Thursday, July 24, 2008

Introducing PocketMint

So, particularly close observers of my blogroll may have noticed a new entry: PocketMint.

One of my laments about the personal-finance blogspace is that while there are zillions of blogs, there are relatively few blogs where the focus is as much on the writing as the numbers. My interest in personal finance tends toward the psychological and cultural- anthropology side: I've never been interested in money in and of itself. It's the power dynamics and social structures around money that interest me. Having money gives you a tremendous amount of influence over how your life unfolds. That's why the petty details of how money moves in people's actual lives interests me.

PocketMint proprietress Karawynn is quite pragmatic, but above all, she's a writer and a thinker, and when she told me "I'm considering starting a personal-finance blog," I said, "HOORAY!" Because I knew her blog would be another place I could regularly read articulate, nuanced takes on the financial details of daily life.

So hop on over for posts on teens and text-messaging insanity, the economics of fish fillets, and how to get a fee-free IRA. I'm very pleased PocketMint has arrived on the scene. Give her feedback so she'll keep writing :)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Thin envelopes, part II

The 401(k) nonsense was slightly perturbing, but it was the second thin envelope in today's mail that really distressed me.

American Express is discontinuing my credit card.

There's a certain irony to this arriving in the mail the same day Amex announced no good very bad quarterly earnings. I imagine that at some point in the past few months, pressured Amex executives decided to "rationalize" ("right-size?" what's our current jargon for "whack things"?) their product offerings. And clearly, my preferred product offering got rationalized right out of the portfolio.

I've blogged before about how and why I picked Amex's In NYC card as my default card. I've had it since December 2004 or so, and it's been perfect for me -- I use the reward points, I pay little to nothing in fees, I've used the various protections it's offered (oh boy, have I -- that's the happy-financial-services post Coming Soon), and all my infrequently problems have been resolved fairly easily. Plus, it's black, and occasionally gets mistaken for an actual Amex black card. It's fun!

But as of November 2008, saith this letter, my card is discontinued. It's being replaced with an Amex Blue card.

Amex is trying to make this painless, I guess. My points roll over. My balance and (I hope, I hope) transaction history presumably will too. I'm assured I'll be able to use "Membership Rewards Express," which has "more than 140 redemption partners."

But they probably won't be my redemption partners -- local restaurants, a nice local spa I routinely drag friends to with my points, and so on. (Ok, I just loaded up, and the featured partner of the moment is Olive Garden. I'm doomed.) Plus, I have the fun of knowing that in two weeks or so I'll get the new cardmember agreement and have to pour over the fine print to see how similar it actually is to my current card. I'm assured that "many" of the things I "like about [my] In NYC Credit Card" are available with Blue. "Many" != "exactly the same."

Adding to the joy: I think I have a Blue card already. In college, I had an Optima card. I zeroed out the balance but never cancelled the card, and at some point it seems to have morphed into a Blue card; it still shows up on my credit reports and I get mail every so often about my exciting Blue cardmember opportunities. What happens now if I end up with two Blue accounts? No clue.

This bites. I'm gonna sign offline and go sulk now. (Actually, I'm trying to cash in my points for a Jean Georges gift certificate first. Then sulking commences.) RIP, my beloved In NYC Amex.

(Oh, and the third thin envelope was junk mail. After the first two, that was a relief.)

Why I'm never opening my mailbox* again

Lest my blog seem to devolve into nothing but rants, I actually have a happy financial-services post in the works. But my train of thought on that was sadly disrupted by what I found in the mail today.

Thin envelopes. Three of them. Nothing else but three thin envelopes.

As we all learned back in the tense days of awaiting college-acceptance news, nothing good comes in thin envelopes.

Sure enough, my envelopes were lurking.

The first was from JPMorgan. Return service requested. "Important benefits information enclosed."

My financial life involves so many different accounts that I'm amazed I haven't overlapped yet on providers, but so far, each financial-services company remains attached to just one account. JPMorgan is the vendor for my old-job 401(k), the one that is mysteriously still vesting me nine months after I left.

This Lurking Thin Envelope from JPMorgan had just one page in it. The one-page letter opened: "This notice is to inform you about certain operational failures that occurred with respect to the [OldJob] 401(k) plan ..."

Operational Failures has to be one of the great euphemisms of our time.

The letter has three sections. A) The Operational Failures. B) The Correction Method. C) Comments. And what do they boil down to?

I have no earthly idea. My college minor was economics. I write and read words for a living. I spent 10 years as a beat reporter prying financial information out of swampy 10Ks. I have no idea what this letter is actually saying went wrong. It seems to involve "the timely remittance of certain deferral contributions" [deferred?, my internal editor inquirers] and "deferral contributions ... remitted to the Plan outside the statutory time frame required."

Ok. Having read the letter a half dozen times: It seems to be saying that from 1/1/2005 to 2/2/2007, contributions taken out of my paycheck were actually sent to JPMorgan later than they should have been.

