School of Hard Knocks: Banking
Welcome to School of Hard Knocks: a series that looks back critically on the things we’ve done, haven’t done, and wished we’d done. This isn’t about regret or victim-hood. It’s about sharing gained-knowledge that hopefully helps someone out there take away tools that they didn’t have before. Because the hard is way is hard.
The year was 2005. I ruled the accessories sales floor in my first job, a part-time gig at Gottschalks, a department store that catered to women 75+. I schmoozed with them daily, “oh Charlotte, that gold pendant bracelet pulls out your fiery red hair and the blue in your eyes.” I didn’t understand money. At this point I was still using dogpile.com to conduct internet searches, Google wasn’t a verb yet, and crying during an ask for a raise was my norm. What I knew about banks was similar to what I knew about money: I knew I needed it, I knew that it would make my life easier, and I didn’t know where to start.
Enter two bankers onto my accessories floor empire. Wearing black suits that look to be purchased on a whim to fit within the standards of “corporate business attire”. They approach me confidently and I know that my fate is left to be sold into something.
“Hi miss, we’re with Wells Fargo. Are you currently using a bank account for direct deposit?”
I want to break down this exact moment with you. I’m 15 years old at my first job, equipped with little to no education on personal finances. I come from a middle-class family where the most I knew about money was that A) it mattered and B) there seemed to never be enough of it. I saw bankruptcy at a young age, quite possibly my first memory of money ever. I saw my family fight over money. It was a constant source of friction among immediate and distant family. Most of all, I saw that money was a solution that could put a band-aid on other problems that were more complicated to deal with.
“No, but I’d like to learn more.”
I ultimately chose Wells Fargo because they got to me first. The reality is, anyone could have gotten to me first. However, it’s been almost a two-decade relationship of fees, false credit bureau reporting, and bare minimum customer service. Wells Fargo was one of the banks that three years later would require federal bailouts due to irresponsible investments. They were ultimately the bank that took my parent’s home from them when they lost their jobs and couldn’t keep up with the payments any longer. And yet, after all of this, I still bank with them.
I’ve always valued the underdog. Championing the things less seen in mass culture has always been an asset and a disadvantage that has frequently left me feeling disconnected from modernity and not equipped with the right tools, opinions, and mentality to function in the real world. What I knew about banks did not fit into this narrative, so why have I chosen to participate with businesses like Wells Fargo and Bank of America for so long?
This question is two-fold. Digging holes and hiding gold bars in your backyard isn’t practical. Payday loan centers to cash-out checks and access quick money aren’t always ethical for the person borrowing. Banking isn’t evil, but consumers aren’t equipped with the right tools to make big decisions like where they’ll bank and pay fees, possibly for the rest of their life.
I strive on being a resourceful person, but the reality is, we don’t know what we don’t know. If you don’t know that there’s a better option, you largely don’t question what’s right in front of you.
I wish I knew there were banks and credit unions that would invest in my community instead of depleting (what’s always felt like) minimal resources from my bank account without giving me a chance to do right or be better. I wish I knew there were banks that would warn me about account fees instead of encouraging them, foster my growth, and educate me rather than take advantage of me. I wish I knew that as a consumer, the most powerful thing I could do economically and socially is to decide where I spend and keep my money.
While I didn’t know then, I know now.
Now as a transition out of Wells Fargo, I’ve moved onto a credit union. One that treats me like a human even though I don’t have a ton to offer them in my account. They understand potential rather than the immediate.
I wish I knew that not all banks are created the same and that as a human, but I had a choice to participate in something better.