A Bailout Proposal: No More ATM Fees

12/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Here's what I really want: no ATM fees. Ever again. Ever. I can happily blow $5.00 on a McDonald's double cheeseburger in Times Square, but the $3.00 I am charged by Bank of America to use their ATM as a non-customer will leave me feeling sour the entire afternoon.

And it seems only fair that as one of three hundred million people helping to cover this massive banking bailout, I am entitled to my $3.00.

Everyone says the bailout needed to happen, maybe still needs to happen more, and I guess I believe them. I heard a man on NPR yesterday argue that you could attribute the Renaissance to better banking policies and more available credit in Florence as easily as you could to DaVinci or Rembrandt. So, hell, let's just go ahead and pull out the national wallet and give banks a few hundred billion dollars. I like a good renaissance.

But the initial frustration - this was some time back when voters were still reluctant to bail out enormous banks - with the plan is pretty easy to trace. To phrase that frustration in its simplest form: banks suck.

How do they suck? Well, here's a personal example: I wrote a check that should have bounced... Definitely my mistake. Washington Mutual was happy to cover my check and the two purchases (a total of $2.00 for a candy bar and a soda) I had made on my debit card over the weekend. But it cashed the check first and then processed the debit card payments and thus justified charging three overdraft payments rather than one. So my soda and candy bar cost just over $70. This wouldn't have happened if I hadn't screwed up in the first place, so I paid the fees but then asked to close my account because I didn't want to do this again: a Snickers isn't worth $36 to me.

Then, in a narrative familiar to anyone - pretty much everyone - who deals with his bank regularly, the bank explained that it couldn't close my account unless I stopped into my home branch. My home branch is in Chicago. I live in New York. I explained this. Brandon, the branch's representative, looked through the impossible protocols that the bank imposed on anyone wishing to close an account and, after half an hour of negotiations, assured me that they would figure it out if I could stop into a local New York branch and try to close the account from there. I did this and assumed I was in the clear. Two months later I was informed by mail that my account with Washington Mutual was in arrears. I called the bank and explained that my account couldn't be in arrears because I didn't have an account. They told me that I had to stop into my home branch in Chicago to close the account and that my health insurance had drafted money in the meantime. They were charging me another $70 for covering this draft. I asked to speak to Brandon. Brandon no longer worked there. I called my health insurance. They apologized for a drafting error and assured me they would do no such thing in the future. I called the bank again. They assured me they would be happy to close my account if I could only make it into the branch... I called the bank teller's supervisor, the national hotline of the bank, the main Chicago office. This went on over a period of months and I eventually paid whatever overdraft fees they were charging in exchange for the assurance that my account would be closed and I would receive verification of its closure by mail. That was four weeks ago. I'm still waiting.

But no need to take my personal example. I don't think I'm alone when it comes to infuriating experiences with a bank or its representatives. Most people who are not themselves tellers, and some people who are, have wanted to throttle a bank rep at some point. Maybe it's the six dollar 'bill pay' fee or the 5% charged on currency transfers or a double charged overdraft fee or the $25 fee for letting your checking account drop below $100 or the $30 dollar fee for letting your savings account drop below $200, or it might be the ATM fees. These banks are theoretically making money by lending some portion of my checking or savings account to people at interest, surely they could drop some of these fees. And the ATM's are an egregious example.

ATM's save the bank money, after all. Through the use of automated tellers, they do not need to hire as many actual tellers. They can pay fewer salaries. So it's a complex contortion of logic that makes most banks feel they really ought to charge their customers more for ATM use. It's grossly counter-intuitive and it's pretty much standard industry practice. It's as if you went out to dinner with a friend and said "well, I just got a huge raise, so tonight dinner's on you!"

So back to my modest proposal for the bailout bill: no more ATM fees. I think it's only fair that as a small gesture of good will to the irascible taxpayers who have to foot the bill for the colossal financial screw-ups of extraordinarily well paid bank officers, any bank that accepts federal bailout money is no longer allowed to charge any fee for any ATM in its control. That's no fees for customers of WAMU using banks other than WAMU and no fees for non-customers of WAMU using WAMU ATM's. The customers win; the money saved is progressively redistributed (a $2.00 fee means a great deal more to someone making $35,000 a year than it does to a bank or its employees); and it's a small spoonful of sugar to go with the ugly medicine of this bailout package. Plus, if enough banks take federal money (and who wouldn't want federal money), we really might look at paying no ATM fees ever again. Ever.