I started my first job in banking in January of 1989. I was excited to go from being in retail sales (my former job as a cosmetologist lost its luster quickly and I went into retail sales) to having a “real job” as a bank teller. I moved up within a year, even though I was only 24, to the position of teller supervisor at the small local bank chain and was loving learning about money and lending.
The Worst Financial Advice – from a bank?
In 1992 or so, our small chain was bought out by a bigger chain. My bank branch was closed and my position was eliminated, and I got hired on at a nearby branch for the new bank chain as a teller. This bigger bank chain was much more adept at sales and such, and I was excited to be working for the “big boys” of the local banking industry now. Being the obedient girl that I was, I learned all that I could, obeyed all of the rules and set about to be the best teller I could be until it was time for me to move up in the ranks again. I was learning a ton about sales, upselling and marketing, and was determined to be a standout employee.
Each quarter we’d have a different product sales goal, and were rewarded in many different ways for good performance in convincing the customer of their need for the particular product of the quarter. We’d also get cool t-shirts to wear on casual Friday, promoting whatever product we were selling that quarter.
One particular quarter, we were promoting the bank’s credit card. Our bright red t-shirts were colorful and engaging, and they went perfectly with jeans. The slogan on the back of the shirt – even though I didn’t realize it at the time – would turn out to be the worst financial advice I ever received.
It read: Better living through plastic.
As all good and obedient employees did, I drank the koolaid they were selling and firmly believed, as we were taught in our marketing session, that by offering customers the bank’s credit card, we were opening a door of “better living” to them – a door that would allow them to live a “better” life.
I continued to drink that koolaid and believe that lie when I got promoted to customer service rep, then to loan banker, and eventually to sales assistant for one of the city’s top mortgage branch managers.
We were consistently praised for what a wonderful “help” we were being for customers as we “helped” them to open credit cards, take out loans for various items, and “helped” them get approved for the maximum mortgage amount we could get them approved for. If they could make the payments, what was the problem, right?
The Beginning of the Wake Up Call
In the last year of my job as the mortgage sales assistant, I did a mortgage application for a guy who made $500k a year and was buying a $500k home. The guy was about 40, was married, had kids, and had NO debt. I had a knack in those days for really connecting with customers, so we began chatting casually as we talked each day about his mortgage. I’d never met anyone who made 500k a year before, so my first “personal” question to him, being the perpetual learner that I am, was:
“Do you have to work and be away from your family a lot to make that kind of cash?” I asked.
“During the first years I did,” he said. “But now I’ve built a team who does the sales work, and I really don’t spend more than 40 hours a week managing them.”
Holy crap. Making 500k a year working 40 hours a week. Nice. This was when I first started to learn that the right planning can lead to success, that it’s not all about “luck”.
Recommended reading: Unfair Advantage: The Power of Financial Education
During the course of our conversations, he mentioned to me that he’d planned to have the mortgage on this home paid off in just 5 years. He wanted to retire early and didn’t like having debt.
When I heard him say that, I felt like I was talking to somebody speaking a foreign language. For 15 years I’d been “groomed” by the banking industry that borrowing money was a “good” thing – a thing that allowed people to have now what they would’ve normally had to wait years to have. I was confused, but of course mesmerized by this guy’s different approach to life.
After I left the banking industry at the end of 2003 to be a stay-at-home mom, I continued my “better living through plastic” lifestyle, but never forgot about the “odd” guy that wanted to pay off his $500k mortgage in 5 years.
In 2013, after getting to that “rock bottom” place in our finances, I started to learn from personal finance blogs that the “odd” customer with the great financial picture really knew what he was talking about. And I learned that he wasn’t alone in his quest to be financially secure.
Now I see that “better living through plastic” t-shirt for what it is; a seductive evil message created by the bank to make money regardless of the impact it has on its customers. Sounds a bit “Occupy Wall Streetish” I know.
I’m a big believer in capitalism and the freedom to have and run a business as one sees fit. But I’m also a big believer in people educating themselves on the ways of money, credit and its dangers. We as consumers have a responsibility to take our lives and our education into our own hands, not allowing banks or anyone else to dupe us into believing that they know what’s best for us and our families. For that reason, I encourage you to sign up to receive The Frugal Farmer’s posts each day (see the sidebar), and to come along with us as we learn physical, financial and spiritual self-sufficiency. Never again will we drink the koolaid without first testing the waters.
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