It appears to be blaming this on OldJob's "outside payroll provider" (*cough* ADP *cough*), and indicating that "five participating employers" were affected.

Two things make this particularly amusing. One: This letter indicates the problem started in early 2005, but my OldJob didn't actually start using JPMorgan till early 2006. So, ok, the problem is definitely more widespread.

Two: I caught this. I started OldJob right around the time the company switched to JPMorgan. Since I didn't want to bother setting up a 401(k) with the old provider (Fidelity) only to move it within weeks, I waited till things were running with JPMorgan and simply opened my 401(k) account there. But four weeks or so after my first payroll deduction -- no 401(k). Six weeks in, contributions finally started showing up, but only for one paycheck's worth of contributions, not three. I was perturbed enough about this to call HR and ask if they knew what was up. I didn't want a month's worth of 401(k) contributions to vanish into the ether.

Just lag, they assured me. It'll catch up.

Not wanting to muck around with reconciling totals, I let it go, and trusted that 401(k)s were serious enough and regulated enough that no one would screw 'em up.

Oops/ha ha ha.

Anyway, the letter indicates that OldJob has "remitted to the Plan" all my "earnings for the applicable time period ... using the Department of Labor's Online Calculator under the Voluntary Fiduciary Correction Program."

Um, ok.

Fortunately, the last bit of the letter is designed for people like me who are going "er, I'm lost." It is a five-step guide on how to "view the amount that your individual 401(k) account has been credited." The steps are things like 1) go to site. 2) select plan. THIS, I can handle.

So, following the Five Steps, I find that for the period from 12/01/07 to 12/31/07, I was (under the DOL's VFC Online Calculator Calculations) shorted $1.86.

Having been made whole, I can now retire nanoseconds sooner!

(Okay, this is getting long, on to Part II for the second envelope, which bore far more catastrophic financial news.)

* Technically I don't have a mailbox. I have a table in the hallway where our landlords put our mail, after the mailman chucks it over the doorway gate. Maybe I can train the smarter of our two kittycats to fetch the mail so I don't have to risk these sorts of shocks again.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Standing outside the mortgage-meltdown blast zone

Newsrooms are most fun when something dramatic is happening, and this week, the rapid share-price plunge of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac has kept things roiling. In classic run-on-the-bank fashion, what seems to have happened is that a Lehman analyst's report on Monday (and given how much Lehman is also teetering on the brink, there's irony in that) focused attention on underlying problems with the two mortgage giants that everyone knew were there but was trying to ignore. Result: Wall Street panic, and the potential of another giant government bailout being required.

I'm not a Wall Street reporter. I have only a pretty hazy idea what Fannie and Freddie do, and why it's so vital. I watch this as a consumer - one whose main personal concern is, does this housing meltdown help or hurt my ability to buy a place within the next few years?

We're in the NYC housing market, where none of the normal rules seem to apply. David and I have the ability to carry what would, anywhere else in the country, be a pretty hefty mortgage payment. What's kept us from buying are two things: down payments and prices.

A 10% downpayment on the absolute least I could imagine getting an apartment in our area for is still $30,000 - no small sum to save up. More realistically, we'd be looking at $45,000 minimum - for 10% down. If a place required 20%, as many co-ops do, you get into six figures, easily. We're not going to have that saved any time soon. I have no idea how one ever saves that kind of sum, frankly, outside a 401(k) or some such over decades.

The second hurdle: As mortgages became more accessible and lenders loaned ever-vaster sums, NYC's already stratospheric prices went through the roof. Costs in our neighborhood literally doubled in four years - a one-bedroom that went for $199,000 in 2002 would have priced at $350-$425k last year. In 2002, a $200k mortgage for an apartment would have been stretching it for me and David. By last year, when we could have handled it pretty easily, prices were twice as high - and once again unimaginably costly. And on it goes.

So - if the mortgage pain gets even worse, if Fannie or Freddie is drastically restructured, if mortgages become harder to get and people can't get easy access to vast sums, then housing prices, even in NYC, will have to come down. But how much will they come down? And if mortgages become less forgiving and harder to get, then people like me and David -- who won't have a 20% downpayment, and are buying in a jumbo-loan market -- are exactly the ones lenders won't want to be lending to.

Chicken, meet egg. For now, I guess I learn to love rent payments.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


Posting here is intended to be way more frequent than, er, once in eight weeks. Back in November, I mentioned that I was starting a new job. A new job with a big, steep learning curve. It's the first time in a decade of journalism work that I've been primarily a manager and editor, rather than a beat reporter. I like the job quite a lot and I love the newsrooms I'm now in, but it's been eating 80% of my awake hours and 90% of my brain. I'm realising how much I miss writing and at least the minimal level of reporting involved in blogging, though, so. If I don't post here at least weekly, e-mail and kick me or something.

WaMu: No good VERY BAD fees

I may need a new bank. Again. GRR RAR GRUMP BOO HISS.

Back last year, when I was auditioning banks, I mentioned that my #1 absolute hard-and-fast requirement was no fees, especially for using third-party ATMs.

This is something I get irrationally cranky about. I think it's downright usurious for banks to charge their own customers back-end fees for using outside ATMs. (I'm OK with ATM operators charging front-end fees for using their machines, though I wish they were legally capped at something sensible. $1, maybe $1.50, fine. $3 and up? Sod off, Chase.) I scratched off my list every bank that charged such fees. I ended up with WaMu.

And for several months, all was fine ... until, in late April, what did I spy? A random $2 charge on my statement for "ATM BALANCE INQUIRY FEE - DOMESTIC."

Er um? This is WaMu, the company of "Start free and stay free," the company that advertises "free checks for life, free wire transfers, free ATMs, free online banking, free check safekeeping, no monthly fees." What is this balance inquiry fee nonsense?

Off went my cranky email to customer service. Back came their formulaic cut-and-pasted reply:

The fee for a balance inquiry at a non-Washington Mutual ATM is $2 per inquiry. Your previous statement period was March 11, 2008, to April 11, 2008. This $2 fee indicates one balance inquiry performed at a non-Washington Mutual ATM during that period.

ATM balance inquiry fees are charged for balance inquiries that are made at non-Washington Mutual ATMs. The fees collect during the statement period and will post as a single transaction at the end of the statement cycle. As a result, the balance inquiry fee may not post for up to a month after the balance inquiry was made. ...

In some cases, the ATM itself may initiate a balance inquiry to verify the balance in your account. In most cases, the ATM wont [sic] inform you of the balance inquiry. Because the balance inquiry doesnt generate a fee that is included in the withdrawal amount, the owner of the ATM isnt required to inform you of the balance inquiry.

(Yes, all lack of apostrophes are reproduced verbatim.)

The letter went on repetitively in this vein for several paragraphs, but the gist of it boils down to: We charge you $2 for balance inquiries (not withdrawls! withdrawls are free, because we are WaMu and market that to high heaven!) at non-WaMu ATMs. Even if you do not actually hit the buttons to inquiry after your balance, we may charge this fee anyway if the ATM decides to automatically ask what your balance is before giving you money. Because these are batch-processed and may not post till the end of the month, you have no real way of backtracking what ATM this came from and whether or not it's legit. Byebye!

At which point, of course, my blood pressure went off like Mount Vesuvius. I think I spent a full hour or two railing at David about this, who waited it out and then pointed out that I have to be one of the only "consumer advocate" types out there who can happily drop $22 for a single piece of sushi (er, we went to Bar Masa ...) and yet spend hours obsessing about a $2 fee. Which, ok, yes, point. But still.

I never, ever, ever inquire after balances at any ATM (my obsessive PocketMoney tracking means I always know to the penny what should be in my checking account), but I've been hit with this %^@$@$ $2 fee twice more. I'm toying with just how irate it makes me. On the one hand, even I realise that $6 is not worth the hell of going through changing banks. On the other hand, I deeply dislike the deceptiveness of the charge, and the general level of fee-grubbing sneakiness it indicates.

If this were my one and only problem with WaMu, I'd probably grit my teeth, write nasty blog posts, and stick it out. But I'm now on my third unrelated incident - in 10 months - that has me grumbling about my bank. Three times now (this weekend was the third) I've had debit charges come through improperly. Twice, a merchant charge ran through my account twice ($28 or so the first time, $50.50 this week); once, an ATM charged me $7 for a withdraw fee posted as a $2. David, who withdrew the same amount minutes later at the same exact ATM from his Citibank account, was charged $2.

Every time, I've clicked the "dispute charge" icon helpfully listed next to every item in my online account balance register. Every time, I've received a very clearly cut-and-pasted form letter which has been utterly unhelpful, blaming the merchant and saying to call WaMu if I need further assistance. Every time, calling has led me down a Kafkaesque chain of transfers which has ultimately resulted in me being told I need to take this up with the merchant, not WaMu.

I'm now trying to sort the latest charge, for $50.50, out with the merchant, who is being vastly more responsive and helpful than WaMu. It's entirely possible that the merchant, who I know and like and I also know has some kludgy low-tech systems in place, accidentally ran the charge twice. But in almost 10 years with NetBank and at least as long with Amex and various other credit-card companies, I've never had a double billing post to any other account. I am cursed with fraudulent charges, blessed without accidental ones. I have to assume there were some basic algorithms in place to catch likely double-billing attempts. (The same amount, from the same merchant, posted hours apart? Could it possibly be an error?) Systems WaMu lacks.

So. Much as I don't want to move accounts yet again, I'm eying WaMu very carefully and awaiting further annoyance.

Anyone out there have a bank that doesn't charge outside ATM fees (my admittedly irrational deepest financial loathing) that they actually like?