Time Not Well Spent

Jiab Wasserman

MY RELATIONSHIP WITH money is complicated. I want to get the best value for our dollars, so I spend a lot of time comparison shopping. Other people hunt for bargains. I go on long safaris.

My frugality and comparison shopping have served Jim and me well. In our double-income household, we managed to save 50% of our combined pay—basically living on one income and saving the rest. That, coupled with some lucky breaks, propelled us to early retirement.

Going from saving for retirement to spending in retirement, however, brings with it a shift in mindset. You become less focused on getting the most from your dollars—and more focused on getting the most from your time. Yes, you still want to save money, but you need to balance that against the time and effort involved.

That brings me to our retirement income plan. We have five years of living expenses in cash investments, so we can sleep at night without worrying about short-term stock market performance. But cash, of course, pays almost nothing these days, so I’m always looking for the best deal I can.

Until recently, I conducted those searches from Spain, where we spent the first three years of our retirement until our recent move back to Dallas. To open new financial accounts in the U.S., we needed a U.S. address. To that end, like many expats, we rented a virtual mailbox. That gave us a physical address in the U.S., plus 24/7 access to our mail, all from the convenience of a laptop or smartphone. (This is different from a P.O. box from the postal service.)

In the past few years, using our virtual mailbox address, I opened two new travel credit cards in the U.S. to earn mileage. That gave us enough promotional airline points to pay for roundtrip flights from Spain to both the U.S. and Thailand. I also used the address to open high-interest savings accounts with Customers Bank, Salem Five Bank and TIAA Bank. All this required relatively little time and effort—a few hours to search the internet and a few more hours to set up the new account and transfer the money electronically.

Last November, however, I took the hunt for savings too far when I opened a Citi Priority checking account. Citi offered a $700 cash bonus for new customers if they maintained a balance of at least $50,000 for 60 days, equal to an annualized return of more than 8%. I transferred $1,000 to open the new Citi account and planned to transfer another $50,000 within 30 days.

The bank’s account opening process was relatively easy and, as with all our other accounts, I used our virtual address. A few weeks later, I got an email from Citi saying it needed proof of my physical address and my identity. But without waiting for my response, Citi froze my account and sent it to “new account fraud.”

After several phone calls with wait times that often lasted more than an hour, as well as text messages over several weeks, Citi admitted that it had caused the problem. It had violated the Patriot Act by opening my account without first validating my identity and address.

I sent the bank a copy of my passport and driver’s license, along with a receipt showing that it was indeed me who paid for the virtual mailbox. But Citi still refused to unfreeze my account. After a few months of back and forth, I requested that Citi close my account and return my money the same way it had received it—by electronic bank transfer. Citi refused.

A representative told me that Citi could only return the money by sending a check to a residential address and not to my virtual mailbox, even though I had provided proof that I owned the mailbox. I ended up filing complaints with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. I finally got my initial deposit mailed to my virtual mailbox—seven months after I opened the account.

My experience was hardly unique. I discovered many other Citi Priority customers had faced similar situations. Citi either froze or closed their accounts, and then refused to return their money or refused to deposit the $700 promo incentive.

We all have limited time and money. I’m mad about the $700 I never got. But mostly, I’m mad about the time I’ll never get back.

Jiab Wasserman, MBA, RICP®, has lived in Thailand, the U.S. and Spain. She spent the bulk of her career with financial services companies, eventually becoming vice president of credit risk management at Bank of America, before retiring in 2018. Head to Linktree to learn more about Jiab, and also check out her earlier articles.

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