The mission of a bank nerd

I think I'm what you would call a bank nerd. I count the number of accounts I have rather than the amount of money they contain. There's no doubt that the accounts count produces a more remarkable figure.

I have accounts with twelve banks in Australia and one in France. I am proud of the fact that I avoid fees in all but my French account and that I have the best ongoing savings interest rates on the market.

It's something I learned from my father. I remember he shopped around for the best deals and switched his business from the Bank of NSW (now Westpac) to CBC (NAB) at a time when most families were loyal to the one bank for generations.

He encouraged us to save our pocket money and to invest in a quasi-bank that was known as a Permanent Building Society, which offered seven per cent interest. Then he got us to switch to another that offered nine.

I'm thinking about this because yesterday one of my banks - ING - informed its customers that we would need to make at least five transactions per month on our debit cards in order to keep our currently high 2.79 per cent interest rate.

I exercised my mind and found a solution to that one. But I'm still coming to terms with the ethics and practical challenges posed by Citibank's changes to its credit card rewards program.

Citi's rewards now direct its clients towards its 'partner' merchants. Before the changes, certain cards earned one point for every dollar spent anywhere. Now there's one point if they shop at Coles or Woolworths and zero points if they shop at IGA.

I sometimes wonder whether such nerd - or maven - behaviour enhances the personal wellbeing of the nerd, or of society in general.

I think it does. Because some of us are more demanding of businesses, they are kept on their toes and are less likely to exploit the non-nerds. If everybody was a bank nerd, the banking royal commission would not be necessary.

I have been trying to convince a friend to stop paying ANZ the $5 a month fee for a basic account and switch to an account elsewhere that offers interest and no fee. But he just laughs and tells me to get a life.

The problem is that dismissing the need to be more engaged in our consumer behaviour plays into the hands of greedy businesses, especially those that are prepared to behave unscrupulously.

Many banking customers get a much worse deal than my friend when the self-interest of their trusted financial advisors causes them to accept bad advice that is destined to cause them financial pain down the track and diminish their personal wellbeing.

I know what it's like to be overwhelmed by all the choices we have as consumers. I have no interest in studying the detail of either home and contents or health insurance products. As a result, I pay a lot of money for insurance that undoubtedly serves the needs of the companies much better than it does mine.

The pleasure of paying for what we value

Aside from watching TV or listening to the radio, past generations had to pay for what they consumed. But the internet has given today's young people the idea that content is something you get for free.

Whether it's news, music, YouTube videos or other entertainment, it's all there at your fingertips. Why pay when you don't have to? Getting around paywalls can be very easy.

Pay Wall

My answer is that paying is a pleasure if I value the product that I am purchasing. I am honouring the producer of the product because I believe they are worthy of my vote of confidence.

This applies not only to what we get on the internet but to all goods and services. About 15 years ago I remember telling a friend that I had just bought hair clippers and would never again need to pay the barber for a haircut.

She looked dismayed and worried that I would be hurting my barber financially and also denying myself the human interaction that comes from paying for personal service.

After a few years, I did go back to the barber and discovered that handing over my cash to him was not so painful after all. In fact it was a pleasure to pay for a job well done.

That sense of pleasure in paying for a service that I value is something that remains with me.

I feel good when I pay my annual subscription for The Saturday Paper because I like their journalism. But I have mixed feelings when I pay Fairfax for the Sydney Morning Herald because their management has made so many decisions that I've felt have devalued journalism.

I pay for the New York Times but I wouldn't pay for The Australian or the Wall Street Journal.

When I am registering for a free service on the internet and they ask permission to access my usage statistics so they can improve their product, I think about it. If I like the company and the product, I say yes, sometimes with pleasure. Giving them access to my data is one way of paying for the service.

There are companies I don't particularly like or trust, such as Google. Their services are free, but often I will prefer to pay for an alternative, especially if they're a small business with personal service. That's why I pay $US5 per month to a little known company called Posthaven, for the blog platform I use in preference to Google's free Blogger.

The pleasure of paying for things we value presumes one thing. That we have the money to pay.

It is true that all of us have some money and we can and need to cut our cloth to suit our budget. But the fact remains that the generation of young people who don't want to pay for content online often find it difficult to pay because they don't have the secure employment we took for granted.

Symbolic vengeance against big business greed

Pope Francis has said he's inclined to give a few coins to beggars on the street. Enough to send a token message of support but not enough to create a dependency on charity.

This would not work for me because I do not carry coins. But the news item did make me think about messages we send by how we choose to pay for goods and services.

Stack of cards

I used to think that I was sending a message of solidarity to small business owners if I handed them cash rather than a card. But about ten years ago my mechanic told me he prefered card payments because the cost of handling cash was higher than the card fees they had to pay the bank.

He claimed it was a furphy that bank fees for card payments cost merchants more than cash. With cash, they need to have change on hand and pay staff to securely take the bags of cash to the bank. Charging a fee for card use was a scam, he said.

Obviously each merchant's circumstances are different, but since the conversation with my mechanic, I have had no hesitation using a card for payment.

Which card, though, is another matter.

In addition to my Mastercard, I have a now rare Diners Club card, which I got fee free in a promotion about 20 years ago. It appeals to my sense of history because it was the world's first payment card when it was introduced in the 1950s.

But I actually like the fact that - in common with American Express - it costs merchants about twice as much in bank fees compared to Mastercard or Visa, every time I use it. I never use it for payments to small businesses, but Diners is my card of choice when I shop at Coles or Woolworths.

It is to give them a token financial sting as payback for their exploitation on several fronts of farmers and other small business owners. I know that vengeance is never a good thing, but it does give me satisfaction to know that I have the power to use my Diners card symbolically in such a way.

For years they have put financial pressure on these small businesses through their policy of delaying payment of invoices for the supply of produce and other goods and services. However at long last, Coles announced this week, with some fanfare, a change in policy. They have promised to pay invoices within 14 days, in what they are disingenuously touting in newspaper advertising as a show of support for farmers.

I will consider changing my own policy in favour of using my Mastercard rather than my Diners when I shop at Coles.

Free music data is killing the free internet

If I’m out and about, I sometimes listen to music through a streaming service. The data it uses is free. It does does not eat into my monthly quota. That’s because my mobile phone service provider Optus gives free data to many of its customers using Spotify or certain other music streamers it has commercial deals with.

What’s not to like about that?

At home, Optus includes a FetchTV set top box and 35 pay channels with my broadband internet access at effectively no cost to me.

What’s wrong with that?

These apparent acts of corporate generosity are back door means of getting around the net neutrality rules. Free data for Optus' Spotify users is killing the 'free internet'.

Most users are not bothered enough to get their head around ‘net neutrality’. But it’s important, because it underlies the principle of the ‘open internet’. It guarantees consumers access to the content they want, not the content that big business wants them to access.

Without net neutrality, corporations would be free to throttle or perhaps block sites they did not want us to visit. We’d have effective access only to content that suits our provider’s commercial or ideological interest.

My FetchTV box gives me a handful of news channels. One of them is ChannelNewsAsia, the mouthpiece of the Singapore Government. The Singapore Government is the majority owner of Optus’ parent company Singtel. When I had FetchTV with my previous provider iinet, I had Chinese and Indian news channels. The Singapore Government wants us to see the world through its eyes, so it removes the Chinese and Indian channels from its particular offering of FetchTV.

Optus can do that because Fetch is just a box attached to my TV. Strictly speaking, it’s not a violation of the net neutrality rules. But they couldn’t block or throttle my access to Chinese or Indian news sites that I access through the world wide web on my computer. Not yet, anyway.

Net neutrality - i.e. the ‘open internet’ - has always been cherished as a basic consumer right. It was vigorously upheld by the Obama administration. Much of corporate America wished this was not so. But now their prayers have been answered with President Trump pick of an enemy of net neutrality - Ajit Pai - to lead the Federal Communications Commission regulating body.

The New York Times reported earlier this month that Pai has already ‘aggressively moved to roll back consumer protection regulations created during the Obama presidency’, taking a ‘first swipe at net neutrality rules designed to ensure equal access to content on the internet’.

Meanwhile Europe’s telecommunications regulator strengthened net neutrality rules last year by closing a few loopholes that allowed service providers to create ‘fast lanes’ for ‘specialised services’.

Will we follow Europe or the US? As yet, it’s unclear. What is clear is that we should expect more tricks from internet service providers keen to exploit loopholes. After floating the idea in 2015, Optus would still like to charge Netflix a fee to offer consumers ‘the best customer experience’ of Netflix. We can presume this means the worst customer experience of what other content providers have to offer.


Why dumb phones are better than smart phones

When my cousin was showing me around Wellington last week, I noticed that his phone was a vintage Nokia, just like the one I was using in 1999.

