Archive for February, 2017

Who taxes you?

A good friend of mine has always refused to participate in loyalty programs. He figured, not unreasonably, that the company’s interest and his are not guaranteed to be aligned and the trouble of monitoring that was not worth whatever benefit might be gained.  So it’s only recently that I’ve considered getting a mileage credit card.  As part of a change in household, I signed up and began my new relationship with Bank of America.

Wait a second, Bank of America? A big corporate bank? I’m supposed to be an Impact Investor, a triple-bottom-line consumer. Why would I divert a significant percentage of my annual expenditure stream through their card, allowing them to pull a tithe from the business community via invisible-to-me credit card fees?  Because one thing I’m well aware of as a business consultant is that all those points and miles we earn are paid for by the businesses where we use our cards- through slightly higher credit card fees.  Businesses have no ability to sort cards, if they take one Visa they must take them all.

Of course the reason I would do this is simple: payola, in the form of airline miles.  I started asking around among friends and in Seattle, an Alaska Airlines hub, the Alaska Airlines card is everywhere. My friends fly with their miles. Some friends have an Amazon card, held by “Synchrony Bank”, which I know nothing about. Milage cards are not just about miles: Alaska charges bag-check fees, which they waive if I book my ticket using an Alaska credit card. Using the card saves me $50 per round trip when I need to take luggage. Add in a free annual companion ticket and it only takes one trip per year to more than pay pack the annual $75 fee.

Economy is based on the latin word for household.  If we want to change the priorities of our household, we need to think about who is in it, making decisions.  The small decisions we can make about which institutions we support through our incidental activity can add up to big decisions. This was the premise behind the “move your money” campaign that lead many people to move their money from banks to credit unions.  Who provides your access to credit is, if you have a decent credit rating and can make choices, the same decision.  I’m currently banking at a credit union, and their card would be the obvious choice. Certainly on an interest-rate and fee basis, it’s a much better choice than the loyalty card. It just doesn’t come with such powerful payola.

Making that moral choice costs me real airline dollars! With an opposite-coast family, I will fly annually. I was feeling ready to make that stand anyway when my voice of envy took a new turn and made a case not about gain but about loss: successful businesses who take credit cards recognize the fees as the cost of doing business and price accordingly. For example, Square charges small businesses a flat processing fee of 2.75%, which greatly exceeds the fees paid to Visa, so Square is collecting credit card premiums from businesses regardless of whether or not they pass them on to the full consortium of Visa, BOA and Alaska Air. A pessimistic view might be that those of us not using loyalty cards are left subsidizing those who do, or just padding the pockets of the card processors.  Ooo, that argument was more difficult for me.  Fine, I thought.  Surely there was some compromise between selling my economic allegiance and leaving money on the table.

The answer I came to is a loyalty card with a values-based bank that I am proud to direct a revenue stream through, to a cause I believed in.  I remembered a friend who had a “Salmon Nation” card that supported an environmental organization in Portland.  It was issued by Beneficial State Bank.  I went to their website to survey their options and was immediately drawn to the B-Corporation visa (I get no referral if you click that link :).  A chance to support a cause I passionately believe in – an organization doing third-party certification of good internal corporate management in the 5 areas of Governance, Community, Environment, Employees and Customers. I applied and awaited my card.

In the intervening duration I thought again about the free trip I could probably earn every year if I instead selected a mileage card, or about how much stuff I still end up buying on Amazon despite my commitment to purchase locally as much as I can. Or the marginally higher fees I would have with this card than a vanilla credit union card (but still lower than a BOA card).  Was I being silly?  The card answered the question. I’m so pleased to pull out this card, and the opportunities it provides to talk about B Corporation and why I think it’s something more people should know about, I don’t for a second regret it.

I was also feeling less impressed with Alaska’s milage program; having just come off a binge of using up old United miles to travel to DC, Alaska required 30% more miles for the same trip.  Looking harder though, with the companion ticket, plus the free checked bags each way, using the Alaska card to book my annual opposite coast family trip produced a 400% return on my $75 annual fee.   So in the end I got the Alaska card, too, which I only use for booking Alaska travel.

The deep issue here that merits attention is how incredibly embedded in our everyday financial transactions there are invisible corporations that effectively tax us, and how little we know about those taxes or what they pay for.  It’s an interesting systems issue. Change does happen, Square is new on the scene and has bred a host of competitors, but it seems likely they’re yet another layer of technical middleman, taking another cut out of the value exchange between consumer and business.

Merchant Maverick was my go-to resource when I set up billing for a new business a couple years ago, they have a great writup on the credit card processing fee stack here.

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