Thursday, March 29, 2007

How to mess up an Amex payment and destroy your finances

Lest my personal-finance blogging imply I have all of our financial matters nicely in hand, here's a fun cautionary tale about how I firebombed David's bank account.

Because David and I have separate checking accounts and budgets, we each pay in each month to pay off the charges we've run through our main credit card, my Amex. I use Amex's Pay Online option, which lets me directly debit money from linked bank accounts. Two weeks ago, I sat down to pay David's portion of this month's bill. I calculated what he owed, cleared the amount with him, typed in the amount, hit the "pay" button, and clicked on "confirm and pay."

As I whizzed past the confirm screen and said yes yes pay, I realised -- literally the second I was hitting the button -- that I'd put in an amount almost twice what I actually intended to put in. An amount substantially greater than what David actually had sitting in his bank account.

I caught the mistake the instant I hit the button -- but by then, it was too late. Amex's online payments are instantaneous. Once you've confirmed, you can't change or revoke the payment.

I got on the phone right away to Amex's customer service, which threw up its hands and said to call Citibank and arrange a stop-payment.

Citibank's customer service center is in India, and is impressive in its level of cluelessness. Dealing with them has rarely proved helpful, and this experience was no exception. The center put in a stop payment order. A week later, we learned -- painfully -- that Amex payments don't work like typical check or debit payments, and can't be halted with a stop payment.

This whole mess was compounded by David's lack of access to his account info. In a separate incident, he lost his debit Paypass keychain thingie right after my payment debacle and had to cancel his debit card and get it reissued. Doing that temporarily cut off his access to Citibank's online banking site -- meaning he couldn't check and see what happened with the Amex charge. It took more than a week for his replacement card to arrive.

When it did, Tuesday, David hit the ATM and found that his account appeared untouched: the Amex payment had apparently bounced or been stopped. Figuring we'd worked through the mess, I went in that night and put in another payment on Amex's website, for the amount I'd originally intended to pay.

Insert hollow, dark laughter. Yesterday morning, David found his account hugely overdraw. So, instead of dealing with the Indian call center, David went to a Citibank branch to ask: What happened?

The original Amex payment was never stopped. It can't be. Online payments of the sort I made are apparently handled as direct electronic transactions between financial institutions, routing through the Federal Reserve system. If a payment doesn't go through because of insufficient funds, it tries again. Three times.

So, we now have the original payment making its second or third attempt to go through, plus the second payment I made last night starting its attempts. We're even further into the hole than when we started. And presumably every time one of these payments fails, it will generate another bounced transaction fee, on both sides, from Amex and from Citbank. Amex already socked us with one $38 fee for the first bounce. I'm praying each subsequent bounce won't incur another.

The obvious way to solve this mess is to throw enough money into David's account to let all the Amex payments suck out the money they're trying to. But, er. We lack the cash. My clever plans to create an emergency fund haven't actually come to fruition yet, partially because taking just five credits this semester
(I'm almost finished, yay!) killed my ability to get loans and all my free cash is temporarily tied up paying for the credits my company will soon reimburse. So, for the moment, we're just kind of financially screwed.

I think we can dig mostly out of the hole with this Friday's paychecks. It'll be months before I crawl out of the guilt hole, though. I owe David lots of extra niceness in return for temporarily completely destroying his bank account :(

Monday, March 26, 2007

Have we scrapped the heath-care system yet? No? Damn.

Last Friday I made an appointment with a new doctor for my annual physical. I already knew this doctor, who came recommended, didn't take my insurance; I'd decided I'd rather pay out of pocket (well, out of my HSA) for a recommended physician than take a stab in the dark at my insurer's in-network directory. So it didn't surprise me when the doctor said she doesn't take my insurance (I already knew that from her website). What surprised me is when she said she could only fit me in because I'm not paying with any insurance.

"I just can't take any more in-network patients," she said in her email. (Doctor with email? I love her already!) I understand why. It's no secret that networks reimburse providers at a highly discounted rate, one that increases slightly more often than Halley's Comet appears, and make them slog through mountains of paperwork to get the meager checks.

Once again, the medical services David and I actually require are services our insurance won't pay for. The cover story in this week's New York magazine is about "generation uninsured.". That's a huge problem. At least half my friends don't have any kind of insurance and are basically crossing their fingers they won't have a financially devastating health emergency. But the other, less recognized side of the problem is that even those who do have insurance, who pay the ever-rising premiums for company plans or scrape up the psychotic sums demanded for solo insurance, are getting less and less for that not-inconsiderable monthly payment.

