Monday, March 1, 2010

Weary & Wary in the Heartland

Our online NewsHour editor requested that the Patchwork Nation bloggers comment on the fact that consumer confidence had fallen in February to the lowest level since last spring. She asked if we were confident consumers? Why or why not?

Here’s the deal. As far as I'm concerned -- and as far as a lot of people I talk to are concerned -- we are simply fed up with greedy business institutions, self-serving politicians, ego-inflated celebrities, cheaters, liars, over-indulgers, media blowhards and shameless marketers. Most of us are people who played by the rules – paid our taxes, paid our credit card bills on time, bought modest homes, didn’t live above our means, provided for our families, saved for our kids’ college educations, had savings accounts, invested what we could for retirement, did our charity work, helped our neighbors, got out to vote and ate our apple pie with skim milk. So what did we get for living a decent life? Screwed.

I feel a slow-burning anger in people – cynicism, frustration and defensiveness. We’re on our guard expecting to be taken advantage of at every turn. And we are! For example, look at these credit card companies sending us changes to our agreements in tiny type and incomprehensible legalese. Here’s a recent example from my life:

When my daughter went off to college four years ago I got her a credit card in her name for emergencies. The card company billed it as a card that parents could trust because of the low credit limit. The bills came home to me and I paid them, as I always do, on time. Over the years that limit crept up, but my daughter was responsible with money so I didn’t balk. So last fall the company sent one of those Changes to Your Credit Agreement letters. I admit that I generally ignore these things, which I'm sure the credit card companies depend on, but this time I read it.

Well, I read it and I read it again and then over again attempting to decipher the fine print and financial jargon. Then I called to ask questions. The company wouldn’t talk to me even though I pay all the bills. So I called my daughter and gave her a list of things to ask. The deal was that they were starting to charge immediate interest on all purchases -- whether you've been a responsible client or not. You buy something and interest charges start that day. So when you get the monthly bill you already have interest charges built in to the amount you owe!

So my daughter said she wanted to cancel the card. The company threatened that doing that would destroy her good credit record. There was an option -- in tiny, tiny print -- that you could reject the agreement changes and the account would close on the card's expiration date and not be renewed. So she did that and stopped using the card.

After a few months of no purchases on the card, the company took note and sent a revised credit agreement letter changing the daily interest rate provision to some other complicated scheme. I got her a different credit card. But guess what – I now go over every one of those complicated Changes to Your Agreement letters with a fine-toothed comb looking for twists that are going to somehow pick my pocket. My son just got one that said his credit card company was going to start charging him $60 per year unless his spent an average of $200 per month with his card!

I know there is new federal legislation to regulate this – BUT I don’t trust the government either. After all who deregulated all those financial institutions and let greedy Wall Street executives gorge with abandon on our meager middle-class investments? My dreams of retiring early to somewhere warm and sunny crashed last fall along with the financial market.

So are you getting the picture from out here in the Heartland? Consumer confidence? No such thing. Confidence in our government leaders – Democrat or Republican -- to solve the country’s financial problems? No such thing. We’re weary and wary.