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.

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