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.

I came, I conquered, and I’m here to tell: the story of my twenties

We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. – Joseph Campbell

This year in February, I turned 33. Exactly ten years ago I graduated from college–the first in my family, in fact. It was a proud moment of my life. What was supposed to be the grandest achievement in the greatest year of my adult life was about to become the greatest challenge that I would face in my youth.

One of those challenges was figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I had to have a job, but what? I didn’t spend a lot of time while in school trying to figure this out. That was my first error. That error, along with a great force of divine intervention, put me directly in the middle of one of the greatest recessions of all time–the Great Recession of 2008-09.

We all know about that. The one where the real estate market crashed. Just about everyone who owned a home lost value. People lost money left and right. There were no jobs available anywhere. It was an economic downpour that led to an enormous thunderstorm which would take years to recover.

This particular period wasn’t the brightest one in my twenties, and it was something that I was willing to never think about again, until I read this article.

I felt that the article was talking about me, to me. It talked about a concept that I’ve never heard of before called transformative resilience–the ability to improve because of a setback.

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Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

My story began in 2008. I was a new college graduate, eager and excited for the real world. But as I’ve mentioned above, my first error in navigating the “real world” was not spending time trying to figure out what career path to pursue. Thus began a journey of almost a decade of struggles, both personally, professionally and financially, before I was able to see any clarity in what many would call “the prime years” for working.

I was in a comfort zone in college, a bubble that didn’t burst until after I graduated. I was lucky to find a job right away. It was an internship doing marketing for a local health benefits administrator. I had a good working relationship with my boss, and because of that (and my expressed desire to obtain a full-time, regular position) she referred me to another department in the company when they had a full-time opening. The job was nothing fancy–doing data entry work, but nonetheless, I was on cloud nine because I was making more than I’ve ever had in years. This equates to about $13/hour, great for 2008.

Then the gossip came. My coworkers whispered that we might be out of a job, due to the recession. I didn’t think that was possible. I was doing well, so it came as a surprise to me when I was called into the manager’s office and told that I would be let go–they had to cut labor. Of course, they could not do that to the older, long time employees. It would have to be me, the newest bud.

Earlier that year, right after I graduated, I got married. My husband also just graduated from the local community college and had gotten a job at a hotel, working the front desk. The pay was nothing short of minimum wage, but it was what he wanted to do at the time–work in the hospitality industry. Little did he know that during a recession, not many people travel for pleasure. It was mainly for business.

The next blow came when I called the unemployment office to seek out benefits after being laid off. After waiting thirty minutes on the phone, I was told that I didn’t qualify. I was flabbergasted. The representative told me that the hours I did work during the last year were not regular hours because they were mainly work-study, subsidized by the government. I hung up the phone in tears.

Next came another strike when my husband and I sat down to do our taxes. I remember us so clearly–hunched over tax booklets and forms (we were still using paper and pencil at the time), one person reading the instructions, and the other writing down numbers and doing the math. Several hours later, we discovered that we owed $1500.

We had never done our taxes before, so I figured we must’ve made a mistake. I demanded that my husband take our taxes to the nearest H&R Block for a free review. He came back with the same consensus–yep, we did owe that money.

Problem is, we didn’t have that money in the bank. We were living paycheck to paycheck. Heck, we had just gotten married, so funds were dried up from the wedding.

So we decided to ask his dad for money. We knew that our moms didn’t have much money, so his dad was most likely to help. I was shocked when my husband came back and said, “Nope.”

The reasons are still unclear–he was either unwilling or unable to help. We decided not to dwell on it and moved on. The next task would be to find me a job–any job, really. Living on one income, especially one $9/hour income wasn’t feasible, especially when you have to pay back $1500 in taxes and student loans and a car payment.

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Photo by Aidan Bartos on Unsplash

 

I was lost. All my life, I was brought up to believe that once you obtain an education and get a job, you’d stay there and move up in the world. This upward mobility, stay-in-one-place path would prove to be something that many millenials do not do, and certainly not I. Nobody told me about the challenges of finding a job that fits your values while also utilizing your skills. Nobody told me that getting a job, any job, would be so hard. But that was the reality.

By this time, I was in the third stage as mentioned in the article–in the middle of chaos, where self compassion is absent, denial is in full swing, and panic sets in. Add on the lack of self-esteem, confusion over one’s abilities, and desperation, and you have a recipe for a full blown career crisis. This kind of crisis would put me in a blinding confusion that would last for many years to come.

I bounced from not having a job to having a job within a month. Sounds lucky, right? Except this was the first job that I found. It only paid $9/hour. The hiring manager made it clear that it wasn’t a very fancy or high paying position, but I took it anyway. I was desperate. It was either this or wait for who knows how long before I can get another job. I clung on to the first raft that I found, not realizing that it would drag me down so tremendously for the next year.

Almost every day, I came home from work crying. I had a devious, controlling coworker who’d watch everyone like a hawk and went to the manager immediately upon seeing an infraction of any kind–whether it be that the person was not putting things in the correct order, or was not telling people that they were going to the bathroom–in general, very small infractions that clearly did not dictate their overall capacity to perform the job. But she found it where she could and made everyone’s lives miserable. She assumed managerial responsibilities and barked orders at everyone even though she was not a manager. We all hated her, but there was nothing we could do, so we ignored it. I ignored it for awhile, until it bothered me. It filled me with a rage. Finally, I went to my manager to express this, and although she listened, she did not do anything to correct the issue. Not only that, I was doing three different jobs–something they did not disclose to me during the interview.

