• Taking a Break from Monogamy

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    photo: TheTruthAbout…

    It started, like all dalliances do, because I was having problems with my partner. My needs weren’t being met. My list of little dissatisfactions was growing longer — an irritation there, an annoyance there, and suddenly my eye started wandering off toward other options.

    Then Charles showed up. "Talk to me," he campaigned. It was tempting.

    So I did it. I snuck some money out of my bank account and handled it over. And it was great! So I kept doing it, on the sly, and suddenly there I was, months in, turning into someone I never thought I’d be: A two-bank-account gal.

    OK, I’m being melodramatic, but it’s also fairly true. Monogamy is our cultural default for marriage, and it was always my default for banking relationships. I like simplicity, and my financial situation is pretty straightforward: One income-generating job with biweekly paychecks, some scant savings, basic retirement accounts, and small bits of occasional freelance income. I don’t have investment accounts, multiple revenue streams, trust funds or any of the exotic complexities that would require more complicated arrangements.

    So it literally never occurred to me that I could split my everyday checking account up and store parts of it at two different banks. Until I accidentally did it.

    I’m a serial monogamist with banks: I go all-in with one and love it to bits until the inevitable smash-up. Things always end badly. Since college, I’ve opened accounts with three different banks. Two were shut down by the FDIC; one got bought by a rival and shut down. When my last bank, WaMu, got whacked, I was tossed to the wolves at Chase.

    I tried to make things work with Chase. I was tired of account-hopping. Chase can’t get shut down by the FDIC, I figured — I’m pretty sure that right before Armageddon it’ll be having a steel-cage match with Bank of America for dominion over the American economy. I liked having an ATM on every street corner. (Literally! Chase has ATMs in every Duane Reade drugstore in NYC, and there is a Duane Reade on the same street as every office or apartment I’ve inhabited.)

    And for a few months, Chase put on its best manners for us WaMu refugees. It was in full suitor mode, keeping our account terms the same and offering incentives to stay put.

    But then the fees started. And the half-truths. Just months after promising not to charge for outside ATM withdrawls — WaMu’s entire raison d’être for many customers — Chase slipped an "oh actually we’re gonna charge ATM fees" line into the itty-bitty fine print of my monthly statement.

    When I found out, I started planning the divorce. I always said I wouldn’t stay on those terms — I have an irrational hatred of ATM fees.

    So I went looking for someone who would treat me right, who wouldn’t charge fees, and Charles Schwab ended up on my short list. I decided to give it a whirl, and opened an account. My plan was always to get things set up at Schwab and then give Chase the boot. It would be cathartic, like showing up with the U-Haul and clearing out.

    But there was one tiny complication: My soon-to-be-ex had a few addictive qualities I kept wanting to take advantage of just one last time. Like those 14,000 ATMs Chase has plastering the U.S. ATMs that don’t even need deposit envelopes when they suck in your checks! And branches — branches every 200 feet!w

    "I won’t make the switch until we finish buying the apartment," I told myself. "I’ll keep two accounts open just a tad bit longer …"

    And then, like a lightening bolt, it hit me: I could keep both. As long as I wanted.

    Sophisticated money managers will laugh at this, I know. There are personal finance-bloggers who play bank-account arbitrage, strafing the landscape with new accounts to take advantage of minute differences in rates and terms. But I’ve never been like that; I like things simple, basic and traditional. So these past few months have been heady.

    Suddenly, I am a Sophisticated Financial Personage, with two accounts. I have choices. If I want to wire money, or withdraw cash, or even just talk to a teller, I can pick where I want to go.

    Here’s the practical details. (That’s how it always seems to be when you take the scary leap from monogamy to polyamory — first, there’s the big rush of excitement; then your life gets consumed by logistics.) This approach only works because of an unusual quirk: Like most banks, Chase charges monthly maintenance fees unless you maintain a set minimum balance or have direct paycheck deposits, but unlike most banks, Schwab doesn’t. So I can keep my Schwab account alive, for free, no matter how little activity it has.

    I’ve kept my biweekly paychecks going to Chase, but I siphoned off a few hundred dollars to keep parked at Schwab. That means anytime I want to withdraw cash from a non-Chase ATM, I can use my Schwab card to do it, fee-free. I’ve essentially turned my Schwab account into a savings account. I’m using it to isolate cash I’d like to keep stashed, and when I withdraw cash, I transfer money out of my Chase account to replenish the Schwab balance (free, but it typically takes 2-3 days to clear).

    Right now, this approach is working brilliantly. I’d be happy to keep it up indefinitely.

    But I’m also on guard against Chase making yet more changes to its account terms, in ways that will irritate me further. Most Chase accounts charge a monthly fee unless you keep a minimum balance on hand. If they start pulling that, I’m gone. My little feathered Schwab nest is all ready to become my main account.

    Like most people with a bit on the side, I’m casting a pretty critical eye these days on my primary partner.


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