Defending Ourselves from the Fee-Snatchers

This post also appears at the Drum Major Institute blog site.
A lot of us don’t spend much time looking through our bank or credit card statements. I’m guilty of this oversight myself. But, it’s amazing how many fees and finance charges creep in there if we don’t. It’s kind of like moths in your closet – you may think that if you scrape one off your wool sweater, you’re done. Truth is, there’s never just one.

So, yesterday, I got some mail from my bank, Chase. It looked like my regular bank statement. Since I don’t really focus on which day of the month they send it to me, it didn’t occur to me at first that it wasn’t my statement, even though, it was decidedly thinner. When I opened the envelope, I discovered it was a notice. Because my balance had fallen below some constantly moving level, they were going to charge me an additional $32 dollar that month. Or, they wanted more money to service less money. That’s like paying more at a restaurant to get an appetizer instead of a main course.

This reminded me of a conversation I had with my old bank, Citibank, a couple weeks before. I received a notice from them saying that I owed $18.81. Fine. But, it was on an account that I had closed two months earlier. I call. I get bounced around. I speak to someone and ask why I’m receiving a charge on a closed account. First answer was, maybe it’s a charge from before you closed the account. (Note: I closed the account originally, because it had less than a $1000 balance and they were charging me $9.90 a month for me to let them keep my money there.) Second answer. Oh, you did close the account two months ago. We’ll take care of it.

The point is: we pay more in fees if we have less money in a bank. We pay more in interest on credit cards if we are individuals instead of corporations. In fewer other worlds, do we pay more to have less serviced. The bank’s logic goes: clients with more money deserve not to have to pay for our services. Clients with less money should pay for the fewer services that lower amount will require.

With credit cards, many of us have been slapped with $39 late fees, for being late a day, and possibly had our interest rates jacked up from 10% or 20% to 29.99% for the same reason. This is completely arbitrary on the credit company’s part. And unregulated on the part of the government.

One of the women in JACKED, Margaret Bustell, is a Connecticut mother of three whose rates were hiked because she neglected to make one payment on time (for the first time in her life), having just undergone a Cesarean to deliver her third child. She said, “I would like to know, when they’re already charging interest and hiking up my rate – just exactly this whole situation costs them an additional $39 a month.”

Fact is: it doesn’t cost them. That’s why the credit card industry nabbed $16 billion in 2005 in consumer late fees. I don’t yet know the total profit the banking industry makes on additional charges to people with lower balances, but I’m working on it. Meanwhile, check your statements and bug these institutions when things don’t make sense. It’ll save you money. (Second Note: Margaret wanted me to mention that since then, she switched card providers and paid off her balance. Her new son, Henry, is doing very well.)


Let's Change Health Care before it Kills Us

I posted this today on the DMI blog site:

It's happened to everyone lucky enough to have health insurance. You walk into your regular doctor's offices for the millionth time. Someone at the front desk smiles and says,

"Any changes to your address? Phone number? Same insurance?"

You answer, "No. No. Yes."

A pause. Then the dreaded response, "I'm sorry, but the doctor doesn't except that insurance company anymore."

You feel two things. One: guilt, because you're supposed to have a real insurance company he or she will accept. Two: panic, because you immediately ask yourself, "How am I supposed to pay for this visit, let alone the lab fees that will ll be mailed in two weeks? And, why does it cost $600 dollars a pop to test a Petri dish anyway?"

Worse, you get that sick feeling in your gut. It has a voice that starts to wonder, "Hey, what if there is something REALLY wrong with me?" And, in that split second, you're in the same situation as the 46 million people in this country who don't have insurance.

I used to work at companies that offered me insurance plans. Then, I became a freelance writer and joined those 46 million Americans that don't have health insurance (15% in the past 5 years). I called around for individual plans and got some very confused agents on the other line (when I could get to a human). I joined the National Writers Union, for the same reason many people join unions, to get health care. Even that process was fraught with waiting time and regularly changing plans.

