What a Difference a Bank Makes

Service I can count on.

After too many years banking with Bank of America and, before that, Wells Fargo, I finally moved my personal and business banking to a small, local bank in the small city near where I live. The difference is amazing.

I should start off by saying that when I opened my bank accounts at Bank of America in Wickenburg, Arizona, I got incredible personalized service from one of the bank officers, Mary. I’m not sure if it’s because of the number of accounts my wasband and I opened or some of the balances I maintained, but I like to think it was just the local branch’s way of doing business. Whenever I went into the bank — which wasn’t very often — I was greeted by name by the banker I worked with most often. If she wasn’t busy, we often chatted. When I needed something — for example, an increase on my home-equity line of credit —  she handled it immediately at her desk with a minimum amount of effort on my part. Banking was easy and that’s why I stuck with Bank of America for as long as I did.

But things change. 

When the economy tanked in 2008, banking with Bank of America changed too. The first thing they did was try to recall the home-equity line of credit that my wasband and I often depended on to meet shortfalls in income — me, because of the nature of my quarterly royalty payments (my only source of income at the time), and him, because of his periodic inability to hold down a job. I went to the bank to talk to my usual banker and she told me that her hands were tied. Instead of working with her, I was forced to work with the loan department people in the corporate office, providing them with documents to prove the amount of equity we had in our almost paid-for house. It was extremely stressful, although it did work out satisfactorily, with a reduction in the credit line that still met our needs. At least they hadn’t closed the account. 

After that, banking at Bank of America seem to have all kinds of additional fees and requirements and the friendly atmosphere that I had enjoyed for so many years was gone. Mary left and I felt as if I no longer had a banker. The only thing that kept me banking there was the convenience of their free online banking services and iPhone app. But later, when I moved to Washington state and they closed down all of the Washington branches in my area, it became a real ordeal to make deposits during my busy summer months when I often exceeded the total amount I could deposit using the bank’s iPhone app.

Bank of America wasn’t changing so I’d have to.

I found Peoples Bank when I was out in Wenatchee searching for a specialized signature confirmation document I needed for some divorce-related paperwork. With the local Bank of America branches closed, I found myself at a loss for getting these papers signed and sent out. I had a nice conversation with the bank manager at Peoples and was impressed by the friendly atmosphere that was so similar to what I’d experienced at my local Bank of America branch in Wickenburg all those years before. 

A few months later, when I was ready to move to a new bank, I went back to Peoples. Although the bank manager I’d spoken to was gone, a customer service representative, Selene, stepped right up to help me. She’s been my banker ever since. She’s friendly and enthusiastic and although I’m not in the bank very often — I use the ATM to make deposits — she always greets me by name when I come in. I opened four accounts (two business and two personal) and love how easy it is to move money between them and pay all my bills online. Their banking app isn’t quite as good as Bank of America’s, but it’s good enough.

And now comes the reason why I’m writing this blog post today. 

Helicopter in Overhaul
After three months in the shop, Zero-Mike-Lima’s overhaul was nearly done when I visited it two weeks ago. I pick it up on Monday.

I’m in California preparing for my seasonal frost control job in the Sacramento area. I moved my truck and camper to the airport where I’ll be based for the next two months. On Monday, I fly back to Phoenix to pick up my helicopter, which is just coming out of its 12 year overhaul. To pick up the helicopter, I needed to make a final payment to the maintenance shop and they wanted that payment sent to them by wire transfer.

There are no Peoples Bank branches here in California and I couldn’t imagine, at first, how I could make a wire transfer — for a significant amount of money — without filling out forms at my bank. But I called Selene and after a quick hello-how-are-you conversation, told her what I needed. She told me that because I was a good customer and that she knew me and my voice, she could handle the wire transfer for me. She would just need to do a few security checks that could be handled over the phone. She asked me to send her an email message with the information for the wire transfer, including the recipient, wire instructions, and amount. Since I had a copy of the form for the last wire transfer I had done with her to the same maintenance shop, I sent that along as well. She called me back a while later, we did the security stuff, and she did the transfer for me. The whole process took less than an hour.

Needless to say, I was very pleased.

In my opinion, there’s no substitute for banking with people that you know. For a very long time, I kept my personal savings in an online bank — ING Direct, which became Capital One 360 — account, mostly because I was able to earn very good interest there. (For a while, it was 8%!) It was always a hassle to move my money from one bank to another and that didn’t get any easier when my local bank branches simply weren’t available anymore. The days of high interest on savings are long gone, so it makes sense to keep my money together in one bank. The added benefit is having multiple accounts that help establish me as a good bank customer that, in turn, helps me get the service I need when I need it.

I guess what I’m trying to say with all this is that there’s nothing quite as pleasant or convenient as having a personal banker in a small, local bank that meets your needs.

On Being Elite

A few thoughts about the use of “elite” as some sort of slur.

The other day, I was accused by a troll on Twitter of being part of the “rich elite” because I owned a helicopter and went south for the winter.

