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Shawn Vestal: It’s time to think outside of the bank

Are you stuck in a loveless marriage?

Feeling taken advantage of? Taken for granted? Taken for a fool?

Are you sticking around out of inertia, out of the sheer difficulty of imagining how your life might go on without this crucial relationship?

Maybe you’re staying together for the kids. For your financial future. For all you’ve invested to make this work.

And yet the skunk keeps coming home smelling like someone else’s toilet water. Sneaking money from your pocketbook. Refusing to answer your calls. Telling you one thing yesterday and something completely different today, all while wearing that who-me, what-did-I-do look of fake innocence.

I know this is a tough pill, girlfriend. But it’s time to dump the scoundrel.

No, not your husband. Your bank.

I know it’s hard. For a while, it will feel like your whole life has been turned upside-down. But you shouldn’t stay with someone who makes you miserable just because you’re afraid to be with no one at all, should you?

Plus, there’s definitely someone out there for you. Someone who won’t skim your wallet. Someone who won’t try to stick you with a loan payment that will suddenly balloon many times beyond what you can afford. Someone who won’t take hundreds of millions of dollars from the government and then refuse to lend you any. Someone who won’t charge you five bucks a month to spend your own money, and then blithely, arrogantly expect you to just accept it, the way you accepted every lousy thing they’ve done to you.

Someone who is a whole lot like a bank, but not: a credit union.

Hey, if you’re happy with MonsterBank, then great. Hang in there. I’m sure it will remain excellent. But if you’re troubled at all by what’s happened in the country lately, or annoyed by the notion that MonsterBank just keeps sneaking in preposterous fees, or if you’re just sentient, then you should do more about it than just whine.

Take your money and put it under a different mattress.

This is not a unique idea, apparently. Member-owned credit unions are going through a little boom right now. The most recent spur has been the announcement by Bank of America and other banking giants that they’re going to charge people $5 a month to use their debit cards.

This has proven to be unpopular. At STCU, the biggest credit union in our region, the number of new members so far in October is running 24 percent above normal, said Traci McGlathery, community relations manager for the credit union.

“We have seen a dramatic increase in the amount of activity along the lines of tweeting, Facebooking, calling our branches,” she said. “The type of uptick we’ve seen in October isn’t from a new branch or service we’ve opened. It’s definitely, in our minds, a reaction to what’s happening in banking.”

Lynn Heider, a spokeswoman for the Northwest Credit Union Association, said her group does not have regionwide statistics for recent memberships. But she said the association, which represents 192 credit unions in Washington and Oregon, has been hearing a stream of reports about new memberships in the same range as STCU’s.

“Based on our informal, random conversations with member credit unions, the increased interest in membership – whether it’s inquiries or going ahead and opening new accounts – is more than anecdotal,” she said.

Here’s my anecdote: I banked with traditional, community banks for a long time, starting with the long-gone Bank of Idaho, when I opened a passbook savings account as a boy. When I came to Spokane way back when, I had my first real encounter with a credit union, joining the Spokane Media Federal Credit Union. It has been the best banking experience of my life by 10 miles. It’s like I left Mr. Potter for George Bailey – which I say with some reservations, given that my not-evil brother works in a bank.

My credit union is a small operation, and when I walk in there, I know the people by name and they know me by name. It’s like that Bank of Idaho branch in my hometown, circa 1976 – no ID necessary.

Meanwhile, my relationships with larger banks get worse and worse. When I go into the place that holds our mortgage with anything other than a straight, elemental transaction, I leave 30 minutes later, having explained my situation three times, having collected three business cards from three separate people, and knowing for certain – without a sliver of a shadow of a doubt – that I will be back to run the same maze in the not-too-distant future, when a whole new round of people will apologize for the last round of people and assure me that we’ve got this problem licked for good.

Some of this is just big versus small. But there’s more to it. The membership structure versus the corporate one. The nonprofit status. The personal attention. The little things that make a relationship last.

Maybe those things don’t matter to you. But if they do, put on a little Tammy Wynette, steel yourself and break it off. You’ll respect yourself in the morning, and even after that.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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