If a bank wants to offer a checking account that isn’t as terrible as most of what’s out there, that’s fine. But that bank shouldn’t pat itself on the back and act like it’s doing consumers a favor just because it gives them a slightly easier way to avoid being nickel-and-dimed.
Rhode Island-based Citizens Bank recently started running a series of TV spots to let people know about its “One Deposit” checking program, which waives the monthly maintenance fee for customers who make at least a single deposit, of any amount, each month.
That in itself is not a bad thing. It’s certainly better than the growing number of checking accounts that either come with unavoidable monthly fees or require minimum average monthly balance of a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.
So why is the Citizens Bank ad problematic?
Because it assumes that you should be absolutely delighted — to the point of giving the bank gifts — for merely offering a program that isn’t entirely evil.
The ad above features Citizens Bank employees sitting in the break room surrounded by customer-given cakes, treats, flowers, and sporting hand-knitted “Number One Banker” sweaters.
In the ad below, a customer is so overwhelmed by the possibility that she might have something that vaguely resembles free checking that she gives her dog to the banker.
The presumed message of the ads is, “Hey, here’s a product that is so awesome you’ll love it!”
But the reality is that free checking used to be the standard for personal accounts. The fact that these ads stop just short of a fireworks celebration for a checking account that still has a monthly maintenance fee is a sad reflection of the state of banking these days.
A recent study found that a growing number of banks no longer anything that counts as truly free checking, in spite of the fact U.S. consumers currently have a record amount of cash on deposit in basic checking accounts, the overwhelming majority of it in accounts that accrue no interest.
Meanwhile, in the last 30 years, more than 10,000 banks have vanished, mostly through acquisition. So more money is being stashed in fewer banks with most people not expecting anything in return except for the ability to occasionally access their funds.
The remaining banks — the fewest since before the Great Depression — currently hold nearly a trillion dollars in money in no-interest accounts. The banks have access to these funds to loan out, invest and (hopefully) make a positive return on.
Rather than suggesting that customers should be orgasmic with joy about the prospect of affordable checking, it is the banks that should be thanking American consumers for letting them hold on to their money and not only ask for nothing in return, but be willing to pay for it.
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