Wednesday, October 17, 2012

If you don't ask

For the last few months, I've noticed a $2 service fee on my bank statements. I was at first confused, then irritated by this. It didn't feel like the bank was performing much of a service, apart from taking my salary every month and sitting on it.

$2 isn't very much, but if everyone in Singapore was that lacksidaisical about money, the banks would be making $11 million dollars a month for doing nothing at all, and I object to that sort of thing.

Clearly I can't object to it that much, because I didn't do anything for two months, while I was flying around the world or eating cheese in far-flung places. However, this couldn't go on forever.

One of the advantages of online banking is that banks can sack branch staff, assuming machines can replace them. One of the disadvantages of online banking is that their customers have the opportunity to complain 24 hours of the day, rather than only when the branches are open. Accepting the technological wonder of this brave new world, I logged on and asked what the $2 charges were for.

They wrote back and told me it was because my balance had dropped below a minimum threshold. A little steam wafted from my ears.

In the UK, I became accustomed to fee-free banking. Sure, if I got an overdraft I'd pay for that, but if I was in credit with the bank, I didn't feel they were entitled to charge me for the privilege of holding my money. When I got to Singapore, it turned out I was an eccentric; it would cost you to have a current account. I'm not excited about owning a cheque book, so I asked for an account that I wouldn't have to pay for.

I'm careful like that. I have spreadsheets that I used to save thousands on my mortgage through a complicated web of interest free transfers of credit card debt, and an (tight) iron fist of willpower. Every time I have to pay for something that the bank would have given me for free, I get unhappy. So when the bank told me that I'd dropped below the minimum threshold, I was confused, surprised, shocked that my army of formulas had let me down.

Then I considered this a bit more.

In Singapore, income tax doesn't operate on a pay-as-you-earn basis, like in the UK. Instead, at the end of the year you pay it all in one go. This would never work in the UK because nobody would have any money at the end of the year to pay their tax. Even if they had saved some up all year, they'd have got blotto at Christmas and spent it 'by mistake' on extra booze. Paranoid that I might do the same in Singapore, I'd carefully calculated my tax liability and paid it into a second account with the same bank every month. Now I'm not boasting, but the tax I'll pay this year is going to be more than the minimum threshold the bank wanted in order to not hit me with a service charge.

I emailed the bank again. I told them I wasn't happy with what they'd done, and I hoped we could reach an equitable solution, or else I'd take all my money elsewhere.

Banks like money. They don't like it when money goes away from them.

Now I thought the bank would do one of two things: shrug, or tell me that I should have read the fine print more carefully. I'd have been happy if they'd realised 'equitable' would mean "give me back half the service fees, I'll pay attention to your microscopic terms and conditions in future and we'll call it quits". So I was surprised again to open up an envelope today and find the bank was refunding all the service charges. Which was nice.

This just goes to show that you'll only get something if you ask for it, and it's best to ask politely, even if you're cross. And if you can come across as the kind of petty maniac who'll change all his banking arrangements over the measly sum of $6, that probably helps too.


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