Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Bouncy, Bouncy: The Bane of Bounced Checks

I run a seasonal business. It’s a resort in the Northwoods of Wisconsin and 65% of our sales come from cabin rentals. Most of our guests pay by credit card—everyone wants frequent flyer miles these days—but some pay cash and some pay by check. In thirteen years of running this business I can count the number of bounced checks we’ve had to deal with. It’s more than five, less than 10. Most renters stay on property for a week and I’ll get word that a check bounced prior to their departure. Therefore, I can confront the usually embarrassed perpetrator face-to-face.

“Oh my!” they often say, with a look of horror and surprise. “I’ve never bounced a check in my life.” Or something like, “that’s strange. Someone must have bounced a check to me and that’s why it happened.” No one ever says, “Oops, silly me! I’m an idiot who doesn’t think it’s important to balance my checking account and you’re just the victim of my irresponsibility.” Frankly, I don’t care what their reasons are. I just want them to make good on their payments. As soon as possible.

The only time I ever bounced a check was when I was in college. It happened during one month filled with painful and humiliating financial lessons, when I bounced not one, but five checks. There was one at the grocery store, another at the bookstore, at the local pizza joint, a sandwich shop and a watering hole. Completely unbeknownst to me, I was on a small town crime spree, garnering a reputation as a serial bouncer—and I don’t mean the kind that sits on a stool in front of a bar examining the fake I.Ds of the freshmen. After the fifth notice appeared in my mailbox, I marched into the bank to get to the bottom of this problem, where I learned that my checking account had been drained. It was drained by one check, a check for as much money as I had ever had in that account. And it was made out to my father.

“That’ll teach you to write a blank check,” my father said in response.

It taught me not to ever do that again, all right. You see, he was pissed that my dorm room phone bill was so high that month, which was my first away from home. He had agreed to pay for my first year of tuition, room and board, but apparently, his support stopped short of my need to check in with friends and family.

In time I made good on my debts and closed my checking account. I found a new bank, started a savings account and for the next four years, took full advantage of the free money orders offered to customers. Once I graduated and moved away from that town, I opened a new checking account and have never let a month go by without balancing it to the penny. And, of course, I’ve never ever again offered anyone a blank check. I have, however, offered my father more than one rubber chicken. But that’s another story.

Meanwhile, a resort guest bounced a sizable check some two months ago, which has yet to be resolved. Each time I send a message asking for payment, I get a note on the day of the deadline I’ve provided saying payment is forthcoming. Today’s note read:

“My husband and I are divorcing and we have been going back and forth about who should pay this (since it was HIS parents' check to us that bounced, causing ours to you to bounce). He has finally agreed to send you $50.00 every two weeks until it is paid. This agreement is part of our temporary divorce order and is part of the court record so it WILL happen. I apologize for this mess. I've been dealing with this crap for far too long.”

Like I said earlier, I don’t care what her reasons are, I just want payment. And I certainly don’t want her to pass her “crap” onto me. If I were a big institution, I’d care even less. I’d slap some finance charges on her (him?) and perhaps get a collection agency involved. That’s what any of my creditors would do in a heartbeat. But, as the mom of a mom-and-pop operation, I have to be grateful for the correspondence and feel sorry for the split up of a different kind of mom-and-pop operation.

Think I’ll go play some basketball.

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