Why Did Banks Get So Mean?

Old Man Potter of the Bedford Falls Savings and Loan would feel right at home in some of today's big banks.

Yesterday I read a Boston Globe column by reporter Farah Stockman about the harassing phone calls she received from her bank last year.  PNC Bank called Stockman repeatedly while she was reporting from war-torn Pakistan because they claimed she owed them 64 cents.   The international cell phone calls were costing her $3.00 a minute but PNC kept dunning Stockman every day.

The story is a real testimonial to how bad the mega-banks have become.  One consumer advocate told Stockman that banks are now shaking down their depositors for fees and loose change (like her 64 cents) because they can’t make money the way they once did: by giving depositors a ridiculously low interest rate then lending out their deposited money to small businesses and other borrowers at a higher rate.

Stockman’s story provides the perfect segue to ranting about my own least-favorite bank:  The Bank of America.  Make that the bank of rich, corporate America.

Visiting the bank used to be a more friendly experience.  They gave out toasters or umbrellas if you gave them $25 to open an account.  Now they charge you $25 a month if you don’t have at least $5,000 in your account.  This is not a lie – it  happened to me a few months ago.

We have had some type of relationship with B of A, or with the smaller fish they gobbled, for about two decades.  Bay Bank was gobbled by Bank of Boston, which was gobbled by Fleece Fleet Bank, which was gobbled by B of A.  As recently as a few years ago I had nice memories of the folks at our local branch.  They knew my name and doled out hundreds of lollypops to our kids.

We pulled most of our money out of B of A about five years ago, after we missed one payment on our credit card and they jacked up our interest rate to 30 percent.  They offered us 10 percent as a peace offering.  We moved the bulk of our cash to a more consumer-friendly locally-based bank but kept some money in B of A, largely because three of our children had student B of A accounts and it was easier to get money to them that way.

Soon after we reduced our B of A holdings we began getting $25 taken out of our checking account each month for a “maintenance” fee.  When we called them, they pointed out that we our account was a money market one that paid a higher interest rate (I believe it was 1.4 percent!), but you had to keep at least $20,000 in there.  So we were able to find another account that offered a less princely interest rate in exchange for being free.

But lo and behold! A few months ago the $25 charges started coming out again.  When I called to complain, the B of A telephone person told me, “I see you have an Advantage checking account.” She then pointed out all the benefits that I was getting for my advantage account, including free checks.

“But I never asked for an ‘advantage’ checking!”  I said.

The clerk told me she’d remove one of the $25 charges but I had to go to my local branch to change the type of account.

In the meantime I did a mini-rant about this “advantage” checking BS on my Facebook page and got a lot of commiserating comments.  Wrote our son Jesse:  “An advantage account means that you give them your money and they take advantage of you.  See the advantage?”  Others urged us to go to a credit union or a smaller bank.

When I visited our local B of A to try to change to a free checking account, I recognized the nice people who used to give my kids lollypops, but they were not the ones that the bank put in charge of playing hardball with customers.  That job belonged to some unfamiliar new bank zombie – someone who was obviously unhampered by any previous warm and fuzzy relationships with the clients.

She spoke to me as if she were reading from a script.

She said that if I wanted to have a no-fee account I had to either keep at least $5,000 in my account or get a B of A credit card and use it at least three times a month.  I told them that my husband and I already had a credit card, thank you, and we preferred to have just one and use it as little as possible.   When I turned down the credit card, one of the managers came over to try to talk me into taking it.  “You only have to use it three times a month!,” she pleaded.

“You know,” I said, “how come you can’t just lend my money out to small businesses and make money that way?”

The Stepford bank employee managed a very tight smile and said, as if by rote, “well, you pay money every month for other conveniences.  Banking is a convenience too.”  In other words, lock up $5K, get one of our high-rate bank cards, or stuff it in a mattress – those are my options.

Just last fall, right after the debacle over B of A’s attempt to charge depositors $5 a month to pay stores with their own money if they use a debit card  –which incidentally, saves the bank lots of money over the cost of processing a paper check, which people once used to pay at the cash register — the bank started working on its image.    One B of A television commercial focused on Pink’s Hotdogs, which paid glowing tribute to B of A for lending it seed money to expand its hotdog empire 71 years ago.

I wonder what would happen if Pink’s asked B of A for a loan today.  We decided that the bank officers would laugh the hapless hotdog vendor out of the office, roll his cart off the nearest pier, or set it on fire and find a way to collect the insurance money.

Years ago banks gave you a toaster to invest your money there; now they burn you with fees.  They once gave you an umbrella but now they hang you out to dry.  Farah, I think it’s time for a credit union.

Dad’s New Bride: Companion or Gold-Digger?

It's natural to worry about an inheritance when an older parent remarries, even when the new spouse is closer in age than Anna Nicole Smith, 26, was to Howard Marshall, 89, who died a year after they wed. Smith tried for a hefty share of her late husband's estate.

Angela, a middle-aged owner of a small business, heard recently that her 89-year-old father Charles was getting married to Mary, his 78-year-old girlfriend.  Angela’s reaction? While genuinely happy for her dad, she also felt fear, because she was worried that her inheritance was in jeopardy.

A few weeks ago I asked Sandwich Lady readers to send in their stories about aging parents’ remarriages.  A few shared very frank thoughts about their mixed feelings.  It took years for Marilyn, one reader, to come to terms with her dad’s four marriages.  Another reader, VeggieSandwichGeneration, wrote that “There was a new woman in our space and she struggled to let us into what she didn’t realize, or didn’t care, had been our space prior to that.”

“I think in our heart of hearts we all want the best for our parents, just as parents want for their children,” wrote Amy, whose dad married her mother’s best friend. “It is when the things that our parents find to be best for them are different from that picture of the ideal, engrained into us from childhood, that it is difficult to know how to proceed with the new course of things.”

Along with gathering these insights from Sandwich Lady readers I also have spoken informally to some friends and acquaintances whose parents remarried at a late age. One is Angela, who was brave enough to wander into dangerous territory and talk about money if I disguised her name.  I suspect many other midlife children secretly worry about their inheritance  — and feel a lot of shame about it afterwards — when their parents take another spouse late in life.

Angela, who is childless and never married, said that Charles began dating his girlfriend Mary just five months after the death of his wife.  “Dad told me when Mom died that he was going to go downhill,” Angela recalled.  But less than half a year later, he was dating again.

Her octogenarian dad changed from dejected to dashing, and Angela was genuinely happy to see Charles have a new zest for life.  Charles and Mary moved in together, and the couple began traveling and socializing with friends. “I couldn’t have thought of anybody who was more perfect for my dad,” Angela said. “She even was a better companion to him than my mom in some ways.”

But when Charles announced in January he and Mary would be getting married (“I’m afraid of what the neighbors think about us living together,” he confided to his daughter), some unwelcome thoughts began to bubble up in Angela’s mind.  As she put it:  “I really do need an inheritance.  I’ve been single all my life.  Dad knows this and I am hoping he will still take care of me.”

Angela grew even more concerned when she asked her father when he and Mary would tie the knot, and he said, “I don’t know…I have to complete some legal work first.”  She was hoping that he was talking about a pre-nuptial agreement but can’t be sure.  To make matters worse, Charles refused to elaborate.

Charles has never been upfront about his finances, even when he was married to Angela’s mother.  The mother controlled most of the money and didn’t share much information either. “My parents would never discuss money when we were growing up,” Angela recalls.  “We didn’t know if we were poor or rich.  They held their cards so close to the chest.”

Mary has children of her own, as well as property that she acquired during her first marriage.  Angela is guessing that a pre-nup would benefit Mary as well.  But nobody is talking and she can’t be sure.

Many might argue that aging parents have the right to spend all of their money if they so choose, and nobody should rely on an inheritance as a financial lifeboat.  Even a few older people embrace this idea – look at the thousands of bumper stickers that announce, “I’m spending my children’s inheritance.” I remember one acquaintance who once told everyone that “When I die, I want to have just enough money to pay the guy who shovels the last shovel of dirt.”

Yet I can’t help but feel sad for Angela, who has struggled to build something for herself without a husband and was counting on an inheritance.  She is not unlike the aging spouse who gets jettisoned for a trophy wife, but without any divorce laws that provide for her.  I think that Charles should at least share his plans with her so she can know where she stands.

