Friday, 27 May 2011

Got my mind on my money

When I was a poor grad student making next to nothing, I kept looking forward to the day when I could use my degree to get a steady job with a steady paycheck, at which point surely I would stop having to worry about finances. Then I did the most financially complicated thing ever, and moved to a foreign country.

As I have written previously, the cost of moving to the UK was quite stressful in and of itself, but my money woes didn't end there. All of my accounts--savings, checking, credit cards, investments--were in the US. Every time I accessed money abroad, I had to pay not one, but two service fees--one to the institution that was accessing my money, and one to my own bank or credit card company for processing a foreign request. When I was using my credit card, this wasn't too bad--usually less than $1 per transaction. But when I was using my debit card, which was occasionally necessary in order to have cash on hand, I was also charged a $5 processing fee in addition to the $1 surcharge. Let me tell you, it does not take long for those $5 charges to accumulate.

Another irritating thing about using plastic abroad is that, unlike the (*ahem* backwards *ahem*) Americans, but like pretty much everyone else in the world, the Brits use a chip-and-pin setup. Each card is implanted with a chip that is linked to the 4-digit pin associated with the card. You don't need to do any card swiping or signature signing; instead, you stick the card into a machine, type in your number, and off you go. It's kind of like the protocol that Americans use for withdrawing money from an ATM, except that you do it everywhere, and for both debit and credit transactions alike. Most places that use chip-and-pin machines also have the facility to do the traditional swipe-card technique, but there are many that do not. Even where cards can be swiped, there's often a moment of surprise and confusion when you hand someone your card; I can't tell you how irritating it gets having to explain, time and time again, that I'm using an American card that only works when swiped. People often haven't been trained in how to process swipe-card transactions, and so you can stand around at the till forever while they swipe your card in various orientations through various slots in the machine. Once it finally goes through, often there is no pen handy, since nobody needs to use them anymore, so the sales assistant has to go rummage around the manager's office to find an implement allowing you to sign your name. Since arriving here, I have had to sign my name in marker, pencil, various immature shades of colored pen (pink! neon green!), and even highlighter.

Obviously, it behooves one to have a bank account at an institution within one's country of residence. This is especially true because, while you can use foreign accounts to withdraw cash and make purchases, you can't set up direct deposits or withdrawals without a local account. This prevents you from signing up for useful things like cell phone plans and magazine subscriptions, or cashing checks in foreign currency. Unfortunately, it is practically impossible to get a new bank or credit card account unless you have some sort of prior credit history, but in a delightful catch-22, you can't have a prior credit history without a bank account or credit card. I applied to, and was rejected from, several banks before I finally wrote an appeal letter and attached recent statements from each of my American accounts, showing that I did in fact have many financial resources. It is so frustrating to have absolutely no credit history in the UK, given that I have fantastic credit history in the US. With all the international business that goes on these days, how can financial institutions from different countries not talk to each other and pass this sort of information along? I would even be willing to pay a fee for this process. Luckily, the bank statements did the trick and I am now the owner of a British bank account.

Interestingly, my bank does not exist anywhere near me in a physical format. They have one main office somewhere up north, but no branches; all their customers do everything online, or via partner institutions (various other banks, or even the post office). It's quite an odd concept, but mimics my previous situation when I was conducting business with my US bank from afar. So, it's not so much of an adjustment for me, but I can see where it might feel odd to many people used to a more traditional setup.

One of the interesting things about finances in Britain is that people are so much more modern about money than we are in the US. When you've eaten at a restaurant and are ready to pay your bill, your server comes over with a little cordless handheld credit card machine and does the whole transaction right at your table. Nobody carries your card off anywhere where they can do suspicious and unknown things to it; all the business is carried out right in front of you, and in a matter of seconds. If you owe a friend money but don't have any cash to hand, you can log onto your bank account online and pay up electronically. Everyone knows their sort codes and bank account numbers, which is all you need to type in so that you can settle your debts. It's so civil.

