“Wells Fargo and Perceived Convenience” (Originally published November 10, 2012)

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.]

Cheerwine

“The Great Diet Soda Debate” (Originally published December 13, 2012)

Here’s my dilemma: I don’t really care to drink water exclusively, and I don’t want to consume the calories that come with normal soda, so for the most part when I want to pour myself a refreshing ice-cold beverage, I stick with diet soda. Diet Mountain Dew is a personal favorite, and diet A&W Root Beer isn’t far behind, but to be honest: I usually keep it cheap and stick with generic store-brand alternatives (for 89 cents, it’s hard to say no). Diet soda tastes good and by choosing it over regular soft-drinks, I avoid the 800 (or so) calories that come with every two liter of the normal stuff that I might otherwise pour down my throat. The problem is: diet soda isn’t exactly a “healthy” alternative.

Most diet soda brands use the artificial sweetener aspartame (NutraSweet), and aspartame is hardly a recommended nutritional supplement. In doctor-speak, “Aspartame consists of the amino acids phenylalanine (50%), aspartic acid (40%), and a methyl ester (10%) that promptly becomes free methanol after entering the stomach. 3 The breakdown of phenylalanine to highly vasoactive substances—such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine—is clearly relevant to pulmonary hypertension, systemic hypertension, and the frequent cardiac arrhythmias experienced by persons with aspartame disease.” Which is to say that upon being ingested, aspartame becomes aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol — and yes, that is the same methanol that further breaks down into formaldehyde, potentially “damag[ing] both your immune and nervous systems.” The chemical’s relationship to cancer is staggering and its impact on diabetes is highly suspicious. All in all, aspartame isn’t exactly something that nurtures healthy bodies.

This isn’t exactly news to me though — actually, I’ve been doing my best ostrich with my head in the sand for a while now — so in an effort to flip the script in my own life, I stopped in my local grocery store this week and looked at every brand of diet soda they have to see if any didn’t contain aspartame. The single-solitary-choice that I found was the regional cherry soda brand Cheerwine. “Born in the South. Raised in a Glass. Since 1917. Cheerwine is the legendary singular soft drink of the South with the taste that always surprises.” Unlike Coke and Pepsi products, Cheerwine uses sucralose (Splenda) as its artificial sweetener — even touting the lack of aspartame right there on its label. By Splenda’s own accord it’s, “a great choice for everyone looking to take small steps to live a little healthier each day.” “Whether you’re looking to manage weight, cut back a few calories, minimize carbs or just plain eat a little better,” its website advocates, “Splenda Brand Sweetener Products are the perfect way to help you do that.” Not bad, right? So, I put a bottle in my basket, brought it home with me, poured myself a glass and hit the web to find out what I was drinking. Pretty tasty stuff considering it’s “a man-made chemical sweetener containing chlorine.”

Sucralose, while still posing some potential health concerns that include “skin rashes/flushing, panic-like agitation, dizziness and numbness, diarrhea, swelling, muscle aches, headaches, intestinal cramping, bladder issues, and stomach pain,” doesn’t seem to have the same risks as aspartame, but no studies have been conducted to gauge the long-term effects of the sugar-substitute, so very little information is available in that regard. The FDA (which is hardly the noble, people-first department of health-regulation that it’s made out to be), sticks by its approval of both aspartame and sucralose in diet sodas, ruling that the levels of the chemicals that are found in the products are suitable for human consumption. Just remember though: ammonia-soaked McNuggets are also “suitable for human consumption.”

All the same, as the year winds down and fresh, new, and exciting goals take hold for 2013, edging its way closer to the top of my list of things to do is: stop drinking soda. Period. Diet or otherwise. I don’t think it’ll make a huge impact on my life — all things considered, removing diet soda from my actual diet isn’t going to right a lifetime of nutritional wrongs. That said, I think it’s still worthwhile in the event that diet soda actually does disrupt metabolism, damage kidneys, and contribute tooth decay. Wouldn’t you agree? As far-fetched New Year’s resolutions are concerned, a No Soda New Year doesn’t seem entirely all that crazy, so I think I’m going to do it.

(Well… a little Cheerwine every now and then probably isn’t going to hurt.)

“Why Ting is the Best Cell-Phone Carrier” (Originally published December 28, 2012)

If you’re anything like me, you don’t want to pay a lot for cell-phone service. For starters, I simply don’t have the budget to pay a hundred bucks a month for use of the Nation’s Largest 4G LTE Network. Second, premium up-sale unlimited call/text/data plans miss the mark for me anyways, because I really don’t use my phone that much. Finally, however, it appears that hope has arrived.

And Ting be thy name.

I almost want to call Ting a “discount” carrier. Almost. But that’s not really what Ting is. Ting doesn’t use a discount network. Ting uses Sprint’s backbone, offering solid national coverage. (Not perfect, mind you, and not amazing if you need 4G, but solid.) Ting does not use discount (read: outsourced) customer support. Ting does not provide a discount website (their dashboard is remarkably user friendly). Actually, the “discount” label only comes to mind because Ting is inexpensive compared to other carriers. And I should know…

My first cell-phone contract was with Sprint. Since then I’ve used a mixture of “no contract” carriers in both Canada and the U.S. (Smart Talk, Cricket, President’s Choice, Fido) and 2-year contract-lock-down leaders (T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless). But why is Ting better than any of them? For me, it comes down to their sickeningly ethical credit & overage pricing. (Though, I must say, their “multiple devices on one plan” option seems like a beautiful thing, too. It sounds perfect for families and small businesses alike.) What does “sickeningly ethical” pricing mean? Well, here’s specifics:

The Phone: To get started (see: note on phones below) I purchased a refurbished LG Optimus S. The total price of the phone + shipping was $29.75 (after a discount I received). The phone is basic, but it’s all I need. If you need something with a little more power, they have a bunch of great devices.

