Yesterday morning I walked down the street to the building with the big fat neon CHASE signs that replaced the modest old WaMu writing almost exactly two years ago, and did something that felt sooo good:
I closed my account.
Not only that, I found a friendly bank right up the street with a personable staff, a mission to support small and local businesses, environmentally conscious, where the manager brings you cookies baked on site with dough from Marin-based Homeward Bound, a non-profit agency known for assisting homeless people to learn career skills and find jobs.
When it comes to money I’m kind of old school — a one-bank kinda guy. I grew up in Germany where the local branch of our savings bank gave us kids little piggy banks to collect coins and the clerk’s kids were on my soccer team. Not to get too sentimental here, but there is something to be said about knowing that your bank is a part of your community and you can count on it (and its employees) to be there beyond the next boom/bust cycle.
That’s the general attitude with which I walked into a branch of a First Interstate Bank in 1987 to open my first checking account in the U.S. I picked it because it had the word “state” in it, something I guess feels attractive to me because it implies a certain stability and modesty, which is what I’m looking for in a bank. When First Interstate was gobbled up by CalFed a few years later, I was a bit puzzled how quickly and casually it all went down, but it still sounded like a semi-smallish and regulated institution and they kept on all the old staff, so I just went with it.
Another few years later I got notice that CalFed had been bought by CitiBank and that my checking account would be seamlessly transferred over within a month. Citibank??? Are you kidding me??? You mean that global behemoth of capitalism, the emblem of the concentration of wealth and power? The financial superbully that may as well be its own country? That Citibank?
As if that weren’t enough, they also “sweetened” their takeover with a monthly checking fee on the little guy, aka people who can’t keep a gazillion dollar minimum balance. I mean, shouldn’t it be the other way around, shouldn’t they charge their fees from people who have more than a certain amount in their account, the people who can actually easily afford the extra 10 bucks a month? Isn’t this whole idea of punishing those with little means the very mechanism by which the rich get richer and the poor stay poor?
This was the official end of my honeymoon with American banks. I mean, loyalty is a two-way street, isn’t it? While it’s a pain in the ass to close a bank account and having to switch over all your transactions, it’s a small price to pay compared to going over to the dark side and being milked for it to boost. So, I preempted the hostile Citi takeover and switched over to WaMu, who had free checking and at the time seemed like a fairly decent, community-oriented bank. One way for me to test out whether a business is on the right side of the fence is to get a feeling of how authentically psyched employees are about working there, and my local WaMu branch was filled with locals (I live in a predominantly Latino part of SF) and the atmosphere was really casual, family-style. No bullet-proof windows either, which was a big plus.
Then of course, as we all know, the great meltdown of 2008 happened and from one day to the next, WaMu was gone and within months my city started to look like this:
“Here we go again,” I thought to myself, but this time I didn’t even have a chance to think about it: before I knew it the only evidence left that WaMu had ever even existed was that rickety old checkbook in my drawer I was graciously allowed to use up. But, since Chase was keeping all the same terms and conditions for their WaMu customers at first and the takeover wouldn’t affect my personal little banking world, I thought, “okay, I’ll give this a chance for a while.” I admit, part of it was being too lazy to switch over all my bills again, and the convenience of shiny new ATM’s everywhere didn’t exactly help my state of being a bank sloth. They had me right where they wanted me.
But thankfully, Chase took care of my inertia and my temporary subconscious denial that my mere existence as their customer, small as it may be, was feeding their ridiculous wealth and power, with all its repercussions. First they had their employees dress in ugly uniforms and put them back behind bullet-proof windows. Then they put in huge Vegas-style Brave New World video screens everywhere bombarding you with their own greatness. I guess it was bound to happen sooner or later, but the letter I got a few weeks ago announcing a $10 checking fee unless I keep a $1500 balance actually came as a nice kick in the butt, and ultimately, a relief:
So this seemed as good a time as any to really do some homework and find a bank or credit union that was aligned with my values and small and local enough that they wouldn’t just be gobbled up the next time Wall Street coughs. I’d done some research a while ago on banking and financial alternatives for a post entitled One Man’s Portfolio is Another Man’s Oil Spill, and so I started to study up on which of the many great alternatives out there would be the right one for me. I recommend the following links to anyone who is thinking about getting out of the big bank cycle and is looking for a place to start
Ultimately, we’ll have to rethink the way we trade goods and build nest eggs if we are to make it through climate change and peak oil and live in ecological balance with our planet. Some initiatives launched in the last year are gaining momentum around the country. The Slow Money movement looks at investment strategies revolving mostly around the world of local food and farming. The Move Your Money campaign was launched to help individuals and companies move their finances into local community banks and credit unions. The Common Good Bank is a new banking model where depositors decide what the bank should invest in. And a whole range of community currencies, barter and local exchange trading systems have sprung up around the world addressing the collective desire for more fair and just transactions based on direct interactions and actual value rather than speculation and quarterly earnings.
Eventually though, it was my partner Deb, who had also been Chased Away™, who suggested to walk up the hill to this new bank that had opened up a while ago, and check them out. Every time we’d walked by we thought it was pretty cool that they have stroller parking in that branch (even though we don’t have kids, but it’s such a nice touch). I know that’s not really what makes or breaks a bank, but walking into this setting makes you wonder whether your money might not be the one and only thing they’re after:
We were greeted by a friendly young woman named Rebecca, and after chomping down on some of the above-mentioned locally baked organic cookies, we got down to business. Not only did they offer free checking and savings accounts (and a free business account for Deb), but their business model and whole vibe was very much in tune with the things we care about: A small bank with only five branches spread across SF and the North Bay, with a deep commitment to investing in local businesses and non-profits, being engaged in the community, and sustainable practices. No big bureaucracy, shady foreign investments, mortgage deals, or credit-crushing monopolies. And thank heavens, none of those cringe-inducing, over-the-top chest-thumping supersize me antics.
Instead of this…
you get this…
In the grand scheme of things this is perhaps not that big a deal. I’m probably not going to stop this terrible and unsustainable economic system of ours that thrives on perpetual and misguided growth, rewarding the biggest and most ruthless players to accumulate more wealth and power than entire countries, by switching my measly little checking account. But every plant has to grow from a seed, and the more of these little seeds are sown the more likely they’re going to spread.
If nothing else, stepping into a bank with seven employees who are psyched about their work and have a stake in their company is like a breath of fresh air. You can just feel it, there’s something different about dealing with people who know what’s in their soup. After being slowly sucked into the cauldron of big-bank inevitability I feel like the bird that got out of the cage, and I’m really enjoying the view out here. There was just one last thing to do…
to find a better bank and financial services near you, check out these resources: