a million customers closed their accounts and moved elsewhere.

But it’s not as easy to switch banks. In our family, all of the money coming into our accounts arrives via direct deposit. If we change banks, there’s paperwork involved in changing those direct deposits. I’m not even sure how to contact some of these payers, and the process of switching is a mystery. Not only that, but it takes time, and the potential for screw-ups is extreme. Every company we’ve established online payment accounts with would need to be contacted. More time spent on administration.

Then there’s the line of credit we’ve got with our bank, and the linked accounts we still maintain. What about those? Thankfully, our bank doesn’t hold our mortgage, or the switchover would be even more time consuming. It would be like getting a divorce.

All to save $5 a month? When you think it over rationally, it just doesn’t make sense. The convenience is well worth that fee. Maybe if it goes to $25 a month, or $50, I won’t feel the same way. In the meantime, I console myself with the knowledge that it will take a while to add up to the $1,200 we’re ahead.

Gregory Bean is the former executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.