OK, so I'm in a bad mood. Usually when I drive to work, when there are sparrows or crows or whatever in the road pecking at some crumbs, I say, "Watch out, little birds." Today I found myself saying, "Watch out, you stupid birds." At least I didn't try to run them down, although I'm feeling a bit "run over" myself.
I write a lot about poverty but I do not, generally, get into the messy details of my own life. To some degree I'm used to being broke. However recent events make a great illustration of how thin the margin for error is getting for so many people these days.
Mostly I do OK except when there are unexpected expenses such as a car suddenly needing repair. May and June's version of the unexpected was the sickness of my thirteen year old dog. Some $1,200 later, when it was clear he was suffering and wasn't going to get better, I made an appointment for a Monday to have him put to sleep. I'd used up nearly every penny left over from my previous two paychecks on his illness, so when I wrote the vet a check, I said, "This will not clear until Friday. Will you hang on to it until then?" The office manager said yes, and I put Friday's date on the check.
Low and behold, on Friday, when I checked my bank balance online, I saw that the check has been deposited on Thursday! Banknorth paid it, but that meant that three other smaller debit card purchases didn't clear. So I had $140 in overdraft fees. I checked with the vet's office, and they were apologetic, but....I called the bank, thinking that because they had honored a postdated check, I might be able to be reimbursed for those fees, only to be told that the bank will process any check submitted to them, even a postdated check.
"We stopped holding postdated checks three years ago," the man on the other end of the line told me, "and even before then, it was only a courtesy."
"And where is that information about your change in policy available?" I asked.
"The next time you're in the bank, pick up brochure #112C, and you'll see it there," he said. "Any other way I can be helpful?"
(Hey, though, I can just about guarantee that if my sister writes me a postdated check and I take it to my bank and try to cash it, the bank won't honor it!)
So OK, I don't like it, but I can handle it. This past Sunday, I had $48 in the bank, which I figured should be enough until Friday. Gee, the timing for my planned diet couldn't have been better!
Yesterday I bought a loaf of Italian bread at the supermarket and a gallon of gas at the gas station. This morning I check my bank balance to see if a clothing item I'd bought for my daughter's wedding but had to return (didn't fit me after all, part of the reason for my diet!) had been credited to my account yet, and what do I find? Apparently when my auto insurance renewed in June this year, the date on my automatic payment changed from the 21st to the 1st of the month. I called the insurance company and they were apologetic, but....."You signed a paper allowing that to happen," I was told. Yeah, I signed a bunch of papers that day, pro forma. So I'm an idiot. "Wouldn't it have been nice to point that change out to me?" I asked.
Now, if the bank had processed my deductions at the time they were made, I would have only had ONE fee, because I had enough money to cover the gas and loaf of bread. But, oh no, of course that's not the way the bank does things-- they deduct the largest expense first, no matter when it was made on that day. Why? Well, I'd guess to maximize their fees. According to a National Public Radio feature a few days ago, U.S. banks collected almost $39 billion in service charges last year, up 10% from the year before.
Now, the buck stops with me, of course, to manage my money better. I've stopped buying coffee on my way to work in the morning, and made a few other small changes, but there's just not a lot of fat in my budget.
If I had a couple thousand in savings, I could weather the unexpected expenses better-- but I don't. And I'll bet a lot of people don't. Meanwhile, in the classic "penny wise, pound foolish" mode, every few days I add power steering fluid to my car, which has a leak in the system that I can't afford to get fixed right now. I keep waiting for the landlord of the building where I work to tell me I've got to do something, as I'm ruining the parking space with leaked fluid.
All right. I'm starting to get over it. I may as well, because there's not a damn thing I can do about it! Just dig into my change for gas money this week, although the quarters are gone so I'm down to the dimes, but I'll go to the corner gas station where just about all the customers are poor and I won't have to deal with the arched eyebrow and slight sneer. And on Friday I'll get paid, and I'll have a chance to break this cycle.
Complain, complain, when at least I DO have a job and a car and a roof over my head. But it's tedious beyond belief. I'll just have to continue to suffer the joy of living in this wonderful land of opportunity where, as the song says, the rich get richer and the poor get shafted.