By ANNE KADET
You can't live with 'em>, can't live without 'em. The old line readily applies to women, men, lawyers, cell phones and, many would say, banks. When they're not freaking us out with subprime shenanigans and bailout requests, banks have been treating us to new fees, spotty service and, most recently, the foreclosure fiasco. Customer satisfaction with the sector has fallen four years in a row, according to J.D. Power, and as a recent Zogby poll reveals, one in 10 Americans has yanked business from big banks to protest their practices. All of which got me wondering: Is it possible, in 2011, to lead a civilized life without a bank account?
About 9 million U.S. households are trying, and according to the FDIC, half are former bank clients. Among the reasons typically cited: high fees and bad service. Twenty-five percent decided they simply didn't need an account.
Are these people all living in a commune? During my two-week dalliance with the bank-free lifestyle, I had a hard time just getting my hands on my money. When I tried to cash a check at Capital One, the teller eyed me with suspicion. "Who's Meredith?" he demanded, glancing at the issuer's name. I explained that my sister had written the check on her Capital One account. The teller shook his head: "Your sister's gonna have to give you cash!" Typical. Only a third of banks will cash certain checks for a noncustomer, and most of those charge a fee for the service. (Capital One calls my incident a "teller error.")
Next stop: the check-cashing store. The joint near my office offers a spectacular array of ancillary services: gold jewelry, sunglasses, lottery tickets and bus tours to Niagara Falls. The clerk, who sat hunched over an old adding machine and a metal box full of cash, was happy to cash my paycheck. He also took a 1.8 percent cut.
It takes about five minutes to pay the utility bills online. Without a bank, I had to run around town all afternoon, suffering the indignities of second-class-payment status. Time Warner Cable decorates its payment center with sharply worded posters: "Like waiting in line? We didn't think so. Pay online!" At AT&T Wireless, I had to feed twenties into a robotic payment kiosk. At least it took my money. Scottrade stops customers cold with a plaque on the front counter: no cash accepted. Government regs, a rep told me. Turns out, money laundering rules make it tough for brokers to accept cash. We're living in a strange time, when the government bars you from funding your brokerage account with government-issued currency. I used a money order.
Yes, there's always a work-around, but it's going to be a time-suck. The car-rental outfit that agreed to take my cash also required a $500 deposit, two pay stubs and two utility bills. You can even pay cash for a plane ticket if you're willing to make an advance trip out to the airport or schlep over to Western Union with your reservation number.
But what about online shopping? I felt silly mailing $7.61 to an online retailer for a paperback it's like sending brownies to a feeding-tube patient. And when my book (inevitably) failed to arrive, a follow-up call went nowhere. Other outfits offered alternatives. Katie, a rep at Netflix, suggested I borrow a friend's credit card. Apple encourages card-free music buffs to buy an iTunes gift card. It only took two days and two trips to the store (one to buy the card, a second to get a clerk's help to activate it) before I was downloading Philip Glass to my iPhone.
The best tip came from the rep at Zipcar. Go to the drugstore, she advised, and get a prepaid Visa or MasterCard. Turns out, these cards are accepted any place that accepts a debit card including Amazon and the gas company. It all sounded so easy, so convenient. And then I realized, these cards are all issued by, you guessed it, banks! They almost had me.