The saddest money withdrawal I’ve ever seen

Bank branch

I’m going on a big trip this month, and I’m pretty excited about it.

One of my rituals around packing—aside from spending the week prior making a way-too-big pile of stuff in the corner of my room under the misunderstanding that I can or should take all of it with me—is around change. I use the “fool myself into savings” method for providing an extra bump of money for a trip; I save my change up, and then I cash them in for, well, cash.

And so, one afternoon recently, I walked over to the bank around the corner from my home with a large bag of rolled coins.

But that wasn’t the interesting part. That was the person in line in front of me.

The line

Bank teller lines are not unlike post office lines; they are slow by nature, but if you need to be in one, you probably have something complicated to do, so they are doubly slow. When I go to the post office these days, I bring a book.

In line directly in front of me was a woman, who went up to the teller and asked to make a withdrawal. The teller asked how much, and she said $5.

This immediately confused me. Why in the world was this woman doing this transaction, and through the teller too? I could see that she had a card of some sort. There was an ATM outside, why didn’t she just use that?

Then I thought to the ATM. In my experience, most ATMs dispense money in increments of $20 only. She could have just withdrawn the minimum of $20.

Unless she didn’t have that much in her account.

It was the end of the month, a few days before people often get paid. It’s very possible that she had less than $20 to her name.

And I don’t know about you, but that made me incredibly sad.

The bottom

I haven’t been that close to the bottom in my account since I was living at home in between colleges and looking for a job to get me through. I pulled out $20 a week to live on. By the time I got a job, I had just overdrafted my account, the first and last time that happened (although it got close recently).

But I was 17 at the time. This was an adult.

On one hand, I was a little relieved that this person wasn’t swiping a credit card to get through life. But then I had the chilling thought that perhaps she had, and had maxed out her cards.

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The need

If this is your situation, my heart hurts for you.

If this isn’t your situation, I want you to imagine how it feels. Imagine the stress of wondering how you’re going to get through the month. Imagine the need to buy food and clothes and gas and not knowing how you’re going to do it. Your kids need to get to school. You need to get to work.

Maybe this was you at one point in your life. Maybe this is you now.

There is a reason why I drone on and on and on about seemingly unexciting topics like float, the amount of extra money you have in your account.

It’s because float can make you feel something strongly: relief.

Take that stress I asked you to imagine, and now take it away. Now you have enough money in your account. Now you know where your food, clothes, and gas are going to come from.

How does that feel? Better, doesn’t it?

Taking control of your money helps you feel better. There is nothing dry and clinical, and certainly nothing boring, about that.

Now, I don’t know this woman’s situation. I could have it all wrong. But I know that there are plenty of people who live without any wiggle room. When the money from their last paycheck runs out, there is nothing else left.

And that is a scary and painful place to be.

The plan

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]There is a reason why I drone on and on and on about seemingly unexciting topics like float, the amount of extra money you have in your account. It’s because float can make you feel something strongly: relief.[/perfectpullquote]

Luckily, it doesn’t have to be this way.

I believe the vast majority of people’s situations can be improved with effort.

For someone in this situation, if I were coaching them, I would immediately have them put themselves on a written spending plan. Track every dollar they spent, and in dire cases, even the cents.

Tracking allows you to see where your money is going, provides a built-in accountability, and allows you to see where there are improvements that can be made.

Even if someone was able to start putting $20 away, it could make a world of difference. Keep that up every month, and after a while, you will get traction.

Slips are okay, just keep trying. I just don’t want anyone to ever have to wait in line at a bank in order to withdraw their last $5 ever again.

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