The only silver lining to all this is my firm belief that a system so catastrophically &!*@ed, one that even the business community is ready to scrap, can't last much longer.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Head go boom now -- FSA reimbursements

March 31 is the deadline for claiming money from your 2006 flexible spending account, and I'm still trying to dredge back the last $26.65 of mine that Wageworks is clinging to with a deathgrip.

When we last left the saga, Wageworks was declining to pay any of my "pay me back" submissions, instead using any receipts I sent for reimbursement to clear the backlog of charges I'd put on my FSA Visa debit card but had not sent verification receipts in to cover (because I didn't realise they wanted verification receipts.)

I've long since lost receipts for most of the things I'd initially charged on the FSA card. However, Wageworks lets you file "substitute receipts" -- you submit one for any valid expense you haven't previously funneled through the FSA, and it swaps that over and clears the verification backlog. Fine. We had more than enough medical expenses last year for me to pull up documentation on a substitute expense.

So I had David procure a receipt for one of his medical visits and sent that off to Wageworks last month, with the verification form and the little "substitute receipt" tickybox all checked off. The total outstanding amount of charges needing verification (there are two or three) is $24.97. The amount left in my FSA is $26.65. So, total of $51.62. I sent a receipt for $80, figuring they would clear the backlog, refund me the balance of my account, and call it all done.

But lo, a month has ticked by, with no money flooding into my coffers and no logged activity on my online "track my account activity" dashboard. So, this afternoon, I summoned the willpower to call again and inquire.

It seems that the Bureaucratic Powers That Be do not automatically link charge verification paperwork and "pay me back" claims -- except when it works in their favor to do so.

A charge I filed for "pay me back" can be rerouted to clear a verification backlog, but a receipt submitted for verification won't automatically refund me for the additional amount beyond the backlog.

Not only that, but it won't trickle over to other charges awaiting verification. I only checked the little tickeybox on the card verification form once, next to one of the charges. Since the receipt covered an amount greater than all the charges, I assumed it would carry through and clear them all.

Nope. Resubmit with all the boxes checked, suggested the rep.

Arugh. But we had also just established that clearing the verification backlog wouldn't get me my refund ...

After 15 very convoluted minutes, we appear to have determined that resending my $80 receipt, this time with a Pay Me Back form, will clear the backlog and trigger my refund. Apparently. I have only the rep's assurances to go on that the receipt won't be kicked back entirely, since they've already seen it once.

Eleven days left to sort it out. At this point, it's the principle of the matter motivating me. I don't want this bureaucratic custer@%^! to keep my money!

And I am really glad I have a different FSA (well, HSA) provider this year. Let's see if Amex is less complication to work with than Wageworks.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Stalking the wild NetBank ATM

I'm traveling this week -- Seattle for fun, Santa Clara for work -- which means blogging will probably be light. But I just had a wacky personal-finance moment. I'm at the Santa Clara Convention Center (for EclipseCon) and stopped at one of the convention center ATMs to snag cash. While it was processing, it flashed a commercial. For NetBank. *Blink.* I'm used to thinking of my bank as this semi-obscure thing. My first thought was that running my NetBank card somehow triggered a NetBank ad, but then I noticed the ATM was NetBank-branded. I've never seen a NetBank ATM in the wild! As mentioned before, I'm used to sucking it up and paying ATM fees (on the front-end only, not the back) whenever I withdraw cash.

Yes yes, I realise this is a financially unwise move, but I really like my bank, and for a long stretch it just didn't have any in-network ATMs in NYC. It was "pay the fees or switch banks." Plus, I'm lazy, and relatively willing to pay the fees for the convenience of going to the very nearest ATM (rather than hunting for one associated with my bank) when I need cash. I think the fees should be a hell of a lot less, but that's a whole other blogpost.

But this NetBank ATM prompted me to go take a look and see where others might be hiding. It seems my little bank got big when I wasn't paying attention -- their website claims they operate the second-largest ATM network in the U.S. They even appear to have a few near-ish my office in Manhattan now! Who knew?

It was a slightly surreal feeling getting money out of the ATM ... and not paying a surcharge. ($2, on this ATM. Bad NetBank! Stop price gouging!) Now I want to go play with the free ATM again and again. It's like my own little slot machine.