I was doing three jobs for $9/hour–it was not worth the stress, I knew it. But at the same time, I didn’t know what else to do. I had gone from a situation of a comfortable job to no job, no unemployment, no savings, and no parental help. Our country was in the middle of a recession–there were hardly any jobs to be had. So it came as no surprise when my husband found out that his company instigated a two-year pay freeze. Nobody would be allowed any raises for the next two years. Ouch.

Not only that, we had to pay back our taxes, so my husband and I devised a plan to save as much as possible in order to make the payments. Part of that involved being diligent about what we were spending our money on. We decided that we would limit our grocery budget to just $30 per week. We had no money for lunch or dinner dates, so the $30 would have to last an entire week for two people. This equates to around 72 cents per meal.

Now that I think about it, I remember it so fondly–us dragging our “grandma cart” down to the nearest Grocery Outlet (because driving costs money) talking and laughing, all the while calculating our total before we got to the register. We had to be precisely on budget or under.

I have to tell you that we did not frequent food pantries at this time. I suppose we could have, but being young and somewhat ignorant, we did not know how to seek out help. We vaguely knew about food stamps, but we never seek it out. We figured we had to be self-reliant. I thought food stamps were for low income immigrants, and I didn’t think of myself that way. In reality, that’s exactly what I was. The combination of pride and shame prevented us from seeking out government help, especially after getting rejected by one of our parents.

Looking back on it now, I remember we were in the stages of chaos and struggle for several years. During this time, we followed the $30/week grocery budget strictly, never went out, never bought alcohol or got massages, spent $10 or less on haircuts (which were rare), always shopped for things on sale, utilized coupons, used second hand furniture, and rarely drove our car. For fun, we stayed home and watched movies that I got for free from the library, and went camping & hiking in the summer.

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After a year, I left my miserable job, and I found another one at a bank as a teller. Eight months later, I moved on to a credit union, where I would stay for the next four years. The experience at the credit union is another story altogether, reserved for another day, but the point remains–I was still confused about what I should do with my life, I was holding onto a raft that was dragging me down again. I explored and researched many career paths but never actually made any leaps of faith. Having just barely survived the recession, I favored stability over adventure, or rather misery over excitement.

Luckily for my husband, he survived his company’s pay freeze, and went on to become manager in the dining department. He stayed there for several years until he became stifled himself, seeking out new opportunities. But after having worked in only two main industries, it was difficult to transition to another industry without a certain level of education or experience, so he decided to step down from his position and go back to school.

Then a month after he enrolled, we found out that I was pregnant. Thus begins the next chapter of our lives–he started college with no kids and ended with two. It was challenging to say the least. We would not have made it without his grants, scholarships, student loans and government assistance. He was working part time, and at one point, I left my job to stay at home with my daughter so I could figure out what I was going to do career-wise.

Time flew by. We focused on raising our kids; he focused on finishing school. We were in a trance for a long time. Despite all of this, we still managed to come out on the other end slightly untethered. We paid off the taxes that we owed to the IRS. I educated myself on taxes so we would never be in the same boat again. We increased our credit rating and kept it at a consistent high. We paid off our used car loan of roughly $7000. We also paid off my husband’s community college loan. We started retirement funds and took advantage of 401Ks. When we had kids, we started their college funds too. We also saved over $10,000 in the course of four years, which was later used in 2014 when I was a stay-at-home mom while my husband worked part-time and went to school full-time. With the help of my mom, we bought a new car outright in 2015. We haven’t had a car payment since 2011. We took a trip to Vietnam to visit my family in 2009. We saved up for a trip to Hawaii in 2012, and it was amazing because every dollar spent was worth it knowing that it took almost a year to save up that money–our money.  If you were to measure our wealth in terms of experiences, we were rich.

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When you fall down and get hurt, it’s easier to stay in one spot and complain about it, and wait for someone to rescue you. But it’s also another to get back up and move on, to face the unknown ahead and say, “I can do this.”  As the article mentioned, all of us will experience a challenging circumstance in our lives, regardless of our socioeconomic backgrounds or ages. It’s what we do with it that matters more.

I truly believe that everything happens for a reason, and the main thing that I’ve walked away with about my twenties is this–it was a challenging period in my life, both professionally and financially. I had no sense of direction whatsoever. I made lots of mistakes. But I’ve also learned a lot. It was from those mistakes that made me the person I am today. If I had not been forced into unemployment, or been depleted of funds, or worked at jobs that paid very little, then I never would’ve learned the value of frugality. I never would’ve consciously chosen to live within my means. I never would’ve felt the desire to save money, and I never would’ve felt the pure joy of spending the money that I saved. There were periods of time when I went crazy and spent more than I should have, and sure enough, I paid the price for that.

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Photo by Fabian Blank on Unsplash

Late last year, I met with a financial advisor (for free, of course–who can afford one with my salary?) and we reviewed my retirement funds. He told me that my husband and I are above average for people our age. It felt great to know that we were on track, that we were much better than the average millennial. Having kids really changed a lot of perspective. Being low income for a long time really put things into reality. I no longer felt shame that I had to rely on food stamps while my husband was in school and I wasn’t working, or when I was working but part-time with two kids. Although we have ways to go in terms of our career paths, things are looking up, and it only took about a decade to see it in its full clarity. I just wish I had seen it sooner.