One thing I really don't enjoy, though, is having to use a card reader in order to complete transfers or make purchases online. This is a card reader:

You have to stick your card into it, type in the associated pin, receive a code number, then type the code number into your computer in order to complete your transaction. This seems excessive to me, given that I've already supplied details that only I know in order to sign into my bank account. Isn't that the whole purpose of pin codes? If they need an extra level of security, why not just ask for a password? Why do I need to stick my card into a machine? If I happen to need to make a transfer/purchase while I am in any location other than my home, I don't have the card reader handy, which means that I can't do it. Obviously, I could carry the card reader around in my purse, but that's just annoying. And what about the 50% of the population (e.g., men) who don't carry purses?

The financial issue that has most recently vexed me is the hurdles that my American banks put up during the process of transferring money between countries. I am paid a monthly stipend by my grant institution, and since the institution is American, they insist that they pay me into an American account. Thus, at least once a month I need to take money from my US bank account and put it into my UK account. When I originally set this process up, I had to look up a bunch of information--SWIFT codes, IBAN numbers, etc.--that is used exclusively for this purpose. You wouldn't believe how far buried these details are on the websites of both UK and US banks.

Every time I make a transfer, I am charged a $35 processing fee, which I find absolutely ludicrous. It's not like I'm paying an armored guard to pick up a suitcase of dollar bills, drive it to the airport, fly it across the Atlantic, take it to my UK bank, exchange it into pounds, and then fly back home again. Everything is done on computers these days--there's not even physical money involved!--and yet I'm being charged to gain access to my own hard-earned money. On top of that, I have to experience the pain of watching 40% of the numerical quantity disappear as my large number of dollars is converted into a much smaller number of pounds.

Transfers get even more difficult if you need to move more than $1000 in one go. I had to do this a couple weeks ago in order to put all my scientific grant funding, which was in an account in the US, into an account at my research institution here in the UK. You have to get a special authorization code in order to do this, but the only way to receive it is to a) have it texted to your American cell phone, or b) sign up to receive a code-generating card (not unlike my British card reader, except it is the shape and size of a credit card). The card costs $20 and you have to wait to receive it in the mail, but this was my only option since I don't have an American cell phone. After waiting and waiting and waiting for the card, I finally contacted the bank to find out where it had been sent. It turns out that they cannot ship the cards internationally, which means that rather than sending it to the current address they have on file for me, they used my previous address, which is my parents' house. Why would they even think I would be there? Why didn't they tell me my international address would prove an issue? Because they just wanted my $20, and because they didn't want me to be able to transfer my money. Because my bank doesn't care about customers--they just care about earning money.

You might wonder why I have even stuck with my US bank rather that switching to a "friendlier" one. Well, I do actually have an account at a more local bank, and I looked into doing all this international stuff through them. But the truth is that, however else my main US bank is lacking, they are actually fairly technologically advanced. It's generally quite easy to accomplish things by signing into my account online, and if I need help they have a 24-7 chat function. At my local bank, I couldn't find any relevant information on their website, they don't appear to allow me to use online features to make international transfers, and account details are updated an an excruciatingly slow rate. It's a terrible trade-off in which I have to sacrifice one type of convenience for another.

Still, my recent international transfer debacle has stirred me into action. I did some research online and found out that the best banks for transnationals are those that operate in both countries. I suppose that's a no-brainer, but because you don't often come across those banks in the US, you wouldn't necessarily think of picking one (not to mention that I am doing all this retroactively--when I first opened my account in the US, I never imagined I would end up living in Britain one day). HSBC has often been cited as the best choice, but when I used their website to find out where their local branches are, I didn't find any in the places where I will actually be when I visit the US. I suppose it's not necessary to have a physical bank--after all, it works okay for me here in the UK--but it would be kind of nice, just in case.I cringe at the thought of what a hassle it will be to move my funds between banks. Not only will I have to finagle my money away from my current bank (doubtless they will find a way to charge me), but I will also have to change financial info in countless of online accounts that are linked to my current bank.

To me, the most amazing thing about all this financial madness is that it really seems like something that shouldn't be so hard. I can log into and buy products from other countries, or ship purchased items abroad, and I can pay for either type of transaction using a credit card from pretty much any country in the world. When I traveled to Australia, India, Brazil, Germany, you name it, I could easily make charges and withdraw money from either my UK or US account. I can turn on Skype or pick up my phone and talk with my parents in the US. We can read tweets, in real time, from people in different time zones. Surely if technology makes all these things possible, it shouldn't be so hard for me to move my own money from one account to another. If it's not the technology throwing a wrench in the works, then it's the banks. And that is something to think about.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Mother's Day Special--A Bouquet of Cornish Wildflowers

Since I was a little girl, I have had an interest in learning the names of all the organisms in my immediate environment. I've always held a special admiration for people who have mental catalogs of names and natural history information of the wildlife around them; one of my strongest early memories is going on a nature hike with my dad at Conkle's Hollow, in the Hocking Hills region, and being completely impressed by our guide, who could identify many, if not most, of the birds, trees, and wildflowers we encountered.

When I got my first field job in college, I learned to identify many local plants while doing vegetation surveys; when I then went back home to my parents' and grandparents' houses and saw the newly-familiar species in their yards, I couldn't believe how different everything looked and felt. It was like I had walked through a doorway to a whole new magical world, where knowing the names of things and a little about their natural history suddenly gave me a better perspective on the ecosystem as a whole. I liked it.

Since then, I've rarely been without all the appropriate field guides, from ferns and wildflowers to trees and fungi (and, of course, animals, but that's a whole other story since those are related to my scientific research). Before moving from the US to the UK, I put together a donation box full of books that I would no longer need; at first my US wildflower book was included, but then I retrieved it because I just couldn't bear to be without a guide that I had used for so long, even if I would need to refer to it in the future.

Prior to our recent trip to Scilly, I purchased a guide to wildflowers on the islands, and since returning to the mainland I have acquired the beautiful Collins guides for both trees and flowers. Yes, it is time to become really acquainted with my new home.

One of the weird things about Cornwall is how much of the flora is foreign. Indeed, throughout much of the UK there are plants that have been imported from the former British colonies--not just several species that I recognize from my homeland, but also a variety from Australia and New Zealand, the Caribbean, and, especially, southern Africa. Of course, plants were also brought by friends and visitors, so there are species from Asia, the Mediterranean, Scandinavia, northern African...the list goes on. Many of these have since escaped from gardens and farms, and can now be found in what now look like fairly random locations; some are regarded as pests and invasives, while others are considered to be naturalized (the distinction between these being made less by science than emotion).

All of this can make plant identification quite tricky, but also very fun--there is such a huge diversity of species around here that it is not hard to continually find new things; thanks to the fairly mild climate, you can generally find something flowering at pretty much any time of the year; and, because of the frequent morphological similarities of plants in the same family, you can often learn a whole suite of plants together and advance your familiarity with the ecosystem in leaps and bounds.

During our time on the Isles of Scilly, I photographed many wildflowers so I could later study the photos and identify them. Back on the mainland, I've begun using my iPhone to photograph plants while I'm out walking, for the same purpose. My husband tells me this is really nerdy, and I suppose it is. But look at some of the interesting species I've encountered:

(Thrift, Armeria maritima. This grows in vast patches, coloring cliffs completely pink during spring and early summer.)

(Lesser celandine, Ranunculus ficara.)

(Sea radish, Raphanus raphanistrum ssp. maritimus. This is in the rather huge family Brassicaceae, which contains numerous other edible plants--rocket, cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, mustard, etc.)

(Arum lily, Zantedeschia aethiopica. Although you can't really tell from this picture, these are quite large, like teacup-sized versions of calla lilies; their impressiveness stems not only from their pristine coloring and texture, but also their size.)

(Cuckooflower, aka Lady's Smock, Cardamine pratensis. The first name originates from the fact that these flowers first come into bloom when the cuckoo arrives in the spring.)

(Western ramping fumitory, Fumaria occidentalis. In the background, you can also see the invasive three-cornered leek (aka three-angled leek or three-cornered garlic), Allium triquetrum. Anyone who is familiar with pagan artifacts or has recently seen Thor should appreciate the Latin name of this species--the "triquetra" is a three-part pattern used often in Germanic pagan art (e.g., Thor's hammer) and in Celtic images.)

(Hottentot-fig, Carpobrutus edulis. This is an overzealously productive plant from South Africa, now found crawling its way along shorelines throughout SW England, where it is a serious threat to native plants. The flowers come in both all-yellow and pink-and-yellow varieties. Like many of the introduced shrub-and-chaparral biome species, it is a succulent; this is one of the easiest characteristics to use when determining whether you are likely to be looking at a native Cornish plant or not.)

(Bermuda buttercup, Oxalis pes-capre. This is one of those species that makes you wonder who gave certain people the authority to name plants. This is neither a buttercup nor a Bermuda native; it is actually in the Oxalidaceae family and was introduced from South Africa.)

(Cleavers, Galium aperine. If you were judging solely on flowers, you'd probably not give this plant any awards for beauty. But the whorls of leaves around the stalks are quite delicate and pretty--I'd admired the plant long before it began blooming. I was quite surprised to find out that, despite its dainty appearance from afar, it is covered in clingy hairs that make it feel like a cross between Velcro and a cat's tongue.)

(Yellow iris, Iris pseudacorus. You might be tempted to think this is an escaped garden flower, but actually it's a native wildflower. They appear to like their privacy--I've only ever seen them growing in singles, and then far from their conspecifics. They seem to like wetland areas quite a lot, where they stand out against the reeds and rushes.)

(Smaller tree-mallow, Lavatera cretica, aka Cornish mallow. In case you're wondering what it's smaller than, the answer is:...)

(Tree-mallow, Lavatera arborea. This species is a boon to migratory birds on the Isles of Scilly. In other migration stopover locations, the birds would eat insects in/around budding trees, but Scilly has few of these; instead, the birds can find this food source in the abundant coastal mallows.)

This is only a small portion of the pictures that I took; there are still several that I need to go through so I can make species identifications. After that, there are many more than I need to photograph on my next few walks--and that will only just begin to cover the flowers that have been blooming so far this spring; many more will emerge as the summer goes on.

One thing I am particularly eager to do is become more familiar with the edible plants, since wildcrafting (harvesting from nature) is a fairly common activity here in Britain--particularly of berries, such as sloes and blackberries. Besides fruits, which are fairly obvious targets for wildcrafting, there are also some more subtle treats, such as chamomile and mint (for tea), samphire and rocket (for salads and wilting in hot dishes), onions, garlic, and leeks. Wildcrafting should always be done away from roads, where plants that are exposed to car fumes will incorporate components of the exhaust into their bodies--leading not only to a nasty taste but also potential toxicity. It's also best to avoid harvesting anything that is below waist height, just to ensure that nothing has been bathed in a shower of dog urine. Happily, natural areas in Britain abound, and the country is criss-crossed by public footpaths offering access for both plant-watching and plant-collecting.

I've been told that there is nothing better than firing up a grill on the beach and cooking some freshly-caught fish with some wild leeks and rock samphire, then eating it all straight from the fire. That sounds like something I should make it a goal to achieve before the summer is out--I've been wanting to break out the fishing rod and get my first taste of fishing on the high seas. Stay tuned to find out whether it happens!

Since it's Mother's Day, I'd like to give a shout-out to my mother, my two grandmothers, my two mothers-in-law, my sister-in-law, and my cousin, for whom this is the first of many Mother's Days to come. Thanks everyone, and keep up the good work!