Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Welcome to England. Here's your fee.

I've made it to London safely, and have been settling in for about a week in my temporary residence in Greenwich. The Boy and I visited Cambridge over the weekend and found it lovely, if a bit too familiar--neither of us had been there before, but thanks to its age and geographical similarity to Canterbury we both felt automatically as though we knew our way around.

The Cam narrows to a stream around the city and over the weekend it is completely rammed with puntfuls of happy tourists being shoved along by ropey-muscled puntsmen, which was quite pleasant to watch from the apexes of Cambridge's many bridges. We thought it likely that the puntsmen are on the school rowing teams during term-time and probably just do this for extra cash in the summer. The more experienced punters went unshod and wore thin, lightweight, and quite obviously old clothing in the style of a man who is quite confident that he'll fall in at least once today. Several had dapper, buoyant straw hats that they clearly wore in preparation for a comic plunge. While we never felt the urge to take a ride on the river, the boats, surrounded by massive weeping willows, ancient halls of academia, and acres of neatly trimmed lawn made for two beautiful days of relaxed sightseeing.

And then...tragedy struck in the form of a bank card. Visa, in a disgusting foray into additional extortion, has found a new way to painfully fuck every young person who crosses the Atlantic. It's called a transaction percentage fee, and it hurts.

Back in the US I went down to my local Wachovia branch and asked what the word was on international transactions. I was told, and I quote, "if you withdraw cash, you'll get a $5 loyalty fee from Wachovia, and an additional charge of 2% of every withdrawal from Visa. Your best bet is to use your card, which has no fee, and take out as much cash as you can from the outset in order to avoid paying out too much."

What that actually meant when I got here was, "yes, there's a $5 loyalty fee for using other banks' ATMs even though we're positive there's no Wachovias within 5,000 miles of you, and on top of that, Visa charges 3% on every transaction INCLUDING withdrawals. No matter what, every time I spend a cent, Visa takes a nibble. By the time I'd figured that out (because the fees didn't show up on my statement until about four days after the transactions) I'd given Visa $20 of my hard-earned low-value savings. (the pound is sitting at about $1.60--quite nice compared to my undergrad average of $1.97 but it still means my money is cheap).

Now, fun thing. When I found this out I ran to my nearest British bank and said "account me now" and they said "oh, actually, we need a letter from your school, written to our bank, saying that you're a student and confirming your address." "But I have two letters here from my school that the border agency accepted, and my passport, which has a shiny year and a half student entry clearance in it that even has my picture on it, and on your website this was all and exactly what was required for the type of account I want." "well, sorry, but these are the rules." "not according to your website. I would like to formally request that you update it to reflect your actual policy." "I'll see what can be done." "I'm positive you won't. But never mind. You want me to write a letter to my school telling them my address so they can write a letter to you with the same address on it." "Yes." "That's moronic."

So I went and got a letter written, then went up to school the following day to pick it up. It had been left at reception and the whole process of getting it took about eight seconds. Thank you Central. I then enjoyed a one-hour wait at the bank to be seen at all, then an additional chunk of waiting after I began my meeting with a bank representative who wasn't at all sure if the letter, the passport, the visa, and my presence in the bank were sufficient proofs of ID for their purposes.

Now I'd just like to establish that my first week of my undergraduate career put a foul taste in my mouth for banks and credit companies' student-geared promotional materials. Thousands of my classmates were roped into signing up for credit cards with eye-crushing interest rates by smiling, pretty girls who handed out free* t-shirts emblazoned with funny slogans, cell phones, pizza discounts, beer, bottle openers, beer coozies, and chances to win big! in raffles for cars, vacations, and cash prizes. Thousands of these ignorant kids then found themselves drowning in debt within months to companies that were suddenly short on smiling pretty girls after they failed to realize that credit is not free money, or even cheap money. After years of paying off one card with another and spiraling into alcoholism-inducing poverty many students dropped out of school, signed up for credit counseling, managed to consolidate and pay off their debts, only to find that their credit score was still so low they couldn't even find an apartment, much less a new student loan, and moved back in with their parents. All for free t-shirts that brandished cute sayings like "chick magnet" and "my other ride is your sister."

I don't trust free shit for students.

So imagine my distaste when I discovered that the only account for which I qualify is one that smells horribly of student rip-off. It has a fee, has no financial benefits, but it offers me great perks like 2 for 1 movie tickets! (i hate the movies), 25% off big shows! (like Madonna concerts...right. yeah, I'll use that. Willingly.) cell phone insurance! (why on earth are you offering that? Don't trust it.) Gadget cover! (yeah, I've gotten tech replacement policies before. The ones that end on "if technology has moved on since you bought it and it's obsolete by a month and it's not really easy for us to replace you can buy a new one for $700 and we'll give you $50 after a few years and consequently repeal our gadget cover policy." After reading the fine print I typically opt out.) and a variety of other pointless bells and whistles that have nothing whatsoever to do with banking!

So, can one opt out of the pay-for-play bells and whistles? No. And to add insult to injury, not only did I have to concede that I'd pay £6.95 a month for the honor of a UK bank investing my money as they see fit, but I had to go through a form with an accounts manager while we discussed which of the perks I would find most valuable. I said none, seriously dude, I don't want any of this, I just want a safe place to put my loan disbursements, and still he persisted. What about the mobile phone cover? You could lose it, break it, have it stolen, doesn't matter... I picked up my 6 year old green-screened torchphone that I've been borrowing from my boy. "There is no point in insuring an object that has no value." "Well if you get a new phone?" "I'm happy with it." "But if." "But if. Fine." "Great! See, for just 6.95 a month you'll get this and all these other features--2 for 1 cinema tickets--"i hate the cinema." "Oh come on, everyone loves the cinema!" "I hate it. I can't justify to myself paying $10 for 3 cents worth of popcorn just to sit in a sticky seat and watch a brainless sequence of explosions." "Naw, everyone loves the cinema! You can take your boyfriend!" "My boyfriend is too smart to drag me into an expensive, foul-smelling crowd." "See? That's worth £72 over the course of a year! So I'll just tick that off." "I said I didn't want it." "You'll want it." I then punched him in the ear.

Okay, well, maybe I didn't quite punch him in the ear. I did remind him that I'd looked through the perks online and did not find myself wanting any of them. He eventually lowered his voice and said "Look, I know, and I'm sorry, but I'm contractually obligated to go through this form with you and check off a few things that you value, for the marketing department." "That's dishonest." "It's just part of it. You have to pay for the account anyway because you're international. I'm not saying its right or fair, but every bank does it and this is among the cheaper ones. It's still cheaper than paying Visa every time you need money." Just now I pay you.

Defeated, I signed the forms. A tiny demon danced across the desk, giggling and gyrating its pelvis at me.

Looks like I'm sold. Alas. On a brighter note, my southern reserve and sweet tolerance when it comes to imbeciles and dishonesty have fallen off, the upshot of which is that I've been feeling better about myself after my encounters with bureaucracy. I've come to feel far more comfortable calling shenanigans, declaring the unacceptable, and standing my ground than ever before. I'm so tired of being taken advantage of and kicked around by the sweet-sounding mouthpieces of big business and big government. You ain't so innocent, sister--you work for these people, you know exactly what you represent, so when you lie, I'm going to call you on it. I am done being patient and courteous. That route has gotten me nowhere.

Asshole time it is.

*to qualified applicants (not first-time applicants with no credit rating) for the first 3 months, then 17% APR compounded monthly thereafter. Maximum credit begins at $2,000, with the option to extend after the first 3 months. Any balance of greater than $2,000 after the first 3 months will be considered an informal credit limit expansion request and the APR shall be raised to 19% . . . .

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Re: A Cohabitation Update

To Kim's Kitchen Sink:

I would grow weary of monthly budget sit-downs, itemized chore rosters, and high-lighted question marks next to tubs of ice cream that were technically for both of you but only one person ate. Indeed, I think that sort of policy of stringent household equivocation would drive my Boy screaming from the house. He is much more content with the "thump" policy--that is, if I require him to clean, fix, or pay for something, I thump him on the forehead. But maybe you and your Boy will find that refreshing, to get everything aired out and back to even on a regular basis, and it wouldn't require you to be constantly responsible for his actions. This all is, of course, up to you.

That said, if you're happy to go the on-paper, every cent tallied route, I think there's some considerations you should take in before you agree to any financial or tidiness-related "fairness campaign":

-who earns more? S/he should feel comfortable throwing down more for rent, utils, and chow.
-who's home more? S/he should feel comfortable cleaning and maintaining more.
(if these spots are filled by the same person...well la-tee-frickin-da, good for him or her.)
-who is more likely to generate a mess that does not benefit the other? if you bake a pie by yourself for both of you to eat, it is appropriate for Boy to at least help cleaning up all the mixing bowls. if you bake a pie and don't share, you clean up for yourself. If he takes his bike apart on the living room floor to grease it and you walk through an hour later and trip over a spoked wheel, you have a right to kick him.
-Does either party enjoy cleaning? Will one person get upset if s/he begins to clean and the other doesn't snap-to to help? Does one party clean things that aren't actually dirty, or does one party fail to see filth? If that's the case, only a verbal instruction (paired with a thumping) is going to get you anywhere anyway.
-Who is better at budgeting? Who actually gets the fingerprints off the wine glasses? If you tend to forget to pay the rent, perhaps you should entrust the budgeting and fiscal scheduling with him. If, try as he might, he still manages to turn your socks pink, perhaps you should do the laundry. If you are actually better at all of these things than him, perhaps its time to teach the dork how to wash a dish, and tattoo due-dates on his arms.

Writing checks to each other actually sounds like what divorced people do, not people who really want to live together and make things work. Remember--as long as both people are aware and remember to pay on a regular basis, most equivocation will come out in the wash. If after a few months you're finding that fiscal fairness is not being upheld, there's no crime in opening a joint bank account that you can both throw into without being married, or even planning on marriage.

If you feel you need to set up a chore wheel or stick grocery receipts to the refrigerator, it's an indicator that you don't actually trust him to do his part. While you've been off-paper living together for a while now, I don't think you've had a fair chance to see what he's able and willing to do on his own. If he proves incompetent, negligent, or unwilling to contribute to any set of responsibilities, then you should bust out the cardstock and thumbtacks as a last resort before kicking the bastard out. But give yourselves a chance to see how your natural inclinations mesh.