This is a guest post from Robert Brokamp of The Motley Fool. Robert is a Certified Financial Planner and the advisor for The Motley Fool’s Rule Your Retirement service. He contributes one new article to Get Rich Slowly every two weeks.

I must confess to a new habit: I collect discarded ATM receipts. It all started when I walked by the bank in the building next to Motley Fool Intergalactic Headquarters, and found one such receipt blowing in the wind. I was shocked by how little the person had in her/his bank account, and how much she/he paid to get what cash was available.

To see what I mean, check out the stats on seven receipts I’ve recently picked up:

Withdrawal ATM Fee Account Balance
$60.00 $3.00 $72.79
$40.00 $0.00 $709.02
$100.00 $3.00 $8,973.53
$400.00 $0.00 $431.31
$20.00 $0.00 $301.73
$20.00 $0.00 $54.92
$20.00 $3.00 $48.04

What comes to your mind when you look at those numbers? Here’s what comes to my mind:

  • Some people have very small bank accounts. Only one of those accounts is substantial. Of course, this may not be the only bank accounts these people have. But if it is… well, these people are living on the financial edge. I suspect they have other accounts with much bigger balances: their credit card accounts.
  • Some people are willing to pay a lot to get their cash. Three of these people paid three bucks. In the case of the last person, that $3 ATM fee was 15% of the withdrawal and 4.5% of the entire bank balance.
  • Some people don’t give a hoot about polluting. I don’t dig through the garbage for these receipts; they all have been thrown on the ground. Some people take the time to rip them up and then throw them on the ground (even though there’s a trash slot under the ATM). I have considered the possibility that the receipts I collect aren’t indicative of banking customers in general but a self-selecting sample — specifically, people who have little regard for their community also have little regard for their own personal finances. Just a theory…

What’s your ther-money-stat?
Here’s another theory I have: We each have an internal level of financial stasis that involves having a certain amount of money in the bank, a certain level of debt, and a certain amount of each paycheck going to savings — an internal “ther-money-stat,” if you will. If we somehow find ourselves in a better situation than our regular level of financial comfortability, we turn up the spending. Perhaps it’s due to a raise, or a bonus, or an unexpectedly large tax refund. But as historian C. Northcote Parkinson wrote, “Expenses rise to meet income.”

On the flip side, there’s a level at which we freak out. Our financial condition drops below our internal ther-money-stat, and we swear off restaurants, movies, vacations, and anything but the necessities. (By the way, a difference in these internal levels is one of the biggest sources of conflict between couples.)

If I had just a few hundred dollars (or less) in the bank — as is the case for plenty of people, according to the ATM receipts I pick up — I would immediately cancel the cable and the cell phone, turn down the heat and layer up the sweaters, and likely get a second or third job. I would barely be able to sleep with that little in the bank.

Of course, I don’t know the stories behind these receipts, but my guess is that these folks have a much lower ther-money-stat than I do. The question is, can it be changed? Can someone who is willing to pay $3 to withdraw $20 from a $71.04 bank account turn into someone who would not rest until there’s three to six months’ worth of living expenses in an emergency fund?

I think it’s possible; you GRS readers have told us before what got you to become fiscally fit. But I bet it’s not easy.

Season’s depletings
I suspect that many of us (myself included) tend to get a bit self-righteous when we see evidence of people making bad financial decisions. However, I can’t help — especially at this time of year — to also feel sorry for these low-balance bank customers. There are plenty of people who are experiencing tough times due to no fault of their own. I can even conjure images of parents withdrawing from their measly accounts to buy gifts for their kids. (I’m a sucker for a holiday sob story.)

So whatever the reason for these folks’ modest bank accounts, here’s to hoping that they — and you — have an enjoyable holiday season, and that 2010 brings bigger bank balances to us all.

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