Financial Institutions We Can Do Without: Make them work hard for you.

Be finicky and demanding when depositing or investing money in an institution. That’s because an institution can become a strategic partner in helping you achieve goals.

Or maybe not.

Indeed, it can also become a hindrance; it can be something slowing or weighing you down. And sometimes even model institutions, ones that once helped you, can become a hindrance. It requires that you monitor them. They should be providing you with quality service.

And, if you don’t get it, you should take your assets elsewhere. Remember: You’re the customer; they are supposed to serve you, not the other way around. (This is, in theory, how government is supposed to work in our Western democracies, But I’m not going into that this time because this isn’t a comedy column).

Bad Match: Big Banks and the Retail Customer

Recently, I was reminded why so many big banks are the wrong place for the retail, or individual, customer: Frankly, they aren’t interested in your business unless you’re looking to take out a big mortgage or are going to run up a big credit card debt. The latter is one of the most profitable lines of big banks in the United States and Western Europe since they’re often charging close to 20 percent for their credit.

The problem is these banks usually have nothing to help the average individual customer with his or her greatest need: Accumulating a substantial chunk of assets, which for many will be their first substantial assets in their lives. These people need good advice and a plan. They need it now so they can achieve goals over 20 or 30 years. They also need courteous service because, even though many of these customers starting out have little in assets, someday some of them will have a lot. Then which institution will they remember?

We Can’t Help You.

Back to the big bank, a place where I, a retail customer, was recently given the Bum’s Rush. On other hand, if I was a business customer or if I qualified for private banking—the latter are customers who already have several million dollars in investable assets—then the bank is generally delighted to help.

How was I reminded of why the retail customer is a second class customer?

Recently, I went into my bank on Lefferts Blvd. here in Kew Gardens, Queens. It is where I have been conducting business for years. It is one in which my wife and I recently paid off our mortgage four years early. We have a substantial amount in our checking and savings accounts at the bank.

We also have a sterling credit rating. Our bank should know that since, as often mentioned here at GregoryBresiger.com, we pay off our card balances every month. Yet, when I asked for a simple courtesy, the bank officers were too busy to do it (We are going abroad soon and I wanted the officer to notify its card operations so we would have no problems using our cards across the pond). I was told to call—-which can take tons of time waiting on hold—or send a letter.

What a joke. The bank couldn’t provide a little bit of service, make one phone call, for a retail client?

Idiotic Offer

By the way, one of this bank’s predecessors, the long gone Chemical Bank, once sent me “a private offer” for a special certificate of deposit. What was this wonderful rate? Well, the bank didn’t say, but it “a special offer” that was 25 basis points above the usual rate, whatever that was. I passed on the offer. I don’t blindly invest in anything. Money is hard to earn, then our huge, always money-hungry government takes so much of it, often for stupid, outrageous things.

This is the same bank that once had it’s own group of mutual funds. These were some of the greatest dogs of investing in the history of woofers.

You had to pay one of their “specialists” to choose which funds to use—of course he or she only used the bank’s own flawed family of funds—-and then, once in the funds, they had some of the highest expense ratios in the history of piggy investments. Was it surprising that these funds had egregious returns and eventually went to the mutual fund garbage dump?

With a good index fund you would have avoided all this nonsense. You would have obtained a better rate of return, with a much lower expense ratio and with no need of “a specialist.”

I am now thinking of taking our savings account and putting it in our money market account at the index fund family my wife and I have used for years. I feel that I can get a little better return, even though interest rates are at absurdly low levels.

And, even if I can’t, I’d rather give my assets to some institution that has helped me and, I hope, will continue to do so (This index fund family is one of the reasons my wife and I achieved financial independence).

Here’s what I recommend for anyone looking for good financial institutions.

*Expect quality service from a financial institution. Is it helping you achieve your goals?

*Consider the alternatives to big banks: Sometimes credit unions offer better deals than banks.

*Be fee sensitive. I’ll say it again as I have many times: Costs matter. They matter a lot over the long term.

*Do you feel comfortable in dealing with your institution?

*Can yon answer this question affirmatively? “My bank, brokerage or fund treats me with respect, offering the services and financial products that will help me and my loved ones achieve our financial goals?”

If the answer to the last question is no, then it’s time to shop around. Just as one often shops around for the best buys for the table, so too one should shop for the best financial institutions.

The right ones can help you achieve your life dreams. The wrong ones can lead to financial frustration.

About The Author

Gregory Bresiger

Gregory Bresiger is an independent business journalist from Queens, New York. His Personal Finance articles have appeared in publications such as The New York Post & Financial Advisor Magazine. He is the author of the eBooks “Personal Finance For People Who Hate Personal Finance” and “MoneySense”.