I think I was supposed to be insulted. I wasn’t. You see, I’m not ashamed of what I am or what I do with my time and money. I earned all of my possessions and my lifestyle.

Don’t believe me? Read on.

The only things I had going for me at birth was that I was born in the United States, I was white, and I had a good brain.

My parents were not rich. In fact, when my father left us when I was about 13, my mother very nearly applied for welfare. Our financial situation qualified me for free lunch at school; every day, I’d go to the school office and retrieve a small kraft envelope with 65¢ in it — government money to pay for my cafeteria lunch. I’d spend as little as possible and save the rest. When I got home from school, I babysat my younger sister and baby brother while my mother worked as a waitress to put food — mostly hot dogs and pasta — on the table. My grandmother would bring us groceries once in a while and slip my mother a $20 bill to help out.

I started working at age 13 when I got a paper route. I delivered the Bergen Evening Record after school on weekdays and the Sunday Record before 7 AM on Sundays. There were 54 homes on my route, which I had to walk, and I netted 20¢ plus tips per week per house. In those days — the mid 1970s — 10¢ was considered a generous tip; many of the homes did not tip at all. Collection day — Wednesday — was unusually long since I had to stop at every single house to try to get paid. One Wednesday in September, which coincided with the first day of school, my mother used my collection money to pay for our school supplies because she wouldn’t have money until payday.

Our financial situation qualified me for a summer job working at the high school. With three other girls, all a year or two older than me, I scraped rust off an old chain link fence that ran between the school property and the railroad tracks. The wire brushes we used had to be replaced every few days because the bristles would fall out. The gloves they gave us did little to prevent huge blisters on our hands. When it rained, they let us into the school where we went from classroom to classroom, washing the venetian blinds. The wash water had to be changed every 30 minutes or so because the blinds had likely never been cleaned before.

My mother remarried and I won’t deny that my blue collar stepfather brought us quite a few steps up from our dismal financial situation. I got a chance to see some of the better things in life. He took us to museums and restaurants with real cloth napkins. I stayed in a hotel for the first time in my life at age 15. I was even able to accompany my grandparents on a trip to visit family in Germany. And, for the first time, I started thinking about college.

College was possible with two academic achievement scholarships, financial contributions from my parents (they each paid 1/3 of the net after scholarships were deducted from tuition), and a school loan. And work. At one point I held down three part-time jobs while handling a 15 or 18 credit load. I worked hard to maintain good grades and got a BBA with highest honors in Accounting in four years. I was the first person in my family to attend and graduate from college.

Within two weeks of graduation, I got my own apartment. I paid rent and utilities and furnished it with my own money. It was in a rough neighborhood and a few of my friends didn’t like to come visit. My mother bought me a sewing machine as a graduation gift and I used it to make about half the clothes that I wore to work, so I could look nice without spending a fortune.

I started my first job right away: an auditor with the New York City Comptrollers Office. In just two years, at the age of 22, I became the youngest person promoted to Field Audit Supervisor.  After five years with the city, I started a new job with ADP in New Jersey.  I did my time in the Audit Department before becoming a Senior Financial Analyst working on special projects directly for the CFO.

By the age of 29, I was earning more money per year than my father ever had. But that didn’t stop me from leaving my job to pursue an uncertain career that was more in line with what I wanted to do for a living: write. I built a career as a tech writer and computer trainer from the ground up. I was completely self-taught and worked without an agent. I wrote books and led hands-on computer training classes all over the country. I quickly learned that I needed to write a lot of books to make a living so that’s what I did. When I was on a book project, I’d work 10-12 hour days, 7 days a week. I wrote books and articles and eventually authored video training courses. I was very good at what I did and it paid off: within 10 years, I had two bestsellers; their periodic revisions were bestsellers, too.

By the age of 40, I was earning more money than I’d ever thought possible, but instead of pissing it away on a bigger house or fancier car, I socked money away for retirement and invested in rental properties: a condo, a house, a small apartment building. And between book projects, I learned how to fly helicopters.

And yes, I did buy a helicopter. Why not? It was my money that I had earned through my efforts. I had covered all my other financial responsibilities and set aside enough money for my future. Why shouldn’t I invest in something that would make me happy?

I flew as often as I could and started a helicopter business to help bring in some extra revenue to cover costs. I managed the fuel concession at the local airport. I became an aeronautical chart dealer and ran a small pilot shop. I worked for a season as a pilot for a Grand Canyon tour operator. I sold that first helicopter and bought a slightly larger one. I jumped through hoops with the FAA to get required certifications for charter work. I created advertising material, maintained a website, handled social networking needs, did all the accounting, met with clients, did local and long distance flights. I networked with other pilots about other flying jobs.

All while still writing up to 10 books and dozens of articles a year for my publishers.

When tech publishing went into decline, I ramped up my flying work. I got contracts to do agricultural work in Washington state during the summer. I’d live in a trailer, working on various book projects, waiting for a call to fly, for two to three months every summer. Over the years, I built up the number of contracts I had until I couldn’t handle them all alone; then I brought in other pilots with helicopters to help me, managing work and billing for as many as four subcontactors every season.

