Category Archives: banking

Milwaukee

At 9:53 am this morning, the Fedex man arrived at the door to my parents’ house and handed me a box, thus ending the nearly 48-hour saga that has completely dominated my life this week. Let’s step back to Saturday, which was the day I flew from London to the east cost of the US. I stayed overnight and caught a morning flight to Milwaukee, where I had a 90 minute layover before flying on to Minneapolis for my annual August pilgrimage to the land of my youth. I had plans, I had a car to rent, people to see, things to do. But I managed to completely cock it up in Milwaukee.

I have never been to Milwaukee, and I had never flown through Milwaukee either. I took the flight because I could not get a reasonably priced direct flight into Minneapolis (always a problem when Northwest was running the hub there, now near impossible in the age of Delta domination). I could not even get a somewhat unreasonably priced direct into MSP, a direct was going to cost me about the same as my flight to the US from Heathrow. So Milwaukee it was. I stepped off the plane in Milwaukee, headed towards my gate for the transfer to MSP, and saw a cute little sandwich and coffee shop. This being Wisconsin, they were offering grilled cheese sandwiches and I could not resist. I took my wallet out of my laptop bag to pay for the sandwich and an iced coffee, and I sat at a little table to eat. I then walked down to my gate and waited for boarding to be called. When it was, I opened my laptop bag to get my boarding pass out and realized to my absolute horror that my wallet was not there.

Somewhere between buying my grilled cheese an hour earlier and that precise moment, my wallet–containing my drivers license, credit and cash cards, and all my cash money–had gone walkabout in the Milwaukee airport. And I had absolutely no recollection of how it had happened.

I approached the gate agent for the lovely Frontier airlines and expressed my panic, and asked hopefully about a lost-and-found. He was adamant that he could not leave the door because the flight was boarding, but that I should talk to someone at the next gate over. That guy just said he hadn’t seen anything and had I tried the sandwich shop. I walked back down there and looked around, but saw nothing, and had the sinking realization that one potential scenario involved me throwing out the wallet with the remains of the sandwich, which turned out to be not that good. (Seriously, why take a perfect thing like a grilled cheese sandwich and put tomato AND chipotle mayo on it? Ruinous!) By this point it was 20 minutes until my flight was due to leave, so numbly I walked back to the gate, handed my boarding pass to the agent, and got on the plane. If I was going to be anywhere without any money, ID, or cards, better to be in Minneapolis than in Milwaukee, where I know not a soul.

The flight was mercifully short, and I made lists about who to call (credit card companies and bank) and what to do (investigate how to get a replacement drivers license when you have no picture ID on you). Wait, you might ask, where was your passport? I had quite smugly left it on the east coast, locked in a drawer for safekeeping. No need to bring it to Minneapolis where I could lose it. And thus it dawned on me, I would have to get my passport Fedexed to me because I would not be able to board the return flight from Minneapolis back east for my beach holiday with no picture ID. This was getting very messy.

We landed at Minneapolis and I turned on my phone, to see that I had a voicemail message. It was someone from the baggage handling department for Frontier airlines at the Milwaukee airport, and they had something of mine. I started shaking. I got off the plane, sat down at the gate and called him back. And here’s where the story becomes completely incredible. He had my wallet, all credit cards, and he had counted the money: “78 dollars, and oh also some pounds, you’ve been in England lately, have you?” Not a penny was missing. Someone had found my wallet and turned it in to the airport people without even taking a finders fee, which at that point I would have gladly relinquished.

The lovely boy in Milwaukee then arranged to Fedex me the wallet, in a conversation that was more than a little amusing: address? Just look at the drivers license (like all expats, I used my parents’ house as my home base). Payment for the Fedex charge? (since it was clearly my fault and not the airline’s) Dude, you’re holding my credit cards in your hand.

Relieved I started off towards the baggage claim, only to realize that at that moment I was still stuck. With no drivers license and no credit cards, I could not rent a car, and with no cash I could not get a taxi. Dang. But as I said, if you are going to be marooned anywhere and with nothing of importance, do it in your hometown. I was supposed to have dinner with a friend that night and he came and gathered me, bought me dinner, even bought the beers so I would not get carded, and then brought my back to my parents’ house that night, where I have spent the last 48 hours anxiously tracking my Fedex parcel.

I have travelled all over the world, and I have always joked that as long as you have your ID, credit card, and mobile phone nothing can go wrong. This is the first time in all my years that I have blown it with that mantra. And I’m still terribly disturbed that I have no idea how I actually lost my wallet in the first place. My sister, who has joined me in Minneapolis as of last night, thinks the whole thing is hilarious and keeps posting “Milwaukee!” as her status update on facebook. Now that I actually have my wallet back, I can finally chuckle a bit at that one.

But what an ending to the story: in a week that started with riots in London, complete with lots of looting and opportunistic theft, some good Samaritan in the Milwaukee airport was completely and utterly honest and returned my wallet completely intact. I’m utterly Gobsmacked, completely relieved, and more than just a little bit sheepish. Of course, my carefully crafted plans for the week have gone completely awry, as my trip home is already 40% over, I have no car, and did not do any of the things I planned to do yesterday. But oh well. I consider that a small thing in light of what could have been a very messy week. God bless the Midwestern USA!!!

Running up the Eastern Seaboard

Let’s see, when last I wrote here I was blissfully in North Carolina, along the Outer Banks, having a beach holiday. And then along came Hurricane Earl. The first week of the holiday, Hurricane Danielle had been a threat. But that threat had diminished and aside from some rough surf leading to a few “no swimming” red flag days along the beaches, there was really nothing interesting there. But Earl decided to head straight for the Outer Banks and with a vengeance. I stayed at the same beach house this year as I had the last two years, but this year brought new owners since last summer, and with them, many improvements to what was already a great house. Internet access proved to be the most important one (a gas grill was also appreciated, as was a huge flat screen TV). I started obsessing over weather.com’s Hurricane Central site, checking it every few hours, as it became clear that this was NOT GOOD. On Wednesday morning of beach week 2, with the news looking bad, I decided to evacuate on Thursday morning. This was a mere 48 hours before I would have had to leave as per my planned end of two weeks beach holiday (check-out by 10 am Saturday morning), so not too disappointing really. My view was that by the time the hurricane was due to pass (Friday mid-day) I would have been done beach-ing anyways, and would have been packing up with no more fun to be had. So I spent Wednesday alternating between beach things and packing/cleaning things, and readied myself for the trip northwards and inland into Virginia leaving early Thursday morning.

This was the beach Wednesday, at which point you could see how the phrase “the calm before the storm” originated: there was absolutely NO sign of a hurricane barreling straight at us in this photo!

The self-imposed evacuation all went smoothly and by mid-day Thursday I was having lunch and a glass of wine safely away from OBX, at which point I checked weather.com for an update and found that they had called a mandatory evacuation that morning, three hours after my departure. I felt vindicated. My ruthless plan had resulted in my not being stuck in epic traffic once the evacuation was called, starting from three hours after I left the islands.

I now had an extra forty-eight hours before my planned departure for Minnesota and my near-annual visit to the State Fair. I did now have time for some very useful and much needed errands, including such painful things like dealing with an American Bank Account that was every bit as frustrating as the experiences I had with my British Bankers on first moving to the UK. Side-note-story: Basically, when I moved abroad I left small balances (~$100) in both checking and savings accounts in the US at two different banks (from the two parts of the country that I lived before moving abroad, since there were not banks in common in the two places at the time), and apparently one of them (Bank of America) was deducting regular fees for “account maintenance” even though the account was dormant (my other bank, Wells Fargo, has not done this) and kept doing so until the count was just over $30 in deficit, at which point they contacted me to threaten collection. I only received notice of this earlier this year, when my dad brought a pile of American mail over when he visited me, and frankly I don’t get much in the way of useful American mail at the folks’ house any more. So I had to clear the accounts and sort out the deficit balance, which it turns out was more than covered by the savings partition OF THE SAME ACCOUNT so I ended up with cash in hand but no longer have an existing account in case I ever move back to the US (which was why I left the account in the first place, thinking I might be back some day and it was silly to close them and then disappear). SIGH. Other expats be warned, be careful what the fine print on your bank accounts sayeth and do not expect the bank to do anything sensible!!! /endrant

Where was I? Oh yes, moving up the Eastern Seaboard with extra time on my hands. With the free Saturday (during which I should have been just leaving the beach, and after spending Friday with the Very Fun Bankers et al.) I got to go up to Baltimore to visit my newly-repatriated sister who is just settling in to her new job there. She has a fabulous new place not far off the waterfront in a funky-cool part of town with lots of little indy shops and restaurants and jazz bars and the like. I spent a great day with her walking around and taking in the sites, without having remembered to bring my camera up for the day so I shall have to return for photos at another time. But certainly a day of sister time in Baltimore was worth the pain of the hurricane, right?

Sunday I awoke and flew out to Minneapolis, Minnesota for the “family time” leg of my trip. Having dinner with my folks Sunday night was sort of odd, after having had lunch with my sister the previous day in Baltimore. But hey, it’s all part of the wonderful modern world. But I started to fade during dinner, perhaps as a result of having just done the North Carolina-Virginia-Maryland-Virginia-Minnesota dance over the course of only four days. I had a good night’s sleep and awoke early this morning full of excitement over today’s trip to the Minnesota State Fair, but that is truly a subject for another post.

Crunch!

Those relatively new to this blog will not have heard the stories of my fights with Barclay’s bank when I first moved to the UK. For the backstory, see this: the general banking debacle and my repeated rejections when trying to get a UK credit card. I eventually was able to get a credit card but only when I got some very serious help from a very influential person, and the shiny new card came with a meagre £1000 limit. About nine months after I got the card (using it regularly and paying it off every month) I requested a new limit (£2000–didn’t seem outrageous at the time) but was rebuked by the bank that this was “too much” although they did raise it to £1500. Now this was still chump change compared with my American card, which carries a limit in the range of the price of an Audi. So in light of all of this, imagine my surprise when I opened my mail yesterday to find a letter from the bank congratulating me on my credit and noting that they had–without any request from me–doubled my limit to £3000. Still an order of magnitude behind my US card, but starting to become useful–the limits of £1k or £1.5k were of course a bit too small to use for reimburse-able business travel, and as such I’ve STILL (after 2.5 years here) been primarily using my US card, a royal pain given the crash of the pound against the dollar in the last few months. The reimbursement for some summer travel, conducted at more than 2 pounds to the dollar, did not come in until the exchange rate had crashed and of course I’m just eating the difference. So I’m delighted to be able to use the UK card more often–still generally paying it off each month, and thus imaginably building a UK credit record finally. But what ho credit crunch? Unsolicited doubling of credit limits in this economy? Interesting.

I just had to see my sister off, she got picked up in the darkest hour before dawn for her trip to Heathrow and back to China. I’m a bit weepy now, combination of being overtired (after way too many late nights and early mornings having adventures with her) and just generally sad about going back to my solo existence. Given the nature of my career, I’m surrounded by men all day long and don’t really have too many good female friends in this part of the world. But most importantly, at the end of the day there truly is no friend like a sister.

Expat economics

When I first moved here to England, I tended to convert every amount from pounds into dollars. This worked well at the exchange rate that I arrived at (£1 = 1.87US dollars) and generally life was good. My current salary was, when converted into dollars (at 1.87 or even the high of 2.11 last summer) was approximately equivalent or only somewhat less than what my American colleagues were making. Suddenly the pound has crashed without warning, and I am making a fraction of what my US colleagues are making in dollars. Even with (pound) wage increases that were substantial, my income in dollars has dropped by about 5k US from when I started here nearly 2.5 years ago, and as noted I’ve had several wage increases in that time (again in pounds). Thoughts I have about this situation: Starbucks coffee now looks quite cheap. I have no choice but to stay here for the moment as my savings are worth almost nothing in the US. Should I invest in real estate since the economy is so bad, or wait until it appears to have fully tanked? Thank goodness I have no car and a corporate apartment/flat that is not digging into my savings. Maybe a mortgage is a bad idea. What do I do about charges made on my US credit card in the summer for which I have been lazy about submitting reimbursement requests? (I suspect I’m screwed there!) But in the grand scheme of things, this sort of change in the exchange rate really does make a person wonder about the fundamental meaning of money. I don’t understand how it works, and the dramatic change in exchange rate in such a short time just confuses me. Talk about worries one never has when living and working in a single country (and likely that of one’s birth)… exchange rates only became part of my regular thinking on moving here in better times. Now I don’t know what to do, nor do I understand why Britain seems to be doing worse than the rest of the world when its general problems have been based on the US!!!

Pounds vs Dollars

Can I just say how lucky I am at the moment?  The pound hit a 26-year record against the US dollar.  Suddenly the fact that I am earning pounds but paying off American debts in dollars is important.  The rate has changed by 20 American cents in the 14 months I have been here… my early cost of living calculations were all for $1.87 to the pound and it’s about $2.07 now.  Between my wage increases after a year on the job and the exchange rate, my salary when converted to dollars is now significantly more than  it was a year ago–a really dramatic change.

In other banking news, I managed to secure a UK credit card.  It wasn’t easy and I’m not going to go public with the details because I don’t really want to reveal any details about the kind people that helped me.

Unfortunately that otherwise good news is slightly ill-timed as I head back to the US in less than 14 hours.  I will be blogging from the other side of the pond for the next few weeks, as I try to establish if the streets of Minnesota really are paved in gold.  It might be hard to tell, depending on the weather.  I’ll keep you posted of course.

The Barclaycard Bastards

My expat friend was right and my local banker was wrong. My credit card application was rejected again. (For background, see previous post on the British banking debacle.) A year in the UK, a substantial income and nearly no living expenses (work-subsidized housing) was still not enough to grant me even a baby credit card with a £300 limit. This caused me to write a very angry letter, which will probably do no good whatsoever but boy did I feel better after writing it! I was complaining about this to anyone who would listen this week and one of my colleagues suggested that the only way forward (and he knew others who had had this problem in the past) was to apply for one of the credit cards specifically for people with bad credit or no credit, the ones with an APR that’s off the scales. I probably will do so; he said that what you really need to get a proper, normal APR card like a Barclaycard was not just a year in the country but a year with any sort of credit history, and this was the only way to do it. Now I’m furious for having believed my local banker that a year in the country would suffice, because of course I could have applied for a “no credit history” credit card ages ago. So at least I have a plan to move forward but I’m MAD AS HELL.

But it doesn’t change the fact that this is completely ridiculous. In a global economy, “highly skilled migrant” programmes will always result in some movement of grown-ups with graduate degrees and substantial incomes. How is it that we cannot take a credit record from one country to another? It’s so 1880s “we only communicate by telegraph” to pretend that such things would not be possible. I know that I probably stuck a nail in the coffin of catching a high-powered exec that my institution here was trying to recruit from America–when I answered truthfully that my enthusiasm over my move to the UK was diminished substantially by this “you have no UK credit record” issue. He was stunned, had never thought about it, and I feel bad that I mentioned it but at the same time, oh how I wish someone had warned me!

Some days I wonder if this is worth it. I could probably get a good job back in the US. Ironically enough the thing that is currently keeping me here is my strong network of expat compatriates, and a sense of not letting the bastards get me down. But some days it’s not enough and I’m ready to pack up and go back to the US. Life’s too short to spend so much time and energy fighting a system that is broken beyond repair.

The British banking debacle

As noted yesterday, I visited my local banker on the anniversary of my arrival in the UK to try and get some help in the grown-up banking situation. Apparently I am now officially qualified for a proper (normal!) Visa debit card for my checking account. This is good: up to now I have been functioning on a mostly cash basis because all they would give me is a “Visa Electron” card. Wikipedia notes regarding this card, “In the United Kingdom, the card is not as widely accepted as the sister Visa Debit card, but is often issued by banks as a debit card for children’s accounts (although Barclays appears to have gone back on this, and started issuing full Visa Debit cards to customers under the age of 18)”. Right. I can verify that the thing is not accepted very many places, including ticket machines at rail stations. I am annoyed to hear that Barclays are giving normal Visa Debit cards to children under 18 but Visa Electron cards to adults with graduate degrees and substantial income. THIS IS COMPLETELY RIDICULOUS! For more on the Visa Electron saga see this BBC article. It’s discrimination, pure and simple. And while perhaps the banks can justify it on the basis of the young and poor for business reasons, they have absolutely no reason to discriminate against foreign nationals whose income is clearly stated on their work permit. This is just flat-out xenophobic behavior and should not be condoned in the UK.

So the good news is that the Visa Debit card is on the way. The bad news is that the UK is currently having a series of postal strikes so this arrival could be delayed by a substantial period of time.

I had been feeling quite optimistic that with this transition done, and the second phase of my one-two punch was an attempt to get a UK credit card. Again, I had been told that after a year in the country, I should have some sort of UK credit record established and be able to get a credit card, even one with a miniscule limit. I have applied and am now waiting for the result. I had been rejected on my first attempt, immediately after my arrival. I had been feeling quite confident that this would work this time, until I chatted with another expat who was rejected a second time after his year anniversary. So now we wait.

Again, this is completely ridiculous. Why one could not get a credit card with even a few hundred pounds limit — I would put cash to secure it — or based on a transcript of an American credit record is inconceivable. And yes it matters. My (now very well-used) American Visa is not “Chip and Pin” so it is not accepted everywhere in the UK. I cannot do any online shopping. I have to continually transfer funds back to the US, to my checking account there, to pay my US credit card. This is perhaps where the banks have us: they are earning a great deal of “fees income” from my wire transfers. So why on earth would they want me to get a local card? They’ll lose money on it!

I hate to act all American about it but some times it is tempting to think about a lawyer in cases like this.

Update: see an interesting banker perspective here (many thanks for the link and I hope someone does manage to think of a creative way around this problem in this increasingly global economy!)