Wednesday, December 08, 2004

On banking

Banking here is odd, compared to what I was used to the UK.

American banks are big on personal service; branches are big and welcoming, staff are friendly, and there are rarely queues. A big difference from banking in the UK, where you're usually made to feel like an inconvenience if you visit a branch.

But: it's more common to pay simply to run a checking (current) account. Less so now, as banks are competing on free checking, but you have to be careful, as free checking doesn't necessarily imply everything is free. Some limit you to a certain number of checks per month, over which they charge you per check; some let you write checks for free but charge you for Internet bill payments; some charge you for withdrawals from any ATM other than their own; some charge a monthly fee if you don't keep a certain minimum, or average, balance over the month. It's really a case of deciding what's important to you and shopping around for the best fit.

And here's the strangest thing: banks here don't print their own checks. Instead, you get checks printed by a third party — our checks came from Deluxe, but there are others — and often, you pay for them yourself. (Our bank gave us the first box of checks free, and I think they should last us years; checks are increasingly irrelevant in the age of plastic.)

In the UK, you'd get the bank's fixed house style of cheques. Here, you can choose checks in whatever style you want. Basic; cartoonish; patriotic; religious; sporting; or just plain goofy. It all seems terribly frivolous to me; money's a serious business, not an opportunity for expressing your wacky personality or pushing your personal beliefs.

Banking here also seems slightly clunky; like it was only recently dragged out of the dark ages. If I want a bank draft in the UK, I go into my branch, sign a form, and they take the money from my account and give me the draft. If I want a cashier's check in the US, I go into my branch and write the bank a check from my account. How odd.