Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Visa not the passport to college savings that I'd hoped for

It is a measure of how far I've fallen in the world that I have begun to pay careful attention to the interest rates on credit cards. Very careful attention.

The problem is this: While I've made reasonably good money most years (there have been some exceptions) I never make enough money to pay the mortgage, utilities, groceries and all my tuition obligations. I went through my savings, and my parents' inheritance. I borrowed to the max against my life insurance policies. A surprise bequest bailed me out last year.

(I've been deficit spending for so long, I've been named an honorary government. If only I could raise taxes.)

In 2007 I had to put several college and high school tuition payments on a credit card -- and they've never really been cleared off. Oh, I've cleared those cards -- but ran up new debt on others in the process. Recently I moved the balances on three cards to one that won't charge any interest on the now huge balance until January. Of course, there was a rather hefty convenience fee, but my son the accountant thought this was a good idea anyway. (It'd be a great idea if I could pay it down by then -- but this year is shaping up to be another one of those exceptions, doggone it.)

Anyway, knowing I was going to have to start charging tuition again this Fall I started sifting through my cards seeing which one had the lowest rate. One had 29%, another 25%, another 21%. Still another had 12% -- but the winner, by far, was a Visa card with a 4% rate. I'd been using this card in the business and it has a balance. But I figured I could clear that soon enough and have it ready to switch back to personal use by Fall. Even with the year I'm having, I still might be able to do this.

As those of you with kids in college know, the bills are coming due about... now. Youngest Son's was due yesterday. Younger Daughter's is coming up fast. But Younger Daughter's school had a payment plan -- I'd used this before, but mostly to pay from my checking account -- it was just like having two mortgage payments every... single... month -- and I saw that Youngest Son's school had a relationship with the same company that financed my payment of his high school tuition.

I had my 4% Visa card at the ready. I logged onto the site. I made all the pertinent disclosures. I agreed to all the terms of service. I then tried to charge the enrollment fee and the first tuition installment.

It wouldn't take.

The screen said something about payment being limited to fees only. From this I thought that I must pay my enrollment fee first -- then pay the first installment. Sure enough, the enrollment fee went through.

But the first installment stalled.

I tried again. And again. I pushed the button right-handed. I pushed it left-handed. I tried it with one eye closed. But it would not work.

Well, I thought, reaching out for some desperate strand of hope, maybe it's because the bill is due today and the computer won't take it on the actual due date. Maybe you have to call the payment in -- I've seen that before.

So I called the 800 number. I went through the phone menu with extraordinary patience, pushing 1 or 2 or 3 whenever prompted. Then it asked for my account number. And I had my brand new account number, right in front of me, on the receipt that I'd just printed out when the computer accepted my enrollment fee. I entered it -- and the phone menu said it did not recognize the number.

I tried again. The phone menu did not recognize the number.

I tried again. The phone menu did not recognize the number.

I tried and tried and tried until the phone menu offered me the rare gift of speaking with a human. I greedily accepted. There were clicks and buzzes and then the sound of a line ringing and a woman with a decidedly southern accent answered, "Customer Service. Christie Lee speaking. How may I help you?"

I began to tell my sad tale. But I was barely begun when the young lady on the other end of the line said, "Customer Service. Christie Lee speaking. How may I help you?"

"Can you hear me now?" I shouted into the phone. (I still can't believe that Verizon was able to turn that frustrating question into a sales pitch.) "Can you hear me?"

"Customer Service. Christie Lee speaking. How may I help you?"

"Please," I said, at the top of my lungs, "I'm screaming now into the phone. Can't you hear me?"

"There being no response, I am releasing the call," said Christie Lee. And she did.

My reservoir of patience, never much deeper than Carlos Zambrano's, was now drier than an unwatered lawn in Dallas. I stabbed out the 800 number. As soon as the phone menu began, I began punching zero, zero, zero, zero. The phone menu was more stubborn that most; it came back many times. But I was equally persistent: Zero! Zero! Zero! Finally, a line began ringing. Another woman answered. I had reached the corporate office.

She got me back to a customer service representative. But this was one of those special two-way lines where I could hear the customer service representative and she could hear me.

I told her my story. It may have come out in something of a manic rush.

"What school did you say your son will be attending?" she asked when she could get a word in. I told her. "That school charges a convenience fee of 2.99%," she said.

"Yes," I acknowledged. I'd seen that on the bill. It's all part of the high cost of being poor in this country: You can get discounts for cash, but if you can't afford something you'll pay interest and a little extra juice besides, that being whatever fee the provider of the good or service you hope to acquire finds it convenient to take from you.

"Well, Visa has chosen not to participate in that convenience fee," she said, "so we can't accept Visa."

I would have thought that the "convenience" fee was what Visa took off the top and the school was just passing the cost through. But this was not the time or place to debate the issue. I put the first installment on a MasterCard -- which has an interest rate of over 20%. But my options were limited at this point. I have a lot of Visa cards.

Thoroughly shaken now, I went to log into my daughter's school site so I could pay her first installment. The convenience fee there was 6%. Surely, if the problem was that Visa wasn't getting enough, there'd be enough juice in that for even a greedy credit card company.

Younger Daughter's school always sends the bill directly (and electronically) to Younger Daughter -- as if she were going to pay it. But I've gotten over this. I just log in as my daughter. This satisfies the school's concerns about privacy. Funny thing is, logged in as my daughter, the site has no trouble taking my bank account information or my credit card information. Obviously, privacy stops where the wallet starts.

Anyway, I re-enrolled in the payment plan (the school gets a little something extra each semester this way) and reached for my magic 4% Visa card.

And then I looked at the list of acceptable credit cards. I looked again. MasterCard. Discover. American Express. Dogpatch Stormdoor and Banking Enterprises. But no Visa.

Sometimes I think the world is out to get me. Othertimes I just know.

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