Column: Banking fees have become hidden taxes on the poor

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SEATTLE — Because this is a story involving banking, there are some numbers at the heart of it. The first number — the most impressive one — is 62.

It was 1951, 62 years ago, when Marion Dohoney got her first real job, at an insurance company in the Dexter Horton Building downtown. On her first payday, she noticed there was a bank on the ground floor, so she opened an account.

Amazingly to those of us who grew up in the “free agent nation” era of shifting consumer whims and zero brand loyalty, Dohoney has always had her money in that one bank — then called Seattle First National Bank, and later Seafirst. It’s her first, and only, checking account. For 62 years.

“We called it Bobby Arnold’s bank,” she says, because she had gotten to know one of the executives, the late Robert Arnold. “It sounds so dated, but everybody knew everybody else. You knew the people at the bank, and they knew you.”

Marion Dohoney, now 85, is no misty nostalgic. She knows those days are long gone. Especially at her bank, which was taken over years ago by Bank of America, the biggest bank in the nation.

But nothing will get you pining for the old days like a form letter from your megalith bank saying it plans to start charging you $300 a year for the privilege of keeping your money there.

“Beginning in October,” the letter says, “the monthly maintenance fee on your account will no longer be automatically waived.”

The new fee: a gouging $25 a month.

“After 62 years, they’re going to stick it to me right at the end,” Dohoney said.

Here’s another number: $5,000. That’s the minimum amount she now needs in her “Advantage for Seniors” checking account to avoid this $25 a month fee. But she lives on Social Security and what’s left of a small retirement from the old Rainier Brewing Co. where her late husband worked, so she doesn’t have near that much.

She equates $25 a month to “12 Marie Callender’s dinners” (on special lately for $2 each.)

Dohoney called the bank to protest (“It would have been easier to reach the president of the United States,” she said). They eventually told her they’re doing this to everyone around the country — charging a fee for basic accounts but waiving it if you have a lot of money.

Did you tell them you’ve been a customer for 62 years? I asked.

“Yes. The man on the phone said he couldn’t do anything. He said he had to charge the fee to his own parents.”

OK, then. As long as we’re all in it together!

Seriously, these banking fees are like hidden taxes on the poor. As much as half of Americans don’t have $1,000 in their bank accounts, let alone $5,000. So the growing use of bank fees inversely indexed to wealth is becoming a huge economic barrier for the low income.

Now Dohoney’s no victim — she can switch banks, which she is in the process of doing. Many credit unions offer free accounts, as do some smaller, local banks. It’s not easy, though, to disentangle a relationship that endured through her single womanhood, her marriage, the raising of her kids and now late into her solo golden years.

Probably nobody less than a half-century old will understand this part. She says it’s also sad.

“In my generation, banks were about the bottom line, too,” she said. “They’re not nonprofits. But I bet 62 years would have counted for something back then.”

Dohoney’s other numbers are what matter these days. They aren’t high enough to count.

Danny Westneat can be reached at dwestneat@seattletimes.com

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