smart spending

Weird scenes unfolding on Main Street

Jay MacDonaldThanks to the soaring rhetoric of the last presidential campaign, Wall Street and Main Street -- those metaphorically fertile Neverlands -- have now been super-glued together as tightly as Sacco and Vanzetti, Ben and Jerry and Siegfried and Roy without the tigers.

Overnight, it seems, the media have gone all "Wall Street this, Main Street that." I'm willing to bet that a random word search on any 24-hour news channel today would find this shotgun couple mentioned as frequently as "shovel-ready" and "Octo-mommy."

Granted, Wall Street has received most of the coverage, owing to its current plague of locusts.

But have you checked out Main Street lately? I have, and it's getting weird.

Case in point: my dry cleaner.

“In place of my dry cleaner's normal cover, my woolens were wrapped in a Charles Schwab logo.”

Recently, I went to pick up my dry cleaning, encased as always in a clear plastic cover. (Note to self: What is dry cleaning?) But in place of my cleaner's normal cover, my woolens were wrapped in a Charles Schwab logo with this cognitive disconnect: "Is your broker taking you to the cleaners?"

Well, now that you mention it, my 401(k) has dropped dangerously close to my bar tab over the past year. Do I blame my broker? Au contraire. If I'd been handling my own investments, I would now be working off that bar tab scrubbing dishes in the back.

I can understand "Chuck's" marketing strategy. They've probably run the numbers and found that dry cleaning customers at least have enough disposable income to pay for dry cleaning (dang, what is dry cleaning?) and therefore might be in need of a broker.

And I'm pretty sure that if you're the sort of investor who chooses a broker based on a dry cleaning wrapper, you're just the bloke Chuck is looking for.

Banks or bookies?

Things have gotten equally squirrelly at my bank lately. They launched a savings sweepstakes that gives me a shot at doubling my deposit up to $10,000. Just in case I have an extra 10 large burning a hole in my Dockers. As if.

According to the contest's three pages of legalese, my bank is willing to part with 750 prizes in this little promo. If every winner maxed out their deposits, that's $7.5 million my bank is willing to pay out to entice you to put money in. And I'm betting it's not coming out of the executive compensation fund.

I don't know about you, but the one thing I would rather not associate with my bank is gambling. Call me conservative (and you would be the first), but isn't this the very sort of behavior that put the Schwab wrapper on my sport coat?

I don't want to double my deposit, thanks. I'd just like to know it's not going directly to the ticket window at Santa Anita, the sports book at The Mirage, a Bernie Madoff hedge fund or some equally sure bet where the house always manages to win.

I like banks to look, act and smell like banks, not bookies.

Handling fees

Banking on Main Street has gotten even weirder for my buddy Sal, who runs a thriving business in Austin, Texas. Sal recently got schooled on the new protocols when he went to make some business transactions at his bank branch, which is in a rough part of town.

"They wanted to charge me a fee to deposit cash," Sal recalls. "The teller said, 'Oh, cash is heavy, and we have to pay someone to handle it.' I would think you would want people to deposit as much money as possible in any form, not charge a fee for it."

But the real shock came when the teller handed Sal the cash for his registers -- in a clear plastic bag.

"In this day and age, you don't even want to walk out with an obvious bank bag, much less a clear one," Sal says.

Now he brings his own brown bag.

It's safer to appear to be a bank robber, I guess.

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