Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Banks Back in Charge

Originally written 2/13/11

I am a man of more than a few credit cards, and a history of having more than average amounts of plastic. Really the cause was not my need for credit but those introductory offers and the points they offer for simple transactions. The credit card company might give me 2 free hotel nights if I acquire their card and use it a time or two. Sounds good, OK. Or perhaps they will give me a 50 dollar gift card, or 10 percent off of a department store purchase. Ummm. OK. So I use them, collect points or whatever, and I pay each card off completely by the end of the month. Some become my regular cards, and some not. I even pay them off several times a month just to make sure I know just how much money is in my bank account and how much is outstanding. Online payments make this process very easy. Somehow my mind works differently from many other folks I know. When I charge something I expect I'll be paying for it very soon. If I go into debt, I expect I'll be paying a lot more than the purchase price in front of me. So, unless it's an important investment, I don't go into debt to buy something. It seems easy enough to understand but people vote who do not understand these things, thus, our country is operating as if it is in that cycle just before bankruptcy where one borrows just to pay the interest. And we don't even get points for charging it.

When I buy something, no matter how small with a credit card, I sense I will have to pay for it very soon. It helps to wean oneself entirely off the paper money. It's unsanitary anyway. I admire people who use debit cards, but there is no profit in that. At least they pay it off without interest. But if it weren't for the fact that money is physically dirty, why would a person use "pointless" debit cards?

This way of thinking comes from the skinflint in me. The penny pinching inner me came naturally. My mother helped me to understand that frugality was necessary in life. She lived through the first, less organized financial collapse. As with many of my mother's teachings I veered away from them as I got too smart for my dockers only to be jerked back to reality by some event. In the big learning lesson, I had spent all my savings, I had nothing, and I learned fully exactly what I needed to learn. I was not rich, I could not have everything I wanted and if I was ever going to have a modicum of anything I wanted, I had better get this financial act together.

The other lesson that I learned from being on my own (which is a digression itself) was in the fact that dust had an existence beyond the hypothetical. My mother had kept our home spotless. I found that something was wrong with the apartment I now lived in. It was an odd apartment being originally designed as an apartment for roommates. The original setup had two doors, one for each roommate to enter unobtrusively. This apartment had two bedrooms with on suite bathrooms and there was a shared area in the middle with a living room and kitchen. It would be ideal for roommates each having their separate entrance and the ability to block off the private areas of their bathroom and bedroom. Yes, it was an awesome idea whose time had apparently not come. Man's inhumanity to man apparently caused many problems with renting these units. So, the apartment management decided to split the units in a messy divorce. One party received a full one bedroom apartment while the other party received a bedroom a closet and a bathroom and no control over the thermostat. Because of this shared thermostat, the apartment management was gracious enough include the electricity as a fixed part of the rent, alimony for the poor soul with no kitchen.

The cheapness of my side of the structure, bedroom bath closet combo, aptly named a "hotel room," was oddly one of the contributing factors to my financial downfall. My first experience with real life, my first home away from my parents, was a fantasy of being flush with money due to my cheap living arrangements, a full scholarship to college, a vacuous personal life, a part time job, and a student grant from the government called BEOG, now called Pell grants that are not nearly as generous. Life would not be this monetarily kind to me for many many years until finally I retired from my first job.

Yet. somehow, something was wrong with my cozy little hotel room. I couldn't put my finger on it, then I did and it came up dusty. Dust was appearing everywhere. It was on my TV, it was on my furniture. My first thought was the shared central air conditioning as there always seemed to be a temperature problem. But no, my neighbors didn't appear to be sanding furniture all day. As time went by, I realized something significant about life. It was dusty. All the time my mother had spent dusting the house wasn't because she had nothing to do. Even when she was sick she dusted, I guess. It was always a spotless dust free house. I just took it for granted that life was this way. Just as I took my bizarre income and outflow pattern as a standard.

This positive cash flow was not to be my future. Later I crashed by extending myself well beyond my means monetarily and emotionally. I learned the hard way as I pulled myself up with a full time job and a full time class schedule. Never again would I think myself invincible. The fun I had had spending money was tragic really. So, I learned rapidly about interest on car loans, and interest on credit card debt. Soon it became a battle against all debt because it didn't take me long to see that interest on my debt was buying nothing. Once I took out a student loan, just so I could buy a bed. The interest was small and it was an investment that would give years of service. I fought hard against credit card interest, hardly ever running a balance. Thus, I became a skinflint.

Recently, I have noticed a bit of a pattern to my physical mail. Since putting my name on the "Do Not Mail" list, many things have been weeded out. Some things not so much. I guess it's similar to the "Do Not Call" list that keeps the phone pretty quiet except for people trying to collect money from the person who previously owned the phone number. If we knew where Christa was, we would tell you, I promise. And then there are the robocalls, which are mostly political and nasty. It's hard to believe anyone has the right to telephone me and call someone else names and basically accuse them of crimes like rape and child molestation on a tape recording, but political people must have an out. If only they would talk to me, I'd be happy to straighten them out that they didn't seem to care about these crimes until just before the election, and I don't vote for people like that. Silly of them.

Despite the amount of mail weeded out from being on the elite Do Not Mail list, I still get things and because of the general lack of clutter, I see patterns. Clearly organizations like AARP are not worth giving money to. They waste it in direct mailings to make more money. It's kind of a one person victim mailing ponzi scheme. They take your money then they try to gain more money with it by mailing you more things. If you buy more things, they mail even more offers. I only gave to AARP because of their courageous stand on health care reform. Now they seem as sleazy as the health insurance companies.

