Recently I had an interesting experience being poor. It didn’t last too long but it was quite distressing and I learned how difficult this is. The story is as follows. I was out of the country for a month and during that time my car insurance expired. When I got back I called my insurance agent and I asked them to renew my policy. “No, no, no, ” they said, “If your insurance has elapsed you can’t do it over the phone and you have to come to our office in person.” Well at that time I was living in Princeton and my insurance agency was 300 miles away in Boston. So I took the train up, got to the insurance office on time and I was ready to hand them a check and renew my insurance.
Well, here again, I was wrong. It turns out I could not do it by check. The insurance company would not take a check from me because, after all, I have shown I am financially irresponsible. “Will a credit card do?” I said. “Of course not. Only cash.” The limit I can take out with my ATM card is $800 a day and the insurance was almost $3,000 (needless to say they also increased my premium). So I could not solve it this way. “Luckily” the insurance agent had a solution at hand that was designed for this very particular problem. There is another company they told me that would finance my insurance fee. Interestingly enough, the cost of this financing included 20% interest rate on the loan itself plus a $100 fee just to enroll in this program.
I had no choice but to take this particular loan. So I paid the $100 fee, I paid the 20% in interest, and I got my insurance. I took the train back to Princeton. A few days later, of course, I canceled this terrible loan and paid it off. But here is what I learned from this distressing lesson, the moment you make one financial mistake the chances that you will be hit with all kinds of fines, all kinds of difficulties, all kinds of financial obstacles, are much, much higher.
If I was on the verge of financial difficulty there is no question that this particular incident would have pushed me over the edge, making my financial life much more difficult and maybe even impossible. I think that this is, in fact, what we do to people with financial constraints all the time. We impose substantial penalties on the people who violate financial responsibilities, not taking into account their viability and therefore make their lives much, much worse.
How can we get over this issue? I think we have to reconsider the punitive systems all the financial institutions use (insurance, banks, credit cards, etc.), and think more carefully about how we want to share responsibility and payment across people. After all when someone goes bankrupt, they of course suffer, but so does the whole system around them. From this perspective, it is easy to see how the punitive systems we are using are not only bad for the individuals but they can be very damaging for the whole society.
I wrote this about 8 months ago — but it makes particular sense right now ….
If (as is often the case) talking about sex makes people more interested in having it, does that mean that the current talk about a recession could actually be creating one? Well, maybe.
Or so one general finding of behavioral economics would have us believe. With all this chatter about a recession, consumers might, for example, hold off on buying that new dishwasher because of the “bad economy,” or pass up the more expensive restaurant because “we’re in a recession.” Without any discussion about recession, we’re unlikely to change our pattern of behavior. But talking about it can be a force that affects our decisions and alters our consumption habits.What makes me think that we’re such creatures of habit? Consider the experience of eating a Godiva truffle: The chocolate is melting in your mouth, the aroma penetrates your nose, there is a small nut inside. . . . Now think about this familiar experience and try to determine how much it’s worth to you. A quarter? $0.50? $0.75? $1.25? $2.50? While the experience of eating a truffle is very familiar, figuring out what we would be willing to pay for it proves difficult. So what do we do when we make purchasing decisions? (more…)
Today was an interesting customer service day. First, our cable (phone, internet and TV) stopped working. I got on the neighbors network and requested a technician from Time Warner. I was told that someone would come the next day and that they would call 30 minutes before they arrived and if we did not answer the phone they would not show up and we would have to call to reschedule the service visit. I tried to point out that the reason I need someone is that I don’t have a working phone, but this was lost on them.
When I got to the office I called the mortgage company. Our mortgage was just sold from one bank to another, and I called to make sure that they applied the first payment correctly. Yes, they got the payment but they did apply it to the mortgage. Why? I have no idea and they did not know either – so they asked me to call back in a few days to see if something had changed. Reluctantly I agreed, and then the customer service person asked me if all my questions were answered. “Are you joking?” I asked. “I had one question and you told me to call back.” You are correct,” she said, “did I answer all your questions?” “What do you think” I asked. “I guess we didn’t.” she said.
I am sure looking forward to calling them again in a few days.