Financial Genome Project – Chapter 5

Chapter 5 – The Payment System

“When the scheme faltered [John] Law resorted to a number of rescue packages, many of which have their echoes 300 years later. One was for the bank to guarantee to buy shares in the Mississippi company at a set price (think of the various government asset-purchase schemes today). Then the company took over the bank (a rescue along the lines of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac). Finally there were restrictions on the amount of gold and silver that could be owned (something America tried in the 1930s).” ~The Economist, 2009[1][i]

The quote in the beginning of this chapter is about John Law, a banker and gambler, which fundamentally changed France’s financial system. His bank controlled many parts of France’s payment system, and it collapsed in four years. Understanding all the parts of the financial genome can help expose and proactively avoid financial failures. This chapter will help you with your personal finances.

In Chapter 4, we discussed the “involuntary” healthcare deduction from your salary before you receive your salary (current sequence pictured below). Before we discuss what we spend our money on, we’ll spend time looking out how the payment system works. We’ll look at it broadly at first and then dig down deeper when we go through individual expenses. The main reason we should look at it broadly first, is to understand that while spending money, you’re either losing money while spending money or you’re earning money to spend money. How we spend our own money is a choice we can control. You can work against you by costing yourself money, typically through hidden costs that we’ve accepted as a society. We can avoid these costs. Conversely, the genome can also reward you as you spend money. I’ll show you how to be rewarded and avoid some costs in this chapter. I’ll put potential costs in red font and potential rewards in green font.


                In most countries with a modern banking system, employers directly deposit salaries into employees’ bank accounts; although, some may still give physical checks directly to employees. Checks require the employee to go to a check-cashing facility. Most people go to their own bank and deposit their check directly into their own bank account or get the money in cash; however, some people go to check-cashing facilities and get the money in cash. These type of non-bank facilities charge a fee to cash the check based on the value of the check. This is one way people can avoid costs, by cashing checks at their own bank versus using a check-cashing facility. Technology has helped us avoid costs by allowing us to cash checks using our smartphones directly to your bank.

According to a 2015 Federal Deposit Insurance Company (FDIC) report, only 7% of households were “unbanked” meaning they didn’t have a checking or savings account (.7% lower than 2013). Additionally, a total of nearly 20% of U.S. households obtained financial services outside of the banking system (like check-cashing services).[2] This means that people are being charged to gain access to their own money. Having a bank account doesn’t necessarily mean you avoid fees though.

Like we discussed in Chapter 1, banks can charge a variety of fees that you need to avoid. The most basic fees involve just having a bank account and those need to be avoided. Banks shouldn’t make a profit based off fees, they should reward people for trusting them to use their bank so they can loan that money out. This is called fractional reserve banking and we’ll discuss it in more detail in future chapters. If you use a bank account properly, you can earn rewards. Interest is the most common reward for keeping money in a bank. The interest you earn depends on interest rates, which are incredibly low right, but it’s better than paying fees.

So to recap the flow of income, your employer paid you by direct deposit or a check. You can cash the check by directly depositing it to a bank account or exchanging it for cash. You have two methods of accessing your money: 1) by using the money that was directly deposited into your bank or 2) by using cash. When money is directly deposited, you can use it by transferring it from your bank to the vendor’s bank with an automated payment, utilizing debit and credit cards, writing checks, or withdrawing the money from an Automated Teller Machine (ATM). This is quick chart of what the payment system looks like.


Automated payments are becoming increasingly popular as technology increases. Consumers often automate their bill payments which sends the money directly from a consumer’s bank to a vendor’s bank. Large companies offer this service for free. The company has to pay for this service but it’s such a negligible cost to attract the hundreds of thousands or even millions of customers. Small companies or services may charge for automated payments, and people should avoid those payment methods if they can.

I’ll dedicate an entire chapter to using debit and credit cards, but the costs have become transparent. Companies like Visa (V) and MasterCard (MA) charge vendors a percentage of every sale. Most companies simply add this cost to every commodity and it becomes transparent (actually, just hidden in plain sight). To avoid this hidden cost, I recommend you use a rewards debit and credit card that offers rewards on every purchase—only if you can pay your balance in full every month. By not doing so, you’ll be charged the finance charge, at double-digit interest rates, and negate any savings.

Switching to check usage, some banks charge to provide checks, so there may be costs in using checks. Over time, writing checks will become obsolete. If 90 checks cost $15, each check actually costs 16 cents. If you’re writing a $10 check, then 16 cents represents a 1.6% fee. Lastly, and most unsettling to me, is the cost of withdrawing cash from your bank. Finding a bank that doesn’t charge you for checks or avoiding using checks is a great way to avoid those fees.

According to data pulled from the National ATM Council, the average ATM withdrawal is $60.[3] ATM owners often charge $2 or more for cash withdrawals. Bank-owned ATMs don’t charge their own customers to withdrawal cash. A $2 withdrawal fee on $60 is a 3.3% fee. A $2 withdrawal fee on $20 is a 10% fee. For some reason, avoiding ATM fees is not a priority for consumers and it should be. Cash provides anonymity of purchases—an ideological side benefit. Interestingly enough, businesses that have an inherent requirement for cash such as gentlemen clubs [so I’ve heard] or casinos charge the highest fees for ATM withdrawals. Some ATM fees at these clubs are as high as $8. An $8 ATM fee for the average $60 ATM withdrawal is a 13% fee. To avoid ATM fees, try using your own bank’s ATMs or find a bank that reimburses ATM fees. Planning ahead and budgeting also helps prevent unnecessary or impulse needs for cash.

So whether you pay a vendor using automated payments, debt or credit cards, a check, or with cash, the money will eventually make it to the vendor’s bank. This is important to note. Almost every step in the payment system requires a bank. Banks issue debit and credit cards managed by Visa, MasterCard and other card companies. Banks wield an extraordinary amount of power in the financial genome, and we should be very mindful of that at all times. As I’ve mentioned it before in previous chapters, transparency and access are nice, but can also lead to nefarious dealings within the genome. Here’s what our current financial genome sequencing looks like now. The payment system is not outside the genome, and we’ll start making connections in the next couple of chapters.






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