My very dishonourable dishonour fee

I am a customer of a bank outside the Big Four. The one that describes itself as a community bank but still acts like a standard bank in all the ways that count.

The other day I got charged a $15 dishonour fee. I had the money when I bought it, the soon-to-be-mine $26.65 top from eBay which may end up looking nothing like its picture, but, due to an unforeseen charge, I didn’t have sufficient funds to cover it by the time the payment went through. So now my Paypal account is in arrears, and the balance of my bank account is $15 lower than the small amount it had to begin with.

What I would like to know is: how much does it really cost the bank, with its digital systems and massive money flows, to deal with a situation like mine? They used to charge me as much as $30 for a failed payment, but surely even $15 is too steep. Half price but still, for someone as broke as me, ultimately unaffordable.

It’s my fault for cutting things so close to the wire that a $3.69 charge could throw me into the land of dishonour, but I’m chronically sick and broke, without any government support and often dependent on my partner and my mum. I’m often unable to work or to write – today is a great day! – and so I regularly find myself running close to the line in order to purchase all the things my chronic illness requires, as well as to replenish my chronically under-stocked wardrobe.

Usually, of course, the people on the receiving-end of dishonour fees are also those who can least afford to pay them.

When you live precariously, you really get to see how many hidden kicks in the arse the system has in store for those at the bottom end of town. I can only imagine the extra arse-kicks that come from being homeless. All of these indignities can remain invisible to those who are just getting by.

And look, I understand it’s my fault that this happened. I also know that this need I feel to emphasise my culpability comes from how I have been taught to think of my precarious financial state – that is, above all, as a moral failing on my part, rather than on the part of the financial institutions that make profits in the billions and are still willing to charge dishonour fees to anyone with, say, oh, under $1000 in the bank.

Yes, it was indeed my fault for giving in and buying that shitty top on eBay because I want something new to cover my shattered dignity when buying it means I will have less than fifty bucks in my account and I’m dicing with dishonour death. I know it’s my responsibility to ensure I know what is going out of my account. And maybe I do, now. Maybe I have finally learned my lesson after the umpteenth dishonour fee, this latest metaphorical kick to my actual physical body.

I can talk about all this because, while I have to cop the fee, I’m not admitting to any personal dishonour, knowing as I do the dishonour of our banking system and how it vastly exceeds mine. I take solace in what our money system could be like and has been in many cultures and times – the beauty of a gift economy, where money is not something hoarded by the greedy few because it is too busy flowing and moving and greasing the cogs of a society, increasing the flow of relationships instead of punishing those who find themselves broke.

I have a gift-economy heart in a parasite-economy world, and I’m sorry but I’m not accepting any dishonour.

I know where I sit in relation to the vast, impersonal, end-of-an-age bullshit mechanical monster that continues to mess with people because we haven’t collectively worked out how to stop it or turn it aside and make something new. We pay for money before we even receive it. And that bottom of our debt-based system creates the need all the way up the line for growth, growth, growth to pay for the debt at the bottom and the profits of the greedy in the middle which decimates the Earth in stupid unnecessary ways at the top because overconsumption is built into this most dumbass of models.

I know the system I’m dealing with. I know that charging someone fifteen bucks or thirty bucks for a dishonoured payment is one of the many ways the banking industry makes a profit from the people who can least afford it. It’s nothing personal. It’s just the system, right?

Well, I’m not buying it. It feels personal. I think it’s one of the many things we currently accept as the way things are which are actually totally, all the more unacceptable if ‘community’ is a word you add to your shingle and hang above your logo.

This community bank donates to the communities in which its branches sit. Local footy clubs, netball clubs, the CFA. All the fine upstanding community groups doing fine upstanding community things. Meanwhile, the people who have been caught out – whether because they bought a top on eBay or are trying to stretch money further than it can go to pay for school lunches and the electricity bill –are the ones who are stiffed and have to ask their partner, or their mother, if they’re lucky to have two people to sponge off, to cover them. And go away and draw their tattered bits of self-esteem around themselves, and remind themselves of the dignity inherent to any person drawing breath on the earth is not one recognised by the spreadsheet columns of end-stage capitalism. That we, and the earth, and all its creatures are not the anomaly here – they are.


Image: The offending top from eBay

Sue Stevenson

Sue Stevenson lives in Belgrave and unironically hugs trees. She blogs occasionally at

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