Wells Fargo and Perceived Convenience

When my family moved to the States in 2001 we landed in Minnesota and opened bank accounts with Wells Fargo. Banks didn’t matter to me — I was 18 — so I just went with what everybody else was doing. For roughly a year I held a personal line of credit with Wells Fargo, paying the associated fees, of course, and have also had a credit card with the company for nearly as long as I’ve had my checking account.

A couple of years ago I went a few minutes out of my way to read about how Wells Fargo had become one of the key benefactors of the government bailout. Wells Fargo received some $25 billion (which it repaid) and the news surrounding how the company utilized regulation in order to capitalize on the bailout was unsettling. I thought about closing my account. In Minnesota Wells Fargo branches are everywhere though. If you need quick cash, ATMs are also in all Super America gas stations which, themselves, dominate the consumer landscape. Despite a distaste for the methods Wells Fargo was exploiting to expand its business, for the sake of convenience I kept my accounts open.

In 2010 I moved up to Canada. Recognizing the potential impermanence of the relocation though, I kept my Wells Fargo account open. Later that year I returned to the States, landing in Nashville. And while Wells Fargo has a small thumbprint within the city, I kept my account open.

I don’t drive and Wells Fargo branches and ATMs are sparse, so I became quite familiar with how non-native ATM fees were charged: $2.50 seems the standard from the machine’s servicer, compiled by another $2.50 from Wells Fargo as a convenience fee. Some generic ATMs I found, particularly around Vanderbilt University, have special mechanisms in place to benefit students, reducing any associated fees. Cafe Coco, for example, has an ATM that charges no fee if you only take out $10. In such situations Wells Fargo still charges $2.50 though. Recognizing that convenience isn’t free I kept my Wells Fargo account open.

I later moved to Iowa for a few months and remembering the bailout drama I looked into joining a local credit union. There was still a lot of hassle associated with it though so I balked at the option. While the nearest branch was a mile and a half away and nearly impossible to access without a car (given its placement across frozen freeways and such), the office I worked at had a Wells Fargo ATM directly in the lunch room. I kept my Wells Fargo account open.

Earlier this year I returned to Nashville, and when I was applying for my apartment I had to show proof of any bank accounts (I live in an income restricted residence). I don’t have a printer so I stopped in the local Wells Fargo branch and asked that my statements be printed off from the previous few months. No problem, I was told, but where the statements were once free, there was now a $2 fee per monthly statement. I needed it done. I paid the fee. I kept my Wells Fargo account open.

This month however, I saw for the first time a “monthly service charge” debited from my account without warning and without my permission. Not being a complete bonehead, I figured that my balance had slipped below some threshold which changed the account’s fee structure. That’s precisely what happened. I was now being charged $13 a month for the privilege of banking with Wells Fargo.

When I went in to ask about what could be done to avoid the fee I was told that if I opened a savings account and used my Wells Fargo debit card 10 times every month that my fees would be waived. However, I don’t use my debit card except in rare instances when I absolutely have to withdraw cash (typically from non-Wells Fargo ATMs, again given their relative scarcity), I use my Amazon Chase credit card for nearly all purchases because I really enjoy the FREE rewards program (a similar program to that of Wells Fargo’s, which I had been enrolled in previously, happily paying the $25 annual fee to participate in). Given that my current employment status — which could sexily be referred to as “freelance” — is uncertain though, I had an issue with opening a savings account because I don’t have what one might consider to be “savings.” Yet even though I’d dropped below this balance threshold, I was still willing to make adjustments in my spending and saving habits to make things work. What happened if I didn’t maintain the balance, I asked, figuring that I could probably use the debit card 10 times in a month if I really really had to. No fees, I was told, so long as I kept a slightly smaller minimum balance.

I immediately withdrew my money (via cashier’s check, which they kindly waived the fee for), closed my Wells Fargo bank account, canceled my Wells Fargo credit card, and walked from one side of downtown Nashville to the other, opening a new account with a local bank that a friend had recommended to me ages ago.

I’m not a lazy guy, which makes my decision to stay with Wells Fargo for as long as I did that much more embarrassing. Maybe it was a comfort thing. As life changed it was a constant: I was a Wells Fargo customer (emphasis on customer) because I’d always been a Wells Fargo customer, and I’d always been a Wells Fargo customer because that’s just the way things were.

Going through life and taking a beating because that’s just the way things are doesn’t cut it though. And this week I finally looked at the situation objectively, after a decade of taking my financial lumps, and decided that enough was enough, and it was time to move on. As for the inconvenience that I was dreading, that I couldn’t bear to face, of finding a new bank (let alone a bank that reimburses all ATM fees, offers free checking accounts, free everything-I-actually-need, only to be topped off by a tastefully accessorized branch office which just happens to be ripe with free soda and snacks)? The whole process took about an hour.

How convenient.

[Featured by: The Consumerist.]