I have to digress here despite the fact that this whole entry is a digression. Maybe I should call this journal "Michael's Digressing Blog." My amiable blog could be called "Michael's Much Less Depressing Blog." But, digress I will to include a humorous incident about financial guys. Wanda has a nice new car. It is truly awesome. But because it is so awesomely new, she doesn't want me to put our lifetime subscription Sirius radio in it. The radio has all those wires for the antenna, and power and audio, etc. So I inherited the radio in my car. It is wonderful. I wondered what listening to CNBC radio would be like after the collapse had taken them completely unawares. Here is the single most ironic thing I have ever heard. I can't find a transcript online but I'll quote as closely as I can. "Bernie Madoff has called the entire government a Ponzi scheme. What does it say when Bernie Maddoff calls what you're doing a Ponzi scheme?" Replies from co-hosts all coming at the same time were inaudible, but insistent, as this wise pundit continues and talks over them to say, "Bernie Madoff has credibility in Ponzi schemes." Imagine this: Bernie Madoff had credibility in this guy's world. People like Berni Madoff are just entrepreneurs and pioneers of new strategies to this guy. Proficiency in lying creates credibility about lying.  Next they went to commercial and I had to go to work where I didn't cheat people, my own knowledge of Ponzi schemes a little less credible because I was not running one.

During the campaign I gave money to candidates Barack Obama and Al Franken. These were certainly no mistakes in charitable giving. I helped elect the best president I have seen in my lifetime and oddly, the 60th vote in the Senate to help health care reform pass. My money could have been parceled out no more wisely. I'm especially proud of the Al Franken victory, delayed though it was by lawsuit after lawsuit, I had helped influence those few votes that put him over the top. Me personally. Al said so. :)  After this I received no wasteful physical mail fundraising efforts, it was all done by comparatively free email. The one piece of physical mail I can remember was an invitation to the inauguration. Of course, the whole country was invited, but it was nice to have a keepsake and it was much appreciated.

However, back to my physical mail pattern, I'm really strict about charitable giving. I do nothing through the mail because, as it bothered my father before me, so it bothers me now that charities waste so much money on direct mail advertising. I'm sure it pulls in the big numbers. But anonymous money in a Salvation Army bucket at Christmas time surely is used better than gifts I might give that are wasted on soliciting me endlessly by mail.

As I get more and more physical mail, the patterns develop. I can trace many letters to a single mistake. After the inauguration I was email solicited by "President Obama" to give money to a charity or give of my time on the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. But it was a link to a third party charity website. They asked my address and put me on a mailing list. Liberal causes and even a few not so liberal causes like the NRA solicit incessantly. My original donation is dwarfed by their expenditures on just mailing to me alone. It seems the smart thing to do would be to give some insignificant amount to the charity you are against, and watch them spend their other members' donations on your non patronage. This wasteful mail is coming with less frequency over time as I never reply with money. My strict code is finally making headway.

A major pattern has occurred with AT&T. They send a bimonthly mailing (like clockwork) with the same exact correspondence -- to the word. It always says that someone at AT&T has analyzed my account and has found a way to save me money, (which actually would cost me much more money because they are not considering my bundled Internet.) AT&T is one of the worst organized companies I have ever dealt with. They might send you to 10 different people in one phone call and still not fix your billing problem. It is unreal. Many of the customer service reps will sympathize with you but they have no solution to your problem, just another person to try. The letter coming on a regular basis with no change in wording clearly states that someone has been analyzing my account and is signed by that person. Perhaps there is a bank of bill analyzers that is sending me and other customers letters every other month, each one not knowing what the other is doing, but I doubt it. Why the same wording? If the last 30 (they have sent this letter for years) have not worked on me, what is the chance the next one will work with the wording exactly the same as the last failed 30 attempts? Plus my bill must include a cost for their inefficient direct mailing. And finally, do they think this helps their reputation? One lie after another, or one lie over and over again as it were, just to try to get me to increase the amount of money they can siphon from me. It's not much of a leap for me to feel they are not just being capitalistic in their game, but being plain shysters. My trust of the moral values of their company is less than zero at this point.

AT&T mailings are like having a subscription to a magazine that has only one issue to mail out over and over. Direct-TV is the next worst. They send me a monthly solicitations but they change ever so slightly each time. So, even though they are monthly they seem to be slightly more relevant than AT&T's. Credit card solicitations go in waves. I assume this has something to do with my presumed credit worthiness based somehow on the fact that my name is in a lot of databases with my many historical credit cards. Or they might be patterned upon seasonal factors relating to their rising and falling need for debtors.

Credit card mailings have various patterns but the one that completely disturbs me. so much so that I wrote this rambling narrative is the recent influx of "checks" from the credit card companies. I remember this barrage from the past but not the post economic apocalyptic past. Every credit card, every last one it seems, has sent me these fake checks in the last few months. They are actually "cash advances" disguised as checks. Surely most of us know this by now. I fell for it just once when I was in my "hotel room." Thankfully it was a small amount and I cleaned it up in a month or two so I was back to interest free charging. I just remember "Never again will they fool me" as my lesson. Since then, credit card companies have probably wasted enough postage and materials to send me these checks to buy a large screen TV or two or three. Someone must be falling for these predatory lending practices or I wouldn't be getting this many. Even with their reduced mailing fees, charities are getting wind that I'm not responding, but the credit card companies sent me bundles of these things lately.

My resurgence of anger with them is directly correlated with the resurgence of these tactical mailings. I am guessing the previous year's lack of these checks was a reaction to the financial collapse. They must have been looking more closely at their customers' ability to pay, needed to shore up their reserves, or feared legislation on predatory lending. Unfortunately, I doubt very much they fear much of anything now as witnessed by this tidal wave of fake checks. I'm guessing it's their recent realization that after the recent elections they are solidly back in charge.