As I traveled the country, talking to people about their wallets and lives, on this issue there was almost complete agreement. Our health care system is screwed up. It's not just a matter of rich vs. poor. No matter who you are, you worry. As do the people in the health care chapter in JACKED: a mother with two autistic children whose mental needs aren't covered, a Hollywood producer with a stellar plan who still wants to retire to Canada, a struggling actor with SAG coverage when he can find jobs -and when he can't - it's no job topped by no insurance, and a NY based woman who went from middle class to destitute because of medical problems for which lack of coverage nearly killed her.

It's wrong. We need to stop settling for mounting premiums and diminished coverage. We need to scream about cuts to Medicare and Medicaid to balance a budget boated with corporate tax cuts that make this okay in the eyes of Congress. We need a plan that cuts the insurance middleman or regulates their breadth of coverage, so no one has to choose death over treatment. Not in a country as rich as ours.

We need to stop settling for mounting premiums and diminished coverage. We need to scream about cuts to Medicare and Medicaid to balance a budget boated with corporate tax cuts that make this okay in the eyes of Congress. We need a plan that cuts the insurance middleman or regulates their breadth of coverage, so no one has to choose death over treatment. Not in a country as rich as ours.


From 9/11 and Wall Street to America's Streets

I posted this on 9/11/06 as a guest blogger on the Drum Major Institute's blogsite.

The world before 9/11 was different for many of us for diverse personal reasons. Before 9/11, I lived another identity, as a managing director at Goldman Sachs by day, transition writer and activist by night.

A few months afterwards, I left investment banking and havent looked back. That Tuesday morning became a similar turning point for thousands, some by tragic circumstance, some by choice based on stark illumination of their mortality, life's too short to be stuck in the wrong job, relationship, or place.

That morning, a few blocks away from the World Trade Center on Broad Street, in my corner office on the 29th floor, I was rummaging through hundreds of bureaucratic emails when the first signs of impending destruction flurried by my window in the form of paper airplanes. Those sheets, we'd soon discover were files, documents, resumes. With more adrenaline than panic pumping through our veins, we huddled in front of the CNN screens dotting the trading floor. The second plane flew right by my window, so close it seemed you could touch it.

The chaos that followed: at Goldman, at the World Trade Center, in New York City and beyond changed people. For me, it was the last straw in leaving an old life for a new one. Today, I make less money than I did then, far less. But, I've got something in exchange that is far more valuable. Freedom to say what I think. And happiness to be who I am.

Something else happened that day, as I walked with thousands of fellow New Yorkers north, napkins covering our mouths to deflect the white layer of ash and building from the land that became Ground Zero, I noticed something. People in a crisis, help each other. Stores offered free water and juice. Cafes passed out sandwiches. Bars handed out free beer before the President's 9PM speech.

People checked in with each other. I heard from friends I hadn't spoken to in years, because they knew I worked somewhere near the Twin Towers. Heroes were not merely made, but showcased by the media, firemen and survivors, far more important than Suri Cruise, Jessica Simpson or Lindsay Lohan.

This year, that path from 9/11 and Goldman to journalism took me around the country. To write my second book, JACKED: How Conservatives are Picking your Pocket (whether you voted for them or not), I traveled. To Detroit, Portland, Oklahoma City, Austin, Philadelphia, our Gulf coast, where Mississippians relayed tales of individual heroism and pulling together after Katrina. To 32 states. Taking America's pulse.

Yes. In a pinch we help each other. Particularly in tragedy. But, in the everyday economic reality of our lives, many of those heroes have been getting jacked by the government and corporations. JACKED tells the stories of our ordinary heroes and what their daily concerns are, beyond or besides terrorism attacks and money spent in Iraq.

Inside our borders, people care about very personal securities. They care about basic needs which are all represented by various cards in their wallets, their drivers license symbolizing the high gas prices they pay to get to work, their student ids and the tuition to get an education, their insurance cards and the obscene cost of health care to survive; the fights with insurance companies to receive post-Katrina claims.

In the rush to capture the extreme, the government has failed to protect that every-day set of needs. The people I met notice, and have some ideas about how to make things better, to help each other for the long term. These form the foundation of JACKED.

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