I was 52 when the man I’d spent more than half my life with decided he needed a mommy to hold his hand while he watched TV every night more than a life partner to actually enjoy life with. He tried to take half of everything I owned in our divorce, but I fought back to keep what was rightfully mine, what I’d earned through my own efforts while he floundered, failing at one job after another. I went into the fight with a war chest of cash I’d saved while he was pissing his money away on a plane he never flew, a Mercedes he didn’t need, and a condo that was sucking him dry financially. His greed, harassment, and courtroom lies didn’t score many points with the judge and he wound up paying me and his lawyers far more than he could have spent if he’d settled for my offer. His downfall is a great example of someone getting what he deserves.

I’ve spent the last four and a half years rebuilding my life in a new place, working hard to build my flying business, expanding into other work in California and now possibly Arizona. I don’t write much anymore, but I make a good living with the helicopter the Twitter troll I mentioned at the top of this piece criticized. I’ve learned how to take my skills and assets and turn them into money. And unlike so many other people, I live within my means. Yes, I go south for the winter, but it’s not as if I’m living it up in some fancy condo or hotel. I’m roughing it in an RV often parked out in the desert. 

It's Mine
Just about everything I own was bought and paid for with money that I earned through my efforts. Why shouldn’t I be proud of that?

I worked hard and smart and I succeeded. Is there any reason I should be ashamed of that?

So yeah, if making a good living and owning a helicopter and wintering in the south makes me part of the “rich elite,” I’m okay with that. I earned it.

And to the people who troll me with their jealousy-driven comments: What’s your excuse for being a loser?

Banking Stupidity

Yesterday’s snafu, which cost me about 3 hours of my life.

I hate when things don’t work the way they should — or even the way you’re led to believe they should. That bit me yesterday and caused a time suck for me. Here’s the story.

I recently moved all my banking to a local bank with branches throughout the state. I was tired of dealing with the mobile app deposit limits imposed by my business and personal banks (BofA and CapitalOne 360 respectively), neither of which had local branches. I figured that having all my accounts in one bank would make it easier for me to do my banking. And I found a bank I really liked, one where I was greeted with enthusiasm when I walked in and gave me service beyond my expectations. One with the online banking, bill pay, and banking by mobile app features that I needed to simplify my financial chores.

All Accounts in One Place
How refreshing to be able to see and work with all of my bank accounts in one place.

I set up the business accounts first and then the personal ones. To access all of my accounts via online banking, they set me up with their Business Manager system. I could see and work with all of my accounts (two checking and two savings) with one login. I could even easily (and immediately) transfer funds between accounts to handle surpluses and shortfalls in my checking accounts. All good so far.

I immediately set up my bill pay information for business and personal bills. I even set up e-bills and auto-pay, which would automatically pay bills on time without me having to remember to set up a payment. I’ve used this capability with online banking for years and it’s a great tool for anyone with a busy life, especially if you travel as often as I do. When I set this up, I was very careful to use the correct checking account for each payee — business bills to be paid from my business account and personal bills to be paid from my personal account.

So imagine my surprise when I got a letter from Premera Blue Cross saying they’d rejected my premium payment because they don’t allow payments from business accounts.

I wasted about 15 minutes confirming that I’d set up the autopay to pay from the correct account. I had.

I wasted another 5 minutes confirming that the payment that had been sent in September was sent from the correct account. It was.

I then spent a total of 30 minutes on the phone with Premera, most of which was on hold — of course — to tell them that they were wrong, that the payment had come from a personal account. They told me that the payment instruction — this was an electronic payment — indicated that it was from “Flying M Air L.” I had to explain at least three times in three different ways that it was a personal account held in the same bank as my business account. (Being on hold for so long put me in a pissy, frustrated mood that got me shouting at the guy and didn’t help my blood pressure reading when I stepped into the doctor’s office 20 minutes later.) The Premera customer service guy told me he’d start an investigation with the accounts receivable people but I was okay for now since my account was paid up for the month. He’d call back (which of course hasn’t happened yet.)

Later, I spent another 20 minutes on the phone with my bank’s customer service department. After not being able to figure out, at first, what was going on, they eventually told me that since I’d used a business log on to create the bill pay instructions, any payments would indicate that they came from my business no matter which account I used. If I wanted payments to show my name instead of my business name, I’d have to create a personal account login and use the personal banking app to manage payments. Fortunately, this wouldn’t change my ability to see and work with all of my accounts from the business login. I just couldn’t create personal payment instructions there.

So this morning, I spent over an hour recreating all of my payees and payment instructions on the bank’s website for personal accounts. And deleting those same instructions from the bank’s website for business accounts.

It’s dumb and its frustrating but at least (I think) it’s fixed.

Now don’t get me started on the bank websites’ crappy user interfaces.

But despite all of this stupidity, I am much happier with my current banking setup. Honestly: why did I wait so long to make this change?