ARE WE BETTER OFF IN AN ATM WORLD?

Fridays used to be different from other days. Fridays were when you went to the bank.

If you were lucky, you simply informed your co-workers, “I’m off to get my check cashed, be back in a bit.” And you lost only a half-hour of productivity.

If you weren’t so lucky, you had to tuck the trip into your lunch hour. And since the bank line was long with other people stuck in the same boat, you spent most of your “eating” time glancing at your watch and nervously tapping your foot.

What choice did you have? If you didn’t cash the check on Friday, you had no money for the weekend.

But Fridays aren’t like that anymore — thanks to the automated teller machine. In a short span of time, we’ve gone from being able to get our money only at the bank, Monday through Friday, between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., to getting our money any day, any hour, anywhere from a supermarket down the street to a gas station halfway around the world.

You might think, because of that convenience, because of that freedom, that no one would find fault with the hardworking ATM.

Wanna bet?

Battle of California

There is a war going on over ATMs these days. Most recently it is playing out in California, where the cities of San Francisco and Santa Monica have banned banks from charging fees to non-customers using their ATMs.

This is often referred to as “double dipping.” Your bank, where you keep your money, charges you, say, $1.50 each time you use an ATM — which shows up on your monthly statement — while the bank that owns the ATM charges you $1.50 when you use it.

That’s $3 every time you want some of your money.

The California cities said, “Enough.”

The banks said, “Oh, yeah?”

In a countermove, two of the banks facing bans under the new rule said they would not let non-customers use their ATMs. Either you bank with them or no money for you!

“They’re like babies whining,” says Jon Golinger, who works for the California Public Interest Research Group. “They don’t like the rules so they want to take their toys and go home.”

Apparently, the banking industry is surprised at the ungratefulness of its customers. After all, these ATMs are modern miracles. And you have to figure it cost something to build, locate and operate them. Shouldn’t banks be entitled to cover their costs, maybe make a few bucks for the service?

Well. Maybe. Then again, banks will rarely tell you what it actually costs to operate an ATM.

Besides, the average American can cite a rule as old as the dollar bill itself: banks never do things to be nice.

They do things to make money.

No shortage of fees

Perhaps customers would have been more sympathetic to the ATM charges if, in the past, banks hadn’t charged you every time you wrote a check.

Or every time you made a withdrawal.

Or every time your balance fell below a certain minimum.

Maybe they would have been more understanding if banks didn’t make you wait a week before cashing an out-of-state check, when you know they were making money off the “float” between the time you gave them the money and the time they gave it back.

Maybe they would have been more sympathetic if not for the fact that — and pay attention here — the average ATM transaction costs banks around 27 cents. That’s 27 cents. Which means they’re making a 500 percent profit every time you use a machine.

Which adds up to nearly $2 billion a year.

From a service that didn’t exist before.

And we’re not even mentioning the money they saved by firing tellers who were no longer needed.

So if the banks are looking for sympathy, they’re not going to get it. Besides, when you think back on it, that trip to the bank on Fridays, while annoying, did get us out of the office.

And it did give us a chance to stop at the drugstore, or the market, or the newsstand, which could always be covered up by saying, “Sorry, the line at the bank was really long.”

Instead, with no more check-cashing excuse, we have to stay at our desks all day.

Oh, boy. Now, we’re really mad.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch
“Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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