Bank of Italian-American No-Fee High-Wire Money Juggling

Photo: Flickr/Ale Desiderio

I’m in a weird money place right now. Let’s stipulate that I never have much money; my 2014 household Adjusted Gross Income was $38,000, and although I haven’t filed taxes for 2015 yet (almost exclusively because filing season hasn’t started), we’re certain to be well below that. I’m guessing $32,000, and more like $24,000 for 2016 (albeit with a lower cost of living). However, I’m lucky enough to have rich relatives, so I’m kind of fake poor, the poor that’s stressful but rarely disastrous, pseudo-poverty that comes with a safety floor. Despite this, or maybe as a result, I do my best to keep around $3,000 in savings, for an emergency. That’s in an average month.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had an average month.

In August 2015, I maxed out at $15,000 in savings, a year’s worth of hoarded birthday and Christmas checks and overtime I’d usually throw into accelerated debt payments, but instead safeguarded for the inevitable expenses of a big overseas move, even a subsidized cheap one. That account right now? In a couple of weeks, after I pay my never-carry-a-balance credit card bill, it’ll drop to $800, low enough to trigger at least one monthly fee. Meanwhile, I’m sitting on three months’ worth of euro-denominated paychecks I have no easy way to deposit. What happened?

In 2010, the U.S. passed a little-noticed law called FATCA, the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, which took about four years to fully ramp up. FATCA was an attempt to stop tax offshoring by adding another layer of reporting; if a non-U.S. bank gives an account to a U.S. citizen, the bank is supposed to send the IRS a note. If the bank doesn’t comply, the U.S. will leverage its full international banking power to freeze that bank out of the global financial system. Goodbye, legendary hidden Swiss bank accounts! Forbes has called it America’s Manifest Destiny Law, and I’m not sure whether that’s an insult or a compliment. I’m not sure Forbes is either.

The account-reporting form is a simple one-pager, and it seems reasonable to me because I am an American. However, the rest of the world, the ones who are not Americans, don’t take the same point of view, because literally no other country does this. From foreign banks’ perspective, the U.S. has asked them to hop up and down a few times, purely for giggles. It’s not hard, but are they going to do it for a tiny personal account? No. A lot of banks have decided to drop their Americans, dubbing them not worth the hassle. It’s hard to disagree. Transpose a few characters on a foreign-language form and subject yourself to the full economic wrath of the U.S. Treasury? Sounds like a bad move for an organization built to minimize risk.

As a result, my Italian bank account has been “just a few days away” from being finalized for about the last two months — first at an internet bank which decided at the last minute it couldn’t legally work with us, and now at a brick-and-mortar institution where we know someone who knows someone. That second bank has gone so far as to assign us an account number, but no means to deposit or withdraw. Turns out a month ago they had us sign a form they were supposed to ask us to sign in quadruplicate. They figured this out right before Christmas, and promptly closed to new business from December 23 through January 7. But now, I’m sure, account access is just a few days away.

(For context, 10 years ago, when I moved to London, I had a no-fee account the day I walked in, despite British bank accounts being notoriously difficult to set up. That was before the Lehman Brothers collapse terrified the banking system, and pre-FATCA, when I could report my accounts to the IRS myself. Times have changed.)

In the meantime, we have had access to one paycheck, which because it was for a partial month was less than a thousand euros, and could therefore be paid in cash. Over a thousand euros? Illegal. Has to go through a bank. This is to prevent tax fraud and money laundering on the Italian side. It’s a law that went into effect in 2011. France is doing the same thing, possibly to fight terrorism. Given that basically all Italian transactions take place in cash, Prime Minister Renzi said in October that he was bumping the cap back up to €3,000 as an economic stimulus, but nobody is confident that this really happened — so in practice (if maybe not reality) €1,000 is still the law of the land, or at least the office that issues the relevant paychecks.

Not-quite-€1,000 goes pretty far when you’re naturally an extremely frugal person. It does not, however, go four months far. I’ve been smoothing the delay by drawing on my U.S. savings…but the reason I left my dollars in the U.S. is I need them over there. That’s the account from which I pay student loan bills. If I don’t get enough dollar-denominated freelance checks this month, I’ll drop below the deposit minimum and I’ll get hit with a monthly fee. Which makes me crazy. It makes me crazy to the extent that I imagine once I have the Italian account (in just a few days?) I’ll do an international wire transfer that will cost about twice as much as the monthly account fee. I won’t do that, but I fantasize about it.

I hate account fees. I loathe them with a sense of moral revulsion disproportionate to their monetary value. Even a 25-cent charge is enough to make me freak. out. From my perspective, I have never overdrawn and don’t bug the tellers — don’t even live in the same country as the tellers — so I am doing the bank a huge favor by letting them borrow my money at no charge. And then I’m supposed to pay them? No. I would rather be spit on by a stranger than pay a bank fee. I would rather have my blood forcibly withdrawn. I’d go to prison.

Is this level of emotion crazy? Absolutely. Feed a cat to an ATM crazy. When I think of the Sons of Liberty’s violent rebellion over generously miniscule overseas taxes, it doesn’t make sense to me…until I think of bank fees. Suddenly, dropping a low-level account manager into hot tar seems, ok still not reasonable. But I want to drink Sam Adams beer. (We all like Hamilton, right? Revolutionary war jokes are cool now? I don’t know, because I’ve been out of the country.)

My eventual rescue, at least on the U.S. side, will come at the hands of the same entity that got me into this mess: the Internal Revenue Service. Once tax season starts, I should be able to route a refund check into my depleted account, neat and tidy. As a stopgap, I’m borrowing a thousand dollars from my U.S.-based dad, with the face-saving promise that I’ll pay him in euros when he visits in April. That saves him bank fees, which he hates too — albeit with lesser frenzy.

Meanwhile, I just ate truffles for dinner. Truffles! I am feasting on truffles as a money-saving tactic in a country where a jar of them costs €3, half as much as peanut butter. In a lighter moment, I might congratulate myself for so quickly accumulating an Italian three-paycheck emergency fund. The moments are not light. By which I mean there’s one working lightbulb attached to my inexpensive 15-foot ceiling, and if it goes out, I can’t pay for a ladder to change it. The bulb’s a CFL. I’ll probably be fine.

I’m in a weird money place right now.

Romie Stott’s genre-bending fiction and poetry have appeared in Arc, Farrago’s Wainscot, Strange Horizons, Punchnel’s, Dark Mountain, and LIT. As a filmmaker, she’s been a guest artist at the National Gallery (London), ICA Boston, and Dallas Museum of Art. She has a bachelor of science in Economics.