Many midlife people worry about leaving something to their children, especially in an era when young people are having such a hard time amassing wealth of their own.  Estate lawyers get very rich showing us how to preserve as much as our nest egg as possible for our heirs. And I suspect nearly every middle-aged person also wonders how much their parents are leaving them in their will, even if they never bring it up.

Of course, unforeseen circumstances can eat away at an inheritance:  a costly illness, a nursing home stay, tax code changes, a weakened Social Security system that requires that older people draw down more of their own savings just to get by.  And yes, a new spouse can be one of those unknowns as well.  So can an aging parent’s preference to enjoy more of their hard-earned money.

Angela says she is happy that Charles has found love again, and feels a lot of “shame and guilt” when she worries about her inheritance.  Still, she can’t help worrying and Charles’ silence is not helping.

I think that the baby boomers need to start the difficult conversation about inheritances.  We need to share our own estate plans with our kids (indeed, we need to HAVE a plan first..How many of us don’t?)  Aging parents need to be up-front about what their heirs can expect, even if it means being frank about their plans to spend all their money, as is their right.  And all parties should bear in mind that there are no guarantees.

For Presidents Day, a Jubilee of Cherries

I cannot tell a lie...this is the best pie ever, for President's Day or any time.

For decades, my Aunt Rita gave my dad a totally-made-from-scratch cherry pie every Washington’s birthday/Presidents Day.

Her pies had that classic, homemade character, without that machine-made look you get even in a decent bakery pie.  The lattice was pleasing but not precise; the thick crust around the rim bore her knuckle’s imprint; a crescent of cooked, dark red filling usually oozed over part of the edge and congealed.  We always hated to disturb the pie’s homespun beauty by cutting into it, but that fleeting thought usually lasted just a few seconds.

A culinary Olympian, Aunt Rita used only canned sour cherries, sugar, cornstarch and almond extract in her filling. The filling was sweet but not overly so. This commitment to making the filling from scratch never wavered, even when the supermarkets began offering jars of ready-made fillings — those cloyingly sweet, impossibly red mixtures with a few dozen cherries floating around like shipwreck victims awaiting rescue.

Rita’s crust was also homemade, and she always nailed that finicky balance of flour and shortening.  The crust was latticed on top, flaky but with a small core of chewiness under the thick rim.  That soft part under the thick circumference was my favorite part, especially when some pie filling stuck to it. I’d dip that thick crust in whatever filling remained, like using Italian bread to mop up those last drops of sauce.

While Aunt Rita was a purist in the old days, over the years she became more practical.  Partly in response to the jaw-dropping price for a can of sour cherries, she has tweaked her traditional recipe.  Now her filling is a happy mix of two cans of sour cherries — cooked with sugar, cornstarch and almond extract — and a jar or can of the pre-made cherry pie filling.  Can’t say it takes any less time, and making one of these will still set you back at least $12, but it is chock-full of cherries, sweet but not too sweet, and beats those store-bought pies anytime.  And while you can substitute your favorite homemade pie crust for this, I am happy to report that even Aunt Rita, who is now 90, has given that up for a good ready-made crust.   But after making my own (see photo here) with a Pillsbury ready-made crust, I suggest going for the full Monty and making your own…it does taste better.

So this President’s Day, bake up this pie for your first family, or for a cabinet of your dearest friends.

Cherry Pie

2 cans tart cherries, drained (save the juice)

1 jar (21-23 oz.) prepared cherry pie filling

1 cup cherry juice (from the canned cherries)

1 cup sugar

¼ cup corn starch

6 drops red food coloring

4 drops almond extract

2 prepared unbaked pie crusts (your own recipe or ready made)

1 T butter, unsalted

Milk, for brushing the crust (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Mix sugar and cornstarch.  Put in saucepan along with 1 cup cherry juice; and stir well and cook over medium heat until thick and clear.  Add red food coloring and almond extract and stir.  Let cool, then combine with tart cherries and prepared cherry pie filling.  Line a 9-inch glass pie pan with one of the prepared unbaked pie crusts, and pour in cherry mixture.  Dot with butter and make a lattice from the second crust (Weave the lattice on a piece of wax paper, then invert onto top of pie and peel away the paper.)  Crimp edges with your knuckles.  Brush top crust with milk if desired.  Bake 50 minutes to an hour, checking frequently, until golden brown.  Cover the perimeter with a strip of foil if the crust begins to brown too much.

Makes 8 servings.

Followup: When ‘Words With Friends’ Opponents Fall in Love

My loyal followers know of my obsession with Words With Friends, the online Scrabble-like game that you play with friends.  My blog about it was on “Freshly Pressed” and had more than 10,000 views over a three-day period.  Many of you started following The Sandwich Lady after that blog, and I’ve gotten to know many talented bloggers through their  comments on this one and my other blog posts.

This morning I learned that Words with Friends has has helped several formerly-random opponents to fall in love! Here is the Wall Street Journal’s wonderful story about it, just in time for Valentine’s Day.

The phenomenon shows the power of social media, which apparently now includes games as well as internet dating sites such as match.com, in bringing people together.  While my husband and I met the “analog” way — working side by side at the school newspaper at Penn State — I have to say that Words With Friends has definitely spiced things up.  It is the only time we are truly ruthless with each other, allowing us to indulge a totally competitive side that never permeates our other interactions.  This morning we gave each other wonderful goofy hand-made Valentines.

And while I am happily married and not looking for love, I have enjoyed meeting new WWF friends who have been great competitors.  Thanks to JaggedCell, georgegeorgegeorge and lanceshaubert for some terrific games.

Farewell to Jeffrey Zaslow: Chronicler of ‘The Last Lecture’

Jeffrey Zaslow (right), who died yesterday, with Randy Pausch (left), the Carnegie Mellon professor whose "Last Lecture," delivered shortly before he died from pancreatic cancer, was immortalized in a Wall Street Journal story that Zazlow wrote.

Saddened to hear that Jeffrey Zaslow, the Wall Street Journal reporter who immortalized Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture,” died yesterday.  Tragically, his car went off course on a snowy street and crashed into a truck.

Zaslow covered Pausch’s last lecture, bringing the Carnegie Mellon professor and his life philosophy to international renown.  Pausch died of pancreatic cancer in 2008 but not before he gave us some wonderful guidelines for living our lives — guidelines that found their way to a worldwide audience thanks to Zaslow:

“Brick walls are there for a reason. They let us prove how badly we want things.”

“Wait long enough, and people will surprise and impress you.”

“If your kids want to paint their bedrooms, as a favor to me, let ’em do it.”

In a field in which covering money, power and politics is considered the pinnacle of one’s career, Zaslow never lost sight of what was really important.  He deployed his jaw-dropping writing talent to spotlight not only Pausch but also many other “soft” topics — such as fathers who tuck notes into their daughters’ lunchboxes, and the sadness he felt when he saw the wrecking ball demolish a stadium he loved in his youth.  In a world thirsty for real heroes (and not just celebrities with savvy public relations advisors), he helped write biographies of two: “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who safely landed his plane in the Hudson River, and former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords.

His reporting was thorough, honest and heartfelt without being mawkish.  It appealed to both blue-state cynics and the red-state family values crowd.  And in a world preoccupied with billionaire tax returns, Mideast tribal warfare and the latest Kardashian capers, Zaslow wrote about what was really important.

I’ve read that many fathers, powerful men, started writing lunchbox notes to their daughters after reading his column about it.  Imagine the hundreds of women who will now have higher standards for the men in their lives because of this.  And on a broader scale, imagine the many thousands if not millions of people who’ve vowed to follow their dreams, work harder, believe in themselves and be better spouses, friends and parents because Zaslow introduced them to Pausch’s ideas.

One nagging question is how Zaslow found a platform at the Wall Street Journal, a newspaper that celebrates money, power and the ruthless people who pursue it.  Especially in the past few years, as part of Rupert Murdoch’s empire, the Journal has moved so far to the right that I barely recognize it any more.  I think it’s a testament to the power of Zaslow’s writing that he was able to command a following from this unlikely base.  And while I hate the fact that the Journal has become such a mouthpiece for the right wing, I am glad that they recognized the value of Zaslow’s type of reporting.

I often get disheartened when I watch the news.  We have so many ways to get it now, but the focus never wavers from bad news and sensationalism.  The anchors and reporters are blow-dried, focus-group-tested, strident and often righteous. Some deliver the news in an aggrieved voice and I always wait for an eyebrow to arch up, involuntarily signaling where they stand. I especially hate when a group of panelists try to out-shout one another.  It gives me a headache.

We need more reporters like Zaslow – people who are willing to train the spotlight on what’s right with the world, and on people who show us how to live, with both journalistic rigor and gentleness.  RIP, Jeffrey Zaslow.

Why Laziness Can Be a Virtue

Indolence is an underrated virtue. In small doses it can fortify us for our demanding lives. I totally recommend it as an occasional tonic, like a juice fast or a massage. This early 1900s painting is by Frank Markham Skipworth and totally summed up my mood yesterday.

The happiest people, I’ve been told, have a sense of purpose: a mission they are passionate about, children to care for, a class to teach, a milestone to reach. They are energetic and industrious, unable or unwilling to stay still. They have things to accomplish every day, and a brightly burning drive to fill their plate with things that have to get done.

Inertia has always been my greatest enemy. Once I overcome it I can keep going like the Energizer Bunny. That’s why each morning, after finishing my third mug of coffee, my comfy fleece robe starts to feel like chain mail, protecting me from the needling tasks ahead yet weighing me down. So fearlessly I cast it off, dress for the day and keep going…until mid-evening when my battery runs out the second I sink into the couch and disturb its throw pillows for the first time in 21 hours.

But yesterday I tried an experiment: a full day of being a total load.

The idea was hard for me, because my entire adult life I’ve always had a job and/or small children to give me a reason to get out of bed and keep moving. Even our vacation days were usually spent going someplace or getting ready for a holiday or guests. The idea of a day of indolence conjured up images of frowsy, depressed women in Snuggies or shirtless, unemployed men in drawstring sweatpants, drinking Mountain Dew and watching As The World Turns, Beavis & Butthead, and commercials for tech schools and personal injury lawyers.

Yet on the occasions when I’ve been sick, or when a storm forced us to cancel plans and handed us a windfall of time, I secretly relished having an excuse to do nothing. So yesterday, after a morning walk with my friend Jane, I decided that I would live the rest of the day like a total load, by choice.

After some time reading the New York Times online and playing Words With Friends, I fortified myself for an undemanding afternoon by making tomato soup and a Panini of sourdough bread and cheese. With my insides sedated under a blanket of carbs, and dressed in my fleece shirt and loose jeans with an extra few percentages of lycra, I sank into the couch and reached for the television clicker. Hundreds of channels but nothing I really wanted to watch. So I powered up the laptop and found the web site for PBS, and spent more than four hours catching up with “Downton Abbey.”

While the first episode demanded some attention, by the next one I had caught onto the story line and let the characters, the scenery, the plotting and back-stabbing carry me away. I even went to the PBS page to get a synopsis of season 1 and to rate the characters – how likable or despicable they were. (O’Brien, Thomas and Vera got the lowest grades.)

“Shouldn’t you be blogging or something?” asked my husband, up for a break from his normal 10-hour day.

The phone rang a few times, flashing familiar numbers on the caller ID, but I didn’t bother to answer. Even interacting with humans was more effort than I wanted to make right now. The only time I rose was to brew some tea and to look in the refrigerator. I found some homemade peanut butter cups, made by a friend who came to our SuperBowl get-together, and ate one, a little bit at a time. I kept the sharp knife at the ready so I could carve off a little piece whenever the mood struck. By an hour later I had consumed the hockey-puck sized treat.

John came home from school and I barely asked him about his day, so deep was my chocolate coma and my absorption into the World War I-era romances and scandals of Downton Abbey. I took a break from my indolence to quiz him in social studies for a test, to drive him to wrestling practice, sip a glass of wine and warm up some meatballs for dinner. The rest of the evening I lay on the couch, talked on the phone and watched more Downton Abbey. It went so fast and before you know it, it was time for bed.

Today I am looking at a list of jobs to do, things I need to accomplish before the end of the day. But I look back at yesterday without a shred of regret, although I doubt I could live that that all the time. Sometimes the best way to power up is to power down, to push “control/alt/delete” and forcibly shut down all those simultaneously-running tasks. My energies thus re-booted, I am ready for whatever the day brings.