The Plan: Here is exactly what I have paid so far using Ting.

Month One: Activation ($6.00) + Minutes (up to 500 minutes, $9.00) + Text Messages (up to 1000 messages, $5.00) + Data (up to 500 megabytes, $13.00) + Taxes & Regulatory Fees ($1.72) = $34.72 Paid.

In advance of the first month’s use I paid $34.72. That’s it. The $6 activation fee is the cost for using a phone with their service. This is where having multiple phones is great: You can have everyone in your family use a phone ($6 per phone per month) rather than having separate plans. Six dollars?! Why, that’s outrageous! For comparison’s sake, Verizon charges a $40 “Monthly Line Access Per Device” fee on their Share Everything plan. Six bucks ain’t bad, homie.

• Month One I used 130 Minutes, 1237 Text Messages, and 288 Megabytes.

Crap — I went over my text message limit. The world is ending, the sky is falling, and I can hear Death howling my name from beyond the grave!!! No problem, really, they just bumped me up a tier, adding $3 to my next bill (so I end up paying for the “up to 2000 messages” plan), because that’s what I used. And because of my usage they set me up for the same usage the following month.

Month Two: Activation ($6.00) + Minutes (up to 500 minutes, $9.00) + Text Messages (up to 2000 messages, $8.00) + Data (up to 500 megabytes, $13.00) + Taxes & Regulatory Fees ($4.09) + Extra Text Message Usage ($3.00) = $43.09 // $43.09 – $25.00 Referral Credit = $18.09 Paid.

Wait, what-the-what?! A $25 Referral Credit? What’s that for? By god, it’s the dastardly bounty (a rose by any other name…) they’ve placed on the heads of new customers who sign up using you as as a reference. A friend signed up using my referral code, so I got $25 off my bill and she got $25 off her cell-phone purchase. Which explains the “discount I received” on my own cell-phone purchase. Same deal.

• Month two I used 77 Minutes, 789 Text Messages, and 151 Megabytes.

Ah, horse apples. This whole system is broken. First I go over a little and then they bump me up and force me to pay next-tier pricing?! I paid for up to 500 minutes but only used 77. Same thing with text messages where I paid for up to 2000, but only used 789. They suckered me in and bumped me up!

Simmer down…

Month Three: Activation ($6.00) + Minutes (up to 100 minutes $3.00) + Text Messages (up to 1000 messages $5.00) + Data (up to 500 megabytes $13.00) + Taxes & Regulatory Fees ($2.84) = $29.84 // $29.84 – $9.00 Usage Credit = $20.84 Paid

Because my usage went down during my second month, they bumped me back down a tier in terms of minutes and text messages. And because I didn’t use what I previously paid for, they credited me back the difference. It’s almost off-putting how fair they are with their pricing.

If you have the budget and are willing to pay $60-$100+ per month for marginally better coverage (than Sprint), I might still recommend Verizon. Then again, when I was with Verizon I was rocking a Droid X. I loved that phone, so maybe my bias is toward the device and not the service. Either way, I’m not willing to pay that much, and I don’t think it’s worth it.

Since I wasn’t willing to pay so much (anymore) for Verizon, after fulfilling my contract with them earlier this year I signed up with Cricket (I really shouldn’t have done that). I figured that after five months I’d recoup the price of a new phone while still having the benefits of unlimited call/text/data without signing a new contract. Again, my bad. Cricket uses Sprint’s network as well, but their “discount” pricing is too expensive for what it is. After three months I’d had enough. Cricket has different pricing based on phone and connection speeds, but even on the basic bottom-of-the-barrel smartphone tier, I still paid slightly over $60/month. So far I’ve paid less for a phone and three months of service than I did for the stupid over-priced impulse-purchase Samsung device I bought through Cricket. (Which is now on its way to Cell Phones for Soldiers.)

For three months of usage plus the price of a phone I’ve paid a total of $103.40 to Ting. That’s it. They haven’t tagged on back-end charges, or billed me one amount and charged me another. The phone was $29.75, the first month $34.72, the second month $18.09, and the third month $20.84. Their transparency is ridiculous. They are the best.

(Phone note from above: To be clear, if you have a cell-phone already and didn’t purchase it with Ting, you might have to purchase a new phone. Emphasis on “might” though, because as of December 19, Ting has reached a beta stage on its BYO(S)D (Bring Your Own (Sprint) Device) trial, where if your phone works with Sprint, it also works with them. There’s zero static between you and customer service though, so if you have questions: Ask. You will get a response from a real person who will actually answer your question. If your phone won’t work, it won’t work. On the flip-side, if you’re desperately clinging to a phone you have now because “It still works, damn it!” consider donating it. Look, you’ve just done something nice for someone and now you get to go shopping for a new phone. It’s a win-win.)