Michael on August 19th, 2009
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I wrote last week about how to negotiate your cable bill, a process that, while painful, was rather lucrative.  Today I share with you a couple of other additional phone calls I made to save some dough and the lessons we can learn as a result.

Rubin v. The Bank Soon to be Formerly Known as the Name Still on Its Sign

First, I called my bricks and mortar bank.

You: Why do you even have a local bank? They are fee central.

You’re right; many banks with branches do charge a lot of fees.  In fact, I went several years without a local bank.  I mailed in the occasional check and took cash out via ATM.  I had enough money at the bank that they waived their ATM charges and reimbursed me for those charged by others.

You: So what changed?

For personal banking, nothing. But starting my own business meant a whole different banking world.

Most Total Candor clients pay their invoices by check.  When we receive checks, rather than paying postage and waiting for several days for the funds to clear, we opened a bank account in the neighborhood so that we can deposit the checks locally.

You: So, all was good until . . .

Take a guess.

You: They charged you a fee.

Well done.  I don’t like fees so, when I opened the account in 2005, I compared three local banks and their fee schedules.  I found I could get a small business checking account with a clever name that assessed no fees yet would fully meet our needs.  This worked for three years.

[Sinister music plays, growing ever louder.]

Then, my bank announced a . . . . . merger.


I started to receive numerous correspondence about how everything was going to be so much better now that my bank was going to remove five letters from the end of its name.

You: And you believed it?

Of course not!  But I did read closely how my fees were going to change.  Now I would have a minimum balance requirement or face a sizable monthly fee.  Fortunately, the minimum balance was only $100, an amount I always ensure is there anyway.  So I didn’t worry.

You: Foreshadowing an unsuspecting twist to come . . .

Hey, stop that.

You: Sorry. Misery loves company.

Nonetheless, before the signs even changed on the branches, upon reviewing my July statement, I discovered


You: For what?


You: Image checks in statement?


You: What does that even mean?

Remember when you used to receive your original checks when they cleared along with your bank statement?

You: Not really.

Well, that’s the way it was back when I had my first checking account. Over the years, presumably to cut costs, some banks stopped sending them and many instead provided you with images.

Merger of Equal Brainiacs

In some board meeting somewhere,  the executives apparently had to figure out how to make their merger a good idea. After all, they had promised synergies!  Perhaps they had cut costs as far as they could. So one exec says to the other, “Hey Bob, remember when we used to send our customers their canceled checks?”

Bob responds, “Sure do, Tim. Wow that was stupid. And expensive!”

“I imagine,” Tim continues, “these days we could probably charge people just to get those images.  Nobody checks their statements anyway.”

“So now something that used to be a cost to us actually becomes a revenue center?”


“Tim, you’re a genius. Now I know why I merged with you.”

A few weeks later I get a fee. So too do thousands and thousands of other small businesses, many of whom aren’t looking so closely at their statements.

I call customer service.  I tell the nice representative that “I don’t do fees, so I need to know what I have to do to make sure I’m never charged for this again.”  She explains that all I would have to do is to take the image checks off the statement.  I told her to do so. After several minutes of typing, she asks if there was anything else.

I said yes.

You: What else?

I told her that I would like to have the already assessed fees removed since I wasn’t told about them in advance and I don’t do fees.

She advised me that I was told about the fees I was charged.

I told her that I wasn’t. I told her to tell me when and how.

She explained the paperwork I was sent. Me, being somewhat anal, pulled out the paperwork she mentioned and began to review it. I could find no such fee introduction and told her so.

She put me on hold. Again.

She needed to think of something fast.

Turns out there was an insert – in addition to the big piece of paper that had all the fees. This insert had still more fees.

“Well played,” I thought to myself.

I told her I couldn’t prove I got the insert anymore than she could prove I did, but that logic held that if this one fee wasn’t with all the other fees, that I clearly had read the fee sheet previously, that I was able to pull the paperwork up while we were still on the phone, that I hated fees, that I probably wasn’t told.

But she wouldn’t budge.  Presumably because she wasn’t empowered herself to do so.

I had a decision to make.

You: To get the supervisor.

I decided not to.

You: Why not?

It was only $1 (times three accounts).  My primary concern was making sure that the fee didn’t recur in the future.  I had already invested much too much time and energy for the $3.

You: Yeah, but still.

Am I really going to go through all that hell of closing down my accounts and opening them elsewhere over three bucks?


Will I grow my relationship with them as my business grows?

Hell no.  They’ll just continue to get the least profitable part. They made it clear by their actions that they can treat me like I am disposable.  They can use me.  I’m pretty sure I can mirror those attributes.

[Tangent: It's a good thing I can't sing, or my bank might suffer the same way United Airlines did at the mercy of this guy.]

Customer Service. On Time.

A few minutes later I called FedEx.

You: Why?

There had been an apparent error in my last bill. Something that ordinarily would have cost about $5 was billed at over $13.

When I reached a representative,  I told her that something didn’t look right.  Before I could even start typing an email (since I figured I’d be on hold again while they researched an answer for why I wasn’t right when I actually was, i.e., the bank’s MO), she told me that she would be crediting my account immediately and apologized about four times for the error; an error she obviously had nothing to do with.

That’s how to treat people.  FedEx made a mistake and caused me to invest some of my finite time to deal with it, yet I came away happier with them than before.


  • You have to review your statements. All of them. There will be errors and more will be against you than for you.
  • You won’t always get what you deserve (the previous bank fee, in my case), but sometimes you’ll get more than what you’re really asking for (my cable bill reduction despite improved service).
  • No one else will ever care as much as you do. It’s your money.

What experiences have you had arguing mistakes made against you? Ever had a mistake in your favor you decided not to disclose? Net, are you up or down?

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6 Comments to “Bank fees and billing errors”

  1. Stephanie and I started using a credit union a couple of years ago and I couldn’t be happier.

    Here’s what brought on the switch:

    I had $75 in overdraft charges on my checking account at Big Bank. For starters, it was because of 3 transactions totaling $7. $75 for $7 sounds a bit excessive. Second of all, it was because a teller had deposited my paycheck into my savings account instead of my checking, something I never do, and had not asked her to do.

    It took me over 2 hours of arguing to get them to refund me the $75 but they eventually did, but then I decided to get smart. I told them I wanted $150 given to me. When they asked me why, here’s the explanation I gave them (I had 2 hours of waiting and arguing to put this logic together):

    Had the mistake been mine, I would have been charged $75 for the inconvenience I caused the bank. In this case, the bank was wrong and was an inconvenience to me, so I wanted to charge them the same $75 they were oh-so-willing to charge me. They owed me my original $75 they had erroneously charged me, plus $75 on top of that. They didn’t go for it, so I withdrew all my money right then and there.

    Working with a credit union has been wonderful. Higher interest rates on savings (very close to ING rates), lower rates on loans, and they are invested, and invest, in the community. I’ve been looking for a reason that banks might be any better than credit unions, but no one, not even a bank, has been able to give me any reason. Michael, do you know in what instance the services of a bank would be preferable?

  2. Michael says:

    @Jeffrey: Thanks for your thoughts and sharing your experiences. I agree you deserved $150, but I don’t think either one of us was surprised at how that story ended.

    Liz Pulliam Weston writes an excellent article about the advantages of a credit union over a bank. I’ve not personally used a credit union, as my banking needs have primarily been satisfied by online providers and I’ve been very happy with the results.

    The only thing I could come up with as a potential advantage of a bank over a credit union is the relative proximity of more banks, especially if you travel and need access to branches. It’s a stretch, given that it’s 2009, however.

    Nonetheless, it still makes sense to compare rates and potential fees; just be sure to include multiple credit unions in your search.

  3. Tim B Smith says:

    You hit the nail on the head. Banks figured out how to charge us more fees so they could make a living.

    But the really interesting part is that the bank really isn’t making money off of 75% of Americans. They make 3/4 of their income off of the 25% of the population that overdrafts their accounts. Some people are paying quite a bit for “free checking”, and it would be a shame to do so because of an error the bank made.

    Good for you for taking the time to get those fees reversed.

  4. Michael says:

    @Tim B Smith: Thanks for stopping by and adding your wisdom. So the 80-20 rule (modified slightly) applies in all sorts of interesting places, eh?

  5. Eden says:

    I have not had a problem with a bank per se, but I have spent 16 months of my life trying to get reimbursed for $593 in expenses from Northwest Airlines. I went on a family trip to Denmark in May 2008 with 15 members of my family for 12 days and we all traveled with just carry-on luggage (it makes a group our size faster and more portable than dealing with lots of luggage).

    My brother-in-law and I were near the end of the line boarding the plane and the plane’s overhead bins were full so a NWA ticket agent took our carry-on luggage off the flight and did not give us a claim ticket or tracking number for the luggage despite our attempts to get one. Neither would they gate check the luggage. Bye, bye luggage. We spent nine days of a 12-day trip tracking down our luggage (thank you to my brother who had an iPhone). We spent hours each day talking to Northwest Airlines, sending emails and finally realized they had no idea where our luggage was and would do nothing to help us–at least the unempowered minions in their customer service department.

    We then spent hours tracking down that one lone NWA ticket agent who had taken our luggage off our flight since he was the only person in the universe who had any idea what had happened to it.

    Well, we finally reached him after we left numerous voicemails and he proceeded to scream at us and call us liars. (I still am unclear why he used that label.) Within two hours he had located our luggage–in Amsterdam where he sent it when he took it off our flight.

    We spent four years planning for this trip and it really was a lovely, wonderful experience. But because we only had carry-on luggage and we were in a foreign country we had to replace clothing, toiletries, etc for nine of those 12 days to the tune of $593. That is what we want back from Northwest Airlines. I’ve called them on the phone and sent over 40 emails the last 16 months trying to get refunded for those expenses. Our NWA flight connected with an IcelandAir flight that took us to Copenhagen, Denmark so there standard reply has been that IcelandAir is responsible according to an interline air agreement for any reimbursements of our luggage. Neither airline has reimbursed us. At this point I have begun to wonder, am I spending too much time and energy trying to recoup that money?

  6. Michael says:

    @Eden: What an ordeal! I am sure on an hourly basis, you’re probably past the point where it would have been profitable (with perfect information about how this would turn out) to spend all this time (not to mention anguish). On the other hand, past time investments are sunk – you’ll never get them back. Short of one last ditch effort via a written letter to someone at corporate headquarters (not the customer service department, but a senior level executive who supervises customer service), I’d be done. But, if you haven’t tried that, it could be worth a shot.

    Then, go on with your life.

    When companies have dealt with me in the past like that (rare, but it does happen), I just don’t use them anymore and bad-mouth to others as appropriate. I know it’s cost them more than any reasonable corrective action they could have taken. (It’s a small, albeit, real comfort.)

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