He's not the type who tries to set retro fashion trends. He just prefers a dumb phone to a smart phone. He says he uses it to make phone calls, and that is all he needs it for.

He does not pretend smart phones cannot be useful. He has reluctantly agreed to buy one for his daughter. But he does not like to see people's lives controlled by their smart phones.

A few days ago I was using my smart phone to listen to a podcast that explained how smart phone app developers can be as unscrupulous and unethical as cigarette companies in exploiting their customers.

Former Google app developer Tristan Harris has founded an organisation called Time Well Spent. He talked about the 'persuasive technology design' class at Stanford that taught app developers how to monopolise the time of smart phone users.

'It's not about giving you freedom, it's about sucking you in to take your time'.

An app will 'notify' you when you have a new email or when a news story breaks. In other words, it will interrupt your conversation or stop you from attending to something in your life other than your smart phone.

How often do we physically bump into smart phone users in the street because they are not looking where they're going? Or perhaps we are the ones glued to our smart phones.

I walk long distances for exercise and always listen to podcasts so that I can stay in touch with what's going on in the world. In fact I miss a lot of what is going on in the world close to me because I am listening to podcasts. My eyes are metaphorically closed to what is around me.

Harris says the key question is how smart phone usage makes us feel on the inside. The average person checks their phone 150 times a day because they feel anxious about what they're missing out on if they don't keep checking it.

I've become aware of this, and I've taken to deliberately missing episodes of my favourite podcasts to ensure that they don't control me. I would listen to 'The Monocle Daily' every weekday, and feel anxious when I didn't. Now I listen to it three or four times a week, and feel better for it.

I do not want to give it up altogether because I enjoy it. It informs me and it raises my spirit, with the humour and intelligence of its presenters. I just want to own my time and my life, and I can do that with measured use of my smart phone.

That was my message to my cousin as I gave him the bad news that he would soon need to swap his dumb phone for a smart phone because the telcos are turning off the old 2G phone towers that have serviced dumb phones for 20 years.


Socks that rarely need to be washed

Because of the sexism of school education in the 70s, I never learned to sew to mend clothes. Since then I haven't had the confidence to teach myself, nor have I had anybody to show me properly.

Whenever my socks develop holes, I think that I would love to be able to darn them. I like the idea of darning socks as a way of resisting the wastefulness of a throwaway society. Sometimes I've attempted to darn socks or do rough repairs to other clothes. But I've mostly thrown away damaged or worn items of clothing.

I was thinking about that yesterday as I went to the Sydney CBD Icebreaker shop with my socks with a hole. I was claiming the lifetime warranty they offer on socks. I figure it's worth paying $30 for a pair of socks if they have a lifetime warranty (or, if you're lucky, $12 at the outlet during sale time).

My replacement Icebreaker socks

Unfortunately they don't darn the socks for you, but instead replace your old socks with new socks. So they are probably thrown away. But earlier in the year I was pleased when they did repair my favourite Icebreaker jacket when the inside of the pocket developed a hole from constantly carrying my iPad mini. I would have mourned its loss if they'd given me a new one.

The Icebreaker range of clothing is expensive because every item is made with merino wool. For me, what makes it worth paying extra for is merino's odour resistant properties. That means the clothing needs washing infrequently - for example once a week, or even less often, for socks. If most of your clothing is merino, this can significantly reduce your clothes washing chores and power and water consumption.

It may also explain why it lasts longer and they can offer a lifetime warranty on socks. But nothing lasts forever, and I think that my sock got a hole because I'd been largely alternating two pairs of socks for about two years.

I was skeptical when a friend told me about the odour resistance. But I found it to be true. The clothing rarely needed to be washed (some bodies sweat more than others so I would guess that this is not true for everybody). For me, airing the clothing is enough to ensure the items remain fresh enough for one or even several or many weeks.

I figure that 'fresh enough' rather than 'fresh, period' is OK when you're travelling and need to make compromises because you need or want to travel light. Wearing mostly Icebreaker enabled be to travel to England for a month May with a total of 4 kilos of luggage, and to Japan for two weeks in October with 3.2. It also means you don't need to pay up to $80 extra for checked luggage when you're on a budget airline.

Icebreaker is not the only company that does merino. The others may be just as good or even better, and cheaper. But I have not bothered to check the alternatives, largely because the merino clothes are long lasting and I no longer have to buy new clothes with such regularity.