What I learned from four years in banking

Last week, I ran into someone I knew from an old job on the train. It was 7 o’clock in the morning. He was heading to work and so was I. This wouldn’t have been any more common occurrence than riding the train itself, but every once in awhile I run into Paul. He and I exchanged a few brief sentences. He still teaches fitness classes for our local transportation system Tri-Met, he told me, and I told him about my new job. We then parted our ways when he told me he needed to get himself a cup of coffee.

It feels like ages ago but from late 2010 to late 2014, I worked in the banking industry. It’s an industry that I sort “fell into,” so to speak, because I didn’t specifically seek it out. Post college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Coupled that with experiencing the recession, it didn’t make for a particularly easy decision.

I got a job at a local bank because I had customer service and sales experience. It was there that I learned the proper way to count and display money (something I never really took into consideration before) and how to be vigilant for possible security risks (for example, examining checks for signs of fraud or observing people’s behavior when they’re interacting with you at the teller window). I continued on to a local credit union after 8 months because the sales environment was a bit much for me. It was almost a cut-throat sales floor where there was always a weekly competition and a reminder from management that we might be fired if we didn’t meet our sales goals.

Luckily, when I got to the credit union, it wasn’t like that, but I still had sales goals to achieve. It was a much more flexible, open environment where I could call anybody within the company and they’d respond right away and give me helpful information, which makes the customer’s experience that much better. To this day, I still bank at that credit union and would not recommend anything else.

Still, during my years there I had some turbulent moments, but also learned quite a bit about people’s behaviors. I had no idea that all the stuff I learned in college, and what I read online via personal finance articles/blogs/sites that it was nothing compared to having access to people’s personal financial accounts.

I learned how much people made (and the majority of the members I helped made significantly more than I did) via their direct deposit and physical paychecks. I learned what people did on the weekends by simply glancing at their transaction history–where they went to dinner, what type of things they typically spend their money on, and how much they spent at the grocery store (always an astounding amount in comparison to myself, who before I had kids, tried to stay at around $200-$300 per month).

Many of us don’t realize that tellers, perhaps next to our priests, know so much personal stuff about us. Of course, we are not all defined by our bank accounts, but many things can be deduced from it. Take, for example, someone who goes to Starbucks a lot. It means they have a coffee addiction, right? Or someone who brings in a lot of checks and separates them out, and then makes you do multiple transactions that ends up taking at least 15 minutes means that they’re particular, right? (I did have one member who did that all the time).

Another thing I learned from my banking days is that you can never judge a book by its cover. I learned that although a lot of people make more money than me (post-tax), they still spend an exorbitant amount, so the day before their payroll hits, they only have $10 in their account, or they’re already overdrawn. Those are the non-saver types. Then there’s people who hardly spend anything. Instead, they only have savings accounts, and withdraws a certain amount of cash to spend weekly. There’s also the people who have a lot of money in their savings but also a lot of debt, given by their current credit balances are about as equal as their savings.

Finally, there’s people who are truly on the poverty level–they barely have any money, and when they do it usually comes from a state or governmental agency, like the IRS. I learned that those are the people who are most down-to-earth. They are also the ones who have horrible credit ratings, typically a D or C rating (550-690).

Of course, it’s easy to judge people by their credit rating, because credit rating equal credit worthiness, which in turns translates into human worthiness. How we’re able to pay back our debts has to do with our moral obligation to ourselves and our ethical beliefs, right? And how others view us contributes to that worthiness as well.

That can’t be more wrong. But unfortunately, in the financial world, numbers mean everything. I’ve heard people tell me about things that happened to them which brought down their credit rating by 200 points. Usually, all it takes is one major catastrophic event to make it happen, like a divorce, a legal battle, or a medical condition. These things happen, and even though we can’t really blame people for it (after all, it’s not like they choose to be sick), the reality is–we do. Banks and credit unions make a point from the previous recession in that they look at the person as a whole–financially, of course–and income and credit score is a major deciding factor in whether or not someone is granted a loan. Never mind the fact that they are now law-abiding citizens; if they so much as made a mistake in the past, such as declaring for bankruptcy because of a divorce, they will pay that price, literally in high interest, or a rejection for many years to come.

That brings me to the idea of privilege. For those who are privileged enough to have a good income that allows them to be approved for loans, it puts a bend in the road for those who wish to become good enough to have a loan, to get themselves back up again. I learned so much about privilege in my years there. But perhaps the most important lesson I learned is about personal finance. From seeing what others were doing, I learned how to manage my own money. I learned how important it was to have a retirement account. And I learned that credit can benefit you and hurt you at the same time.

The reality is, bank tellers don’t make a lot of money. They make a few dollars above minimum wage, but besides the benefits, salaries for that particular job is very stagnant, with a possible increase of 25-50 cents per year. What most people don’t know is that tellers do a lot more than just counting money and receiving them. They are the agents for money exchanges and customer issues, in addition to selling additional products, balancing their till daily, and for some, like me, manage the entire branch’s vault, which requires additional duties.

