“It’s not you, it’s me. I’m breaking up with you.
You should remember the good times we enjoyed together. All the adventures and the fun. The holidays. The restaurants. The concerts. The gifts.
Alas, a shared past is no guarantee of a happy future together.
We have grown apart. Are heading in different directions. Want different things out of life.
I wish you every happiness and success for the future, but that future does not include me.”
I looked up from the breakup note. Eyes starting to water. Bottom lip quivering.
Feeling abandoned. Bewildered. Somewhat rejected.
The note was written on expensive paper.
Hand-delivered by the postman.
Formal. Quaint. Traditional.
After a lengthy relationship going back many years, I had been dumped!
Emotions reeling. Mind racing. World turning upside down.
I hadn’t seen this coming. No hints. No warning. I felt like I had been sucker-punched.
Ours had been an open relationship. Their other partner was internationally famous. A household name with a carefully managed public image. Someone you feel you know. Someone you like.
I glanced back down at the return address. It appeared the author no longer occupied their prestigious luxury address, in a neighbourhood where houses command over £2,700 per square foot.
A whiplash-inducing change in circumstances. Perhaps a fall from grace. Experiencing hard times.
They now resided on an insalubrious industrial estate. The sort of place where dreams go to die. Located on the outskirts of a once great Northern city, from which many seem proud to have originated, yet few have chosen to remain, and fewer still desire to return.
An address where dining out locally involves choosing between a service station sandwich or a curry house, where the name of every dish on the faded laminated menu ends with “and chips”.
An address where properties sell for £123 per square foot, and could be purchased outright for less than a pair of peak season first-class return airfares from New York to Abu Dhabi.
Their new partner was infamous rather than famous. The kind of character who had built their reputation in the shadows. Preying on society’s underclass. The weak. The needy. The vulnerable.
Feeling scorned, I briefly thought about chasing after them.
Begging for an explanation. Forgiveness. A second chance.
But before I succumbed to playing the victim, foolishly seeking reassurance from the very party who had done me wrong, I thought better of it.
What good would it to?
The message was clear. Using a form of delivery that was intentionally impersonal. Fact of the matter was that they were done with me. An outcome that remained the same no matter how I felt about it.
Perhaps I sought closure? That favourite conceit of therapists. Seeking to balance out karma. Sooth the soul. Make my peace with having been used or abused, before I could move on.
But what is closure?
Pissing on gravestones might be dramatically symbolic, but an empty gesture, given the person on the other side of the grass is well beyond caring. Can such shallow spiteful acts truly be cathartic?
Perhaps closure is expecting the other party to admit fault. Accept blame. Beg forgiveness. Removing guilt. Seeking redemption. The temptation to revise history or recast the narrative is ever strong.
After breaking up in such a manner, would it be productive or even rational to pretend the dumper spared a thought or had a care for the feelings of the dumpee? I suspect not. They had already moved on.
With a sigh, I read back through the letter.
Starting with the familiar bold corporate letterhead at the top.
Followed by the flowing prose of corporate doublespeak. Simultaneously screwing the recipient, while making it sound like they were magnanimously doing them a favour.
Concluding with a deadline and an ultimatum. Be gone with you. Or else!
Last comes the small print legalese. Written in a tiny light grey font to discourage the audience from looking too closely at the traps and pitfalls contained within. Technically complying with the letter, but certainly not the spirit, of those loose and seldom enforced consumer protection laws.
My branded white label credit card provider was breaking up with me.
All existing accounts were being closed rather than sold or transferred.
The brand would be playing phoenix. Rising from the ashes of its deceased predecessor, bearing the same name, but as an all-new legal identity. Absolved and released from any prior promises or commitments.
I was going to miss the reward points the provider had once showered upon me. Though admittedly ever more seldom, as familiarity set in they had quickly taken my business for granted.
True, the new provider would also be offering reward points. But at a paltry 0.25% conversion rate, it wasn’t worth the hassle of reapplying. There are fee-free cashback debit cards on the market that are 4x more generous in their rewards!
Unfortunately, the conversion rate wasn’t atypical. Branded white label cards offered by many of the large high street or online retailers are similarly stingy. Cards affiliated with supermarkets appear slightly more generous, but only when shopping in stores affiliated with the issuer’s own brand.
It reminded me of the airline frequent flyer point mirage. Where free flights are easy to earn, but devilishly difficult to claim for anyone whose travelling itinerary is dictated by school holiday periods.
The compromise is usually upgrading to a larger seat closer to the front of the plane, then boasting to all who will listen about how seemingly important this conferred status has made them. Despite the fact the flight takes exactly the same length of time to arrive at exactly the same destination, regardless of seating location.
A year ago, I watched a Formula 1 race where every flat surface had been covered in corporate branding for a crypto exchange. Saturation marketing. Part of a USD$100 million sponsorship campaign. The product being promoted? Amongst others was a cashback reward card, that rivalled the most generous of American Express credit card offerings.
I remember looking into the card and thinking the promised rewards were too good to be true.
But then I thought perhaps it represented a novel way for a novice speculator to paddle in the shallow end of the cryptocurrency bubble. Enough to get their feet wet, without venturing out of their depth.
The card rewards represented “free” money earned from making purchases the consumer would have made anyway. Discretionary lifestyle purchases such as Airbnb. Amazon Prime. Netflix. Spotify. That “free” money was paid out in the form of crypto tokens which had been magicked out of thin air by the card issuer. Those tokens could then be traded for other, better known, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or Ethereum. Or they could be withdrawn and used to purchase tangible things in the real world.
Of course, shortly after the race concluded, the bottom fell out of the crypto market. The real-world value of those “free” tokens today? Roughly 80% less than they had been on that race weekend.
Recently I heard that the crypto exchange had attempted to reign in their rewards programme, using phrases like “to ensure long-term sustainability”. Too good to be true, indeed.
After 25+ years of investing, I have learned the hard way that whenever a startup gets involved in professional sports, it is a clear sell signal. Money showered by ego-driven CEOs on purchasing access to celebrities is usually a sign of poor judgement, swiftly followed not too many months later by cashflow problems and corporate collapse.
My financial breakup highlighted that service providers can change the rules of the game at any time. The crypto reward card issuer provided another, slightly more glamourous, example.
In the world of “buyer beware”, we consumers are expected to pay active attention to those changes, then adapt and evolve as we roll with the punches.
Which is relatively straightforward while we remain on the happy path. Young. Employed. Financially secure. Representing a desirable risk.
Alter any one of those factors, and the equation changes considerably.
A 30-year-old white-collar professional, with an expensive shoe or handbag addiction, is likely to be actively fending off eager lenders waving offers of pre-approved consumer credit.
A 70-year-old with similar tastes in fashion would be hard pressed to find a credit provider who was willing to give them the time of day, let alone a credit card.
Contrary to popular belief, the national sport of England is not cricket or soccer, it is the refinancing of mortgages. Once a short time-bound honeymoon rate nears its conclusion, the naïve homeowner fully expects to be able to remortgage with a new provider for another cheap fixed-term honeymoon deal.
Which works out, most of the time.
Except when the homeowner happens to lose their job around the time the remortgage is due.
Or if they are approaching the traditional retirement age, beyond which dubious lenders view the prospect of continued remunerated employment with the same open disbelief I get whenever someone suggests my hometown football team will win the premiership this year.
We take it for granted that financial service providers will always want our custom. Our values and outlook firmly anchored to our past perception of ourselves. When we look in the mirror, we see ourselves, with little change from one day to the next.
What we fail to observe is that time and circumstance changes our attractiveness and risk profile.
The last time I applied for a mortgage, the maximum term offered was 19 years, not the traditional 25.
A product of age. I didn’t feel any different. I didn’t think I looked much different, a few more grey hairs and a few more kilograms. But even to my tame lender, I was now a different risk proposition.
Less time remaining to earn.
Less time remaining to recover, should things go wrong.
Less chance of securing employment, when I am chