The Bad: Poor customer service, Many fees
The Basics: Despite clean offices virtually everywhere and a seemingly bottomless capital reserve, Citibank is hardly a friendly financial institution one might enjoy doing business with.
I seldom write about personal finance, but with a couple of bankruptcies, a foreclosure, several banks I've done business with and a generally socialist attitude as a result, I figured now is as good a time as any to start. My problem, surprisingly enough, is trying to come up with enough to write about Citibank. The reason for this is simple: I don't do business with Citibank any longer and it has been a couple of years since I did. But rather than review any of the banks I am currently affiliated with, I would explain why I no longer do business with Citibank.
Citibank is a massive, multibillion dollar a year corporation which is in the business of storing, moving and making more money. They are one of the few worldwide banks which have offices in every major financial capital of the world (where they are allowed) and they are a financial powerhouse. It is a twenty-four hour corporation and they are everywhere. Citibank takes the idea of a World Bank and makes it as close to a reality as can be in a world where nations are still what divide the world up (as opposed to economic institutions). Citibank has a presence around the world and that gives it exceptional power.
But it also makes this bank one of the less humble institutions to work with. In fact, Citibank is so top-heavy with business and multimillion dollar accounts that they don't need money from us (that being the consumer level "nickel and dime, save what you can and pay the bills" customers) - except to pool together to loan out to people and businesses who already have money. While this might seem more like abstract philosophy, it is actually disappointingly concrete and real: the omnipresence and opulent wealth associated with Citibank translates into a bland corporate mechanism which has terrible customer service.
First, the benefits of Citibank. Frankly, I could come up with only two: they are virtually everywhere in North America and have locations in most every major city around the world and they have a capital base which is incredible. The first makes this a decent bank for travelers: if you are visiting major cities in the United States and around the world, there is likely a Citibank there and any issues that come up with money while traveling (which, any seasoned traveler knows, happens with annoying frequency) may be dealt with through your own bank. So, for example, when I did have a Citibank account, I was in Toronto and had an issue that came up and I visited the Citibank there and the issue was taken care of. As far as the capital base goes, having a lot of money makes for an ease of doing business as a big business that need to borrow money actually have a source that may meet their needs. But as far as consumer banking goes, having a large capital base actually makes Citibank surprisingly useful for travelers as well. Most local banks could not handle either converting foreign currencies or having foreign cash on hand while traveling or when returning from travel. When my ex returned from Finland with a stack of Finnish currency (this was years ago, before the Euro), none of our local banks could deal with converting her money back to U.S. dollars. So, we went to the nearest Citibank and within five minutes, we were walking out with a stack of U.S. dollars (from the conversion of her money, not because we robbed the place). Similarly, when I thought I would be making a pit stop in Mexico en route to Las Vegas one year, none of my small town banks could convert my money into Mexican currency, but I went to the nearest Citibank (here in Upstate New York) and within twenty minutes had converted $100 U.S. dollars into an equivalent stack of Mexican currency. This made the bank marginally useful as a traveler.
But as a consumer, staying in one place, Citibank did me no favors. First, many of the consumer banking products are expensive or are predicated on the idea of consistent access to the depositor's money. While I was with Citibank, I had a passbook savings account and a checking account. The passbook savings account was nice and growing up, I had a small cache of money I could never touch. It was the 1980s and it was earning 12% a year and that was fine before I was a teenager and didn't need access to my money.
But then, when I prepared for college, I set up a checking account. At that point, I was beginning my life both poor and as a working person and I did not have a ton of money. As a result, because my balance was likely to be below $100 a month, I was charged $10 a month to have the account and there was a fee (I think it was $.25 per check) for each check over five that I wrote a month. This did not make me very happy, but my father's bank was Citibank and it helped to know that if I ever got into serious jeopardy, I could always call, beg and possibly make bailing me out as easy as my father going to his own bank. Because Citibank was one of only three banks common to both my home town and my college town, the exorbitant fees made sense to me at the time.
But the longer I did business with Citibank, the more I encountered their inflexibility. When my balance went above $100 and I was able to sustain it there (yea, crappy college job!), I was psyched at not having to pay over $11.00 a month just to keep my money in Citibank. But the first time there was even a portion of a day where that fell below $100 (rather annoyingly the first time it happened, my balance was $99.98 for a grand total of three hours), the fee returned. And while the Citibank representatives at my local office were sorry about the fee, they assured me there was nothing they could do about it.
Time went by and I made more money and when my checking account had over $500 in it for the month, I was thrilled that it started earning interest. Sure, it was a pathetic 2%, but it was money that came out of thin air. This, too, became irksome with momentary dips below that threshold eliminating my pittance for the entire month. Again, I was told there was nothing that could be done about it.
My relationship with Citibank came to an abrupt end after college when I returned home to work. I was working at a small craft store and because of me, the owner went and created a direct deposit arrangement (something the old mom and pop store had never had to do). Why? Because Citibank assured me that if I had direct deposit, my checking account would be free, so long as the direct deposits were made weekly on the agreed-upon day. I loved the store I was working at and one week in February, we had a pretty pathetic week and the owner informed me he was uncomfortable with taking more money out of the store's bank account. I understood completely and he paid me in cash that week. Citibank was less charitable to my checking account and I was hit with fees. That time, I felt like I had had enough; they were completely out of touch with my (more compassionate) world. The local office told me in no uncertain terms that they could do nothing about the fees and they eagerly passed me off to the corporate line with an 800 number. After a forty-five minute wait, I explained the situation and I was told that they would not reverse their fees and I closed my account the next day.
Citibank has clean offices that are professional looking all around the United States and in other countries and they have the resources to help businesses and individuals with money. But their customer service is abysmal and their financial products are not exceptional for the money. For savings, I would rather support local banks that treat me with respect and understand my monetary needs and offer flexibility when it is warranted. Citibank is a big, bland bank which represents much of what one might say negatively about the financial community. Those looking for PERSONAL finance solutions would often do much better with smaller, local banks.
For other reviews, be sure to visit my index page for organized listings of all I have reviewed!
© 2011, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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