Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Our financial systems and rules do not make things EZ.

A couple of years ago, my youngest daughter introduced me to a book by Barbara Ehrenreich titled Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America. The premise was that once you get to living paycheck to paycheck or worse, fall behind, the system will NOT let you catch up (Ehrenreich, 2011). 

I’ve recently watched a story unfold that, I think, provides a perfect example of her thesis.

My wife’s sister (retired and living on her SS) was stranded in San Jose, California, while on travel from her home near Spokane, Washington. Her car was stolen, but recovered, but the towing and impound fees are more than she had – and were increasing daily at the rate of nearly $100. So, various family members tried to find ways to get money to her quickly enough to bail the car out before the fees were worth double the value of the car. We initially sent some money to her bank so she could use her debit card for the payment, but we’ve since learned that this particular form of electronic transfer requires 3 to 5 business days to accomplish, and the impound lot will only accept cash. Her bank is in Spokane and has a daily ATM limit of $400. Other family members set up a GoFundMe account and donated funds. There, too, there is a 2 to 5 business day delay for the beneficiary to get the funds from GoFundMe to their bank account. The fees eat up the funds as fast as we can get them delivered. There are modern ways to do “instant” transfers (PayPal, Facebook, etc.) but the merchant has to accept that form of payment or it doesn’t work, and, again, 2 to 5 business days to get cash out of the electronic account to the account holder’s bank account, and then the daily ATM limit to deal with. I tried to pay over the phone with a credit card, but the impound lot simply refused to do that. On the phone, I asked the impound lot clerk if I could FedEx them a bank cashier’s check—“No”, she said. The stranded sister doesn’t have a credit card. She has no simple way to cash a check or a Western Union draft as her bank is 1,000 miles away. I looked into flying out there to help and to pay the fee but short-notice air fare, one night stay-over, and a rental car would be more than $2,500 even before paying the impound fee and I just can’t afford that. She has appealed to various charities but none can or will help. So: Uncomfortable family drama. I was originally worried the car would be damaged and un-drivable, even if she did manage to get it out, but the impound lot did let her inspect it and drive it within their fence. Her hotel, meals, taxi, and impound fees are increasing faster than we can get money to her. This will eventually leave her essentially homeless in San Jose even though she has a perfectly adequate home waiting for her 1,000 miles away near Spokane. In the meantime, the car is an older Cadillac de Ville. Even though it has low original mileage and has good tires, shocks, battery, brakes, etc., its maximum value is probably only about $3,000—it’s not quite old enough, yet, to be an antique. The initial towing fee and one day of storage gave us a starting point of nearly $500 and it’s escalated very quickly. Then, to add salt to the wound, the Santa Clara County Sheriff's office (who made the initial arrest that led to the recovery) tells her that if she abandons the car, and the impound lot is not able to sell the car for what *they say* is owed them, they will then sue her to recover their lost revenue. What a scam! I finally recommended that she give up and taxi to the airport, fly to Spokane, forget the car and let them sue later keeping a “you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip” (n.d.) attitude.

Ehrenreich, B. (2011). Nickel and dimed: on (not) getting by in America. New York: Picador.

The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. Retrieved March 8, 2017 from website