People across Santa Cruz voted with their wallets on Saturday, closing their checking and savings accounts and transferring their money to new accounts at local credit unions and community banks.Elizabeth Carr, CEO of Santa Cruz Community Credit Union (SCCU), said that “credit unions nationwide have opened up 650,000 new accounts from Sept. 29 to Oct. 29, and in California that’s about 92,000.”
Rick Hofstetter, President and CEO of Lighthouse Bank, a community bank in Santa Cruz, made sure that his bank, which is usually closed Saturdays, made a special exception for Bank Transfer Day. From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., their doors were open to people who wanted to transfer their money to Lighthouse Bank.
“Most people who had come in had closed their accounts at Bank of America,” Hofstetter said.
Bank Transfer Day, which took place last Saturday, was taken up by many of the Occupy movement’s protesters, although the event is not officially related to it. However, the event has remained popular with the movement because many protesters see national banks as part of the 1 percent. Protesters feel that the banks on Wall Street have stolen tax dollars from the American people and blame Wall Street for many of the nation’s economic problems.
Protesters and non-protesters alike are calling for more regulation on Wall Street and a separation between investment banking and retail banking. Bank Transfer Day was intended to inspire people to go through the hassle of changing their bank and opening a new account for a cause: to support their communities and take away investment power from the national banks.
By Tuesday morning, people were still going into Lighthouse Bank to open new accounts with the money they had pulled out of the larger banks, Hofstetter said.
In October alone, Lighthouse Bank opened 70 new accounts.
That’s the “biggest month we’ve had since we’ve opened,” Hofstetter said. “We opened half a dozen new accounts, but they were large accounts … between a half and three-fourths of $1 million.”
Hofstetter said large national banks pushed their customers too far. Speaking about the monthly debit card fees that banks like Bank of America, Chase and Wells Fargo were going to charge their customers, Hofstetter said, “I think that’s the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
In September, Bank of America announced a plan to charge customers $5 a month for debit card usage.
“It got to the point where they were feeling bad for not having done so,” Hofstetter said as he described how his new clients felt. He said customers remarked that banking local was better for their community, but they did not want to go through the hassle of closing and opening accounts.
Bank of America, Chase and Wells Fargo dropped their plans of implementing a debit card fee, but some of their customers still closed accounts Saturday.
Santa Cruz community members who closed their accounts at the national banks on Saturday joined hundreds of thousands of people who have taken the same action over the past five weeks. According to the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), a Washington, D.C. based advocacy group, Americans have moved $4.5 billion into the nation’s 7,000 credit unions.
Bank Transfer Day began when a 27-year-old small business owner in Los Angeles, Kristen Christian, made an event page on Facebook for “Bank Transfer Day.” Three days after Christian created the page, 8,000 people had clicked the “attend” button, and within a month’s time almost 80,000 people had indicated they would do the same.
Reports from across the country of people lining up at banks and standing in line for hours to open accounts at their local credit unions and community banks have flooded the Internet. Exact tallies on how many new accounts were opened and how much money was transferred into local banks are not currently available, but one thing is clear: More people are finding alternatives for where they put their money.
In Santa Cruz, protesters marched to Wells Fargo, Chase, Citibank and Bank of America. Casey Livingood, a former account holder who closed his account with the bank, said he closed his account at Wells Fargo a month before Saturday, but did not open an account anywhere else until Saturday’s Bank Transfer Day.
“I went to Wells Fargo [to close the account],” Livingood said, “and opened an account at the credit union.”
SCCU CEO Carr is ecstatic about the people-powered movement. On Saturday, SCCU stayed open until everyone who came to open an account was taken care of, Carr said. She explained that 35 new accounts were opened for customers who had been planning to switch to a credit union for a long time.
“[It was a] tremendous amount for us in one day,” Carr said. “That’s not at all typical. It’s probably five to 10 times what we would normally see. I have to say that I was amazed [by] the power of this movement … started by somebody here in California on Facebook… [It has] created this incredible change.”