Not surprisingly, the ones that I related to the most belonged in the last category that I described above–ones who hardly had any money, the ones who seems to be perpetually struggling. Like Paul, who only has a few hundred dollars on average in his account, I felt that I was struggling too. But somehow he manages okay. He’s happy making other people healthy and fit. You’d never think that if you look at him and his bank account.

The same goes for another customer, whose name I’ve long forgotten, but who I remember clearly because he was a mild-mannered man who dressed like he was poor. In reality, he was rich. He had about $50,000 in his account that he never touches, and after a conversation once when I tried to get him to talk to our financial advisor, and he turned it down, telling me that he made some bad choices with his money in the ’90s, so he only wanted to keep his money liquid, I wondered if he was an Enron victim.

The next time you’re at the bank, ask yourself–how much does this teller know about me? Chances are, it’s a lot.

The recession is over: it’s time to move on

This September marked the 10-year anniversary of the collapse of the Lehman Brothers, otherwise known as “the financial crisis of 2008” or “recession,” for short. Like many recent college graduates at the time, I was hopeful and excited at the prospect of having a career. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew that with a business degree, I had plenty of choices.

Little did I know how wrong I was.

Ten years later, last week, I received an influx of articles in my inbox reminiscing about this recession. In a NYT opinion piece, an editor who, like me, came of age during the recession, expressed bitterness for the “big guys” who crushed her parents’ hope of achieving the comfortable middle-class life and her ambition towards a financially stable future.

Another piece, also by the New York Times, poses a slightly more optimistic view, chronicled several selected individuals who were interviewed in 2008 about their lives in relation to the crisis and their lives now, ten years later. Some of them got back up after being knocked down and prospered, while others continued to struggle, never finding the same level of work that they were accustomed to before the crash. Finally, the New Yorker said that evidence shows middle class incomes have not rebounded back to same level as it were prior to the recession.

Coincidentally, just last week I listened to a Hidden Brain podcast called “Looking Back” in which they talked about regret in conjunction with nostalgia.

The episode (which can be heard here) dove into the idea that is so fundamentally obvious and yet we tend to forget about sometimes—that we regret what we didn’t do versus what we did do. Much can be said about the mistakes that we make as humans when we choose to do certain things, and yet more can be said about what we choose NOT to do.

It’s not so much that I want to talk about a terrible period in my life, but rather, disclose it in a way that tells you that I’ve learned a thing or two.

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

From 2008 to 2010, I didn’t think anything was different or challenging from my post-college life (except for the fact that my husband and I owed the IRS more taxes than we had in the bank and therefore, we had to survive on a $30 per week grocery budget while we drove our used 8-year-old car as little as possible so that we can pay the bills AND the IRS back). I thought that was just the life that we were given, thus nothing out was of the ordinary. I didn’t pay attention to the news; thus, I didn’t realize the crash had such a fundamental effect on so many people.

Upon reflection, I realize that it was quite extraordinary that my husband and I managed it all. It’s extraordinary how we didn’t move back in with our parents, how we didn’t rely on charity (even though we could have), how we didn’t default on our loans, how we managed to come out of it alive and kicking.

After listening to the Hidden Brain episode, it brought me back to the early days of the crash and several years after that. After being laid off from a really nice job at a good company, I fell into a sinkhole of uncertainty and low self-esteem. I was more confused than ever, so I obtained jobs without much thought to the pay or the culture (because, let’s face it—back then there weren’t that many jobs to be had, so you couldn’t be picky even if you wanted).

I landed in a position that was so low paying with such a toxic culture that I came home crying every day. The job only lasted a year. Then, for the next four years, I worked in the financial services industry—first at a bank, then at a credit union. By 2012, things were starting to rebound a bit, and yet, I didn’t feel that I was making any progress.

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Photo by Chris Li on Unsplash

I had been there for a year and a half when a great position opened up in their accounting department (this mind you, was a small credit union with roughly 115 employees, and therefore, opportunities like that didn’t open up very often). By then, I was pregnant with my first child, and had already been rejected for another position prior in their call center. Because I didn’t want to face another rejection, I decided not to apply for the position.

The person who got the job was a fellow teller named Bri. Much to her surprise and mine, she got the position with no prior experience. In fact, she graduated with a degree in communications. But after knowing her for several years by that point, I knew how organized and consistent she was — two traits that would make a good accountant.

I remember talking to her after she got the news. I told her how happy I was that she got the job, and that the main reason why I didn’t apply was because I was five months pregnant, and that I would only be trained for a few months before going on maternity leave. She knew that I was taking some accounting courses and was looking for a new avenue to pursue. Bri told me that I should’ve applied, and I said I didn’t feel right competing with her. Now looking back on it, I knew how foolish that was. Pregnancy, after all, is a protected class, and they couldn’t discriminate based on that fact alone.

This is just an example of the many opportunities passed over the years, simply because I didn’t want to experience failure. Little did I know that failure only serves to bring people back up again. I truly felt like my twenties was spent fluttering my hand in the wind, with no sense of direction whatsoever, and no way of figuring it out, all because I graduated during the recession, got laid off, and didn’t get any (financial) help from anybody. I felt myself partly to blame because I wasn’t prepared enough for the recession. Now that I think about it, I think, “How can you possibly prepare for a major financial meltdown?” There is no business school or college course that talks about these kinds of things and how to prepare for them.

Now, looking back ten years ago, I feel exactly what the Hidden Brain podcast said–a sense of nostalgia marked by sadness but also with a certain level of triumph. I feel that many of us, regardless of what generation we were born into, will enter our thirties with more wisdom than we had in our twenties. Our experiences are influenced by the economic changes of our generation, and I feel that because I was amongst many of those who came of age during the recession that it only made me more resilient and aware of life’s volatility. I realized that I needed to move on—that blame and bitterness about the situation wasn’t going to change it. The fact of the matter is—I survived it, and thus it will go into my memory  as a story I can tell to my children.

 

The most distressed profession in America, according to NYT & Time

As a newly immigrated adolescent in the late ’90s, I attended a public middle school, then went on to a public high school. It may have been 15 years ago since I graduated from high school, but I can remember a particular teacher named Mr. Harvard, who taught choir and band (RIP, Mr. Harvard) and who made a profound impact on me, so much that when I began college, I decided to major in music… only to realize that I couldn’t read music. Eek. So my plans were thwarted to another “artsy” subject–apparel design, then finally graduating with something more practical that my mom would approve called “a business degree.”

These days, I am an accountant, a position that I never really saw myself doing, mainly because I didn’t know any accountants in my circle of family and friends (or families of friends) and thus I didn’t know what they do, and how I would go about seeking information on their jobs. What I did know a lot of, and was exposed to, were teachers. Now that I think about it, Mr. Harvard was an incredibly passionate teacher, perhaps the only one that I’ve ever met in my entire life, who loved music, and extended that love in the classroom every day. He was a jolly man who were prone to give big bear hugs and had a big, boisterous laugh. You couldn’t help but love him. He was an extremely likable person. Clearly, he chose the right profession, I thought.

So when I found out that he died several years ago, from post-surgery complications, when he was just barely 40, I was incredibly sad. I wrote a letter to his family, telling them about the impact he made on my life and of so many more out there who they may not know.

Mr. Harvard is a rare breed of teachers in the overall scheme of public school teachers. I recall other teachers that I had in high school, the majority of which did a fine job, but overall was not as enthusiastic about teaching as Mr. Harvard was. It’s the kind of enthusiasm about teaching that truly resonates with the students, for it is one thing to be a good teacher, but another thing to be an enthusiastic good teacher. Many of us don’t come across enthusiastic good teachers. I was one of the lucky ones.

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Photo credit: Freepik.com

That’s why I was disheartened to come across three recent articles about teachers in America. The New York Times magazine dedicated an issue to education, and in one of the articles, What Teachers Are Doing to Pay the Bills, I read about eight teachers who are working a second (one works a third) job to pay the bills, because their teaching salary is insufficient to cover living expenses. In another feature by Time magazine, I read two more stories about teachers, this one and this one. The solemn faces of 13 teachers are profiled (why 13, an unlucky number, I don’t know), standing or sitting in their dark, grimy classrooms (or hallways) provides a reflection of the current state of teachers in America.

To add to the depressing tone of the articles, almost all of the teachers profiled appears crestfallen and sad, like they’re about to give up teaching, period. Only three are smiling, and I wonder how many of those smiles are actually genuine.

This is the kind of media coverage that would put me to shame if I were a teacher in America. As someone who has seriously considered teaching as a career (as a kid, I admired my teachers greatly, and would always answer, “A teacher,” whenever an adult asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up), I feel a personal conflict with how teaching has evolved over the years but also how it’s perceived as a career. Teaching is a noble profession, and those who chose it have varied reasons, but can all agree that they value education greatly. However, stagnant wages, rising living expenses, and battles over state funding are the reasons for why our educational system is failing to retain good teachers.

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Photo credit: Freepik.com

It’s a shame that the media has chosen to portray teachers this way. Surely, certain facts are not being disclosed. We ALL know that teachers don’t make a lot of money, and that they have to deal with the politics of unions, benefits, and compensation that makes it difficult to teach, but at the same time, these people chose the profession in the first place, knowing full well that they will never get rich from teaching.

Certainly, it doesn’t help to profile the most depressed-looking teachers in America. So what happened?

I think in general, teaching became a depressing career because as a country, we don’t regard teachers as highly as we regard other people who are also public servants, such as police officers, firefighters, and military. We don’t have a solid system in place to recruit and hire the best teachers (even the “best” system for hiring teachers, Teach for America, still relies on recent college graduates with no prior teaching experience). There are no hiring bonuses, reduced tuition programs, free housing, or reductions in other costs, as evident in the nursing profession. The only thing offered is a student loan forgiveness program for five years of teaching at an inner city school. It’s no surprise then that a lot of teachers quit within the first five years.

I’ve always regarded teachers as people who deserve a high level of respect, simply because they are public servants. Teaching is one of those difficult professions in which one can say, “If someone doesn’t do it, then who will?” Without teachers, who will prepare the future of America? Who will lead the kids who will eventually grow up to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, artists, businessmen and journalists who will write these articles? I wonder if there will any future Mr. Harvards?

Shame on these magazines, really. Shame on them.