Transferring Power: Or, Why I Pulled My Head Out of the Sand and Switched to a Credit Union

Switching to a credit union is one of the easiest and most sustainable forms of protest, and one of the most effective ways to shift the (im)balance of power.
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The red flags have always been there.

I was probably a sophomore in undergrad when Wells Fargo, in all their infinite wisdom, decided to increase the spending limit on my credit card to eighteen thousand dollars. Eighteen thousand dollars. For a nineteen-year-old student who only worked part-time and still lived with her parents.

This is not a tale of a girl who sunk herself into thousands dollars of debt before she was even old enough to buy alcohol (although I can't say some of my friends fared as well). No. I used my card carefully and made all of my payments on time. Although that balance slowly grew over the years (I mostly used it to pay for school supplies and part of my tuition), it never got remotely close to eighteen thousand dollars.

Fast forward half a decade, when I'm going to grad school in New York and relying on that card to keep me afloat until financial aid comes through. I'm still making my payments on time and my balance is still manageable, so imagine my horror when I get a letter saying something to the effect of, "Surprise! We changed our minds about that whole eighteen thou thing--now you only have a limit of $300! Pay that over-the-limit balance now...or else!" I ended up using my financial aid money--the money I'd planned to use on rent and groceries--to pay off that balance. Good times.

And so ended my moment of drama--and most of my business at the time--with Wells Fargo. I kept the account open, but since Wells didn't have any branches in New York, I reluctantly opened an account with Bank of America.

That's when the fun really began.

There are a lot of "fond" memories I have of my relationship with Bank of America employees. My absolute favorite Bank of America experience happened after I'd graduated; I was working three part-time jobs but was having no luck finding full-time employment, and my checking account almost constantly hovered right above the red. When I finally overdrafted, it was detrimental: Bank of America's overdraft policy at the time was to post larger pending transactions first in order to maximize their likelihood of collecting more overdraft fees (this policy has since resulted in a $410 million class-action settlement). I went into the bank in tears; because of their overdraft policy, I had over a hundred dollars worth of fees on my account, and I wasn't going to get paid for another week and a half. When I tried to explain my situation to the employee, she just coldly said, "It's only until next Friday. You'll be fine." Meanwhile, I was left struggling to figure out how I was going to eat and get to work for the next ten days.

Why I didn't leave Bank of America and Wells Fargo at that point is beyond me--I've boycotted corporations for much more impersonal infractions. I knew firsthand that their policies were setting people up to fail, and that those policies disproportionately affected poor people. As the wealth gap grows, people of color--particularly women of color--continue to be hit particularly hard. I watched the effects of corporate greed with growing discontent, yet I kept my accounts.

Of all the problems I've had with the "Big Banks" over the years, the last straw was Bank of America's intent to charge its customers $5 a month for using their debit cards; I was infuriated at the thought of having to spend $60 a year to use my own money. Though the banks have since backed down on their latest greedy ploy, I felt compelled to join the thousands of others who were pulling their money out of the Big Banks and opening accounts with local banks or credit unions. I simply do not trust the Big Banks, and I fully expect them to find subtler ways to tack on fees in the coming months.

It has already begun. A couple of weeks ago, I noticed $5 fees on my Wells Fargo checking account. The bank had switched me to a different type of checking account without even notifying me, one that would require me to open a savings account in order to remain "free." But the whole reason I no longer had a savings account with Wells Fargo is that, years ago, the bank had switched my savings account and begun charging fees (again without notifying me) for not meeting the new required minimum amount. Most of the money that I had left untouched in savings had been swallowed by these fees, and I'd closed my savings account in anger. If these are the types of shenanigans banks are pulling with checking and savings accounts, I shudder to think about what they're doing with people's loans and mortgages.

Saturday, November 5, was Bank Transfer Day. In solidarity with the Move Your Money movement and Bank Transfer Day, I began hunting for a local bank to move my money into early last week. On Friday, I began looking into credit unions and finally found one that met my needs. The look of unease on the tellers' faces as I emptied my Bank of America savings account was deeply satisfying. The only reason I didn't close my accounts on the spot is because I'm waiting for my direct deposit and and automatic payments to transfer to my credit union account.

This is no small movement; in the month since Bank of America announced its intent to charge customers for debit card use, over 650,000 new credit union accounts were opened opened prior to Bank Transfer Day. To put this into perspective, only 600,000 new credit union accounts were opened in all of 2010. It remains to be seen how many people opened accounts on Bank Transfer Day, but $4.5 billion was moved out of the major financial institutions in October alone. Credit Union National Association Chief Economist Bill Hampel estimates that the credit union system may have seen an approximate $60 billion increase in assets since June 30 of this year. Make no mistake: corporations are taking notice.

The way I see it, switching to a credit union is one of the easiest and most sustainable forms of protest, and one of the most effective ways to shift the (im)balace of power. I only wish I'd done it sooner.

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