Take it to the bank

Back in the 1968, the minimum wage was $1.60, which today couldn’t buy a bucket of Cajun buffalo wings from Popeyes, even after being adjusted for inflation.

However, I was fortunate to make $5 an hour as a teenager, so I was the envy of my high school buddies, who made me buy the pizza and Cokes for everyone. Why, I was such a big shot that I had my own savings account at Connecticut National Bank, which was later acquired by a bigger bank, which was acquired by an even bigger bank, and as the banks got bigger the service got worse. This, of course, is like the law of gravity in financial services. These days you can’t even get a free lollipop … although I did receive a dog biscuit recently.

Years later, I still have my original passbook, which paid 4% interest. It made feel like J.P. Morgan or Daddy Warbucks. With my accumulated wealth of $98.64, I was saving for a Ford Mustang, a Yale law degree, a trip to Italy, and new bell-bottoms. Eventually I got the bell-bottoms, but nothing else.

Unfortunately, banks don’t offer savings passbooks anymore and they don’t pay 4% interest. They pay virtually nothing, if anything, and this is called “progress.” Besides, most kids nowadays don’t believe in saving because they’re committed to spending.

Back in the good old days, there were no ATM machines, so my hard-earned cash sat in the vault, until the bank lent it to someone to start a business that sold velvet Elvis paintings. If I needed cash, I filled out a withdrawal slip, stood in line and begged the teller to give me spending money to go drinking on Friday night. (I always felt obligated to tell her why I needed the money.)

Actually, I didn’t have to beg, but I was guilty taking money out of my account. You see, I didn’t want the teller to think I was a spendthrift. Now there are ATMs everywhere, from bars to strip clubs and convenience stores. There are so many ATMs you could squander the money you saved for your daughter’s wedding in four easy withdrawals.

At one time, we believed our savings were safe, but those days are gone. In the worst cyber-attack in history, the accounts of 83 million JPMorgan Chase customers were compromised, which amounts to two out of every three households. And the list of security breaches keeps growing. There’s been Home Depot, Target, Michaels, Neiman Marcus. What will be next? The Luv Boutique? It’s like the wild, wild West out there.

Is it any wonder an Associated Press poll showed that Americans don’t have confidence government will protect “their personal safety and economic security?” More than half those surveyed thought Washington was ineffective in dealing with the threats we face. Another poll said 71% of Americans are troubled by financial worries.

It reminded me of an old Italian bricklayer I knew who lived through the Great Depression and kept his hard-earned cash in a coffee can buried in the back yard. He had ready access to his savings, and at night he’d go out with a flashlight and shovel. 

Best of all, he didn’t have to worry about Russians hacking his account, and as an extra precaution, he dug a new hole every few months. The crazy thing is the rate of interest on his deposit was virtually the same as what banks pay now — nothing.

In my younger days, I always paid in cash because I didn’t have a credit card. Today, everyone has a credit card, and we’re either in debt or victims of identity theft.

I often tell my kids, “Don’t go charging up a storm. If you can’t pay with cash, you don’t need it.” But they don’t understand the concept of “delayed gratification.” If you want something, save for it, don’t charge it, otherwise you’ll pay 25% interest on your Banana Republic credit card for a pair of overpriced jeans.

Joe Pisani may be reached at joefpisani@yahoo.com.