Financial Literacy - When 'No' Means 'Maybe'

It was frustrating. There we were, the salespeople, I and a colleague. We'd spent an hour shopping for about $2500 worth of children's books (after a 90 minute drive), and then the salespeople had spent about another hour ringing them in. And, now, every time I tried to use my debit card the result was a "system error."

Well... life's like that sometimes.

So, the next day, closer to home, we go through the same process. Only, this time I'm getting them rung through in bunches of about 50 books each. All goes well until I cross the $1000 mark. Then, the "system error" returns.

Of course, it's not a system error at all - it's a cap on the use of my debit card.

Now, I'm not faulting anyone here. I'm sure the Credit Union folks told me about the cap when I got the card years ago. In fact, I'm a little apologetic about some of the uncharitable thoughts I had toward the first bookstore when the problem was all at my end.

But, in the end, I did have a problem: I wanted to buy these books and, despite having more than adequate funds, was unable to. The Indigo salespeople - for it was them - were kind enough to set aside our selection until I could visit my Credit Union on Monday. Which is what I did.

By this point, I suspected that there was a cap in place. I wasn't angry or anything. But it was a problem that needed addressing. So, I went in with a plan.

First, I would withdraw enough cash to buy the books. Second, I would ask about the cap, and see if it could be removed or raised upward. Third, since I was asking questions anyway, I would ask about closing an account - was there a delay or a penalty? Later, I thought, I might visit some banks to see what their policies were, etc.

Confession time: I'm a white, articulate, English-speaking male with a job. That means I have enough social capital to act like a customer rather than a supplicant in places like banks and bookstores and such. I think that's important for what happened next.

So... back to the story. Was there a cap? Yes, set at $1000. Could it be removed or raised? No. Sorry, but no. What's the process for closing an account? Wait a moment and let me just double check about raising the debit card limit.

Honestly, I didn't mean to use any "I'll close my account unless..." threat. My question about closing my account really was rooted in my concern that I'd forgotten some other rule which, like the debit card limit, might thwart me at an inopportune moment.

But no sooner had the words "close an account" left my mouth than "no" became "maybe".

Which meant that, maybe, the "no" was a lie. Wouldn't you say? (And isn't the model exactly that of a difficult parent-child negotiation? Read on.)

The new answer to my debit card question was that a raised limit had to be approved by a manager (who was out and would have to give me a call). Was that what I wanted? Yes, I said, and then signed a form to that effect.

A few hours later, the call came. The manager was friendly but firm - the Credit Union just didn't raise the limit on debit cards for personal accounts. Sorry, but that's just how it is - and it's for your own protection, etc, etc.

Was that okay? she asked. Or maybe it was, Did I understand? There was some sort of gentle check-in question like that, and I assured her I understood. Thanks for calling. No hard feelings. I guess I'll have to check around and see what sort of policies other institutions had.....

Oh, those magic words!!!

Well, she said, in complete contradiction to what she'd said a moment before, if I really wanted the limit raised they could do that.


Well, said I (a tad sharply), now I am confused. Are you saying yes you will raise the limit or no you won't?

Only if you're sure that's what you want....

Yes it's what I want, I explained with - I think - remarkable patience. That's why I asked for it, and why I then signed that piece of paper requesting it.

Okay, she said. It would take 24 hours to process.

No problem - thanks so much.

Except there was a problem: twice I'd been told "no" when the truth was "yes, but we don't want you to."

I'm sure the limit was for my protection - parents are always acting in the best interests of their children - but the manager of my Credit Union is not my mother.

Worse, I can't help wondering what else they're lying to misleading me about... in my own best interest, of course.

It's been a couple of month since the financial literacy media blitz (remember all that) but I find I'm still learning. Of course, the learning is easier when you're a white, articulate, English-speaking male with a job and enough social capital to act like a customer rather than a supplicant.

And this is the thing that really stuck with me. Suppose I had been a lesser-educated person, or, say, a female of colour. Would I have ever gotten the truth out of "mom"? Look at the lady pictured below. Do you think the Credit Union would ever have let her spend as much of her money as she liked?

You know, the financial literacy of Canadians will improve ten-fold the moment our economic institutions begin speaking plainly and answering questions truthfully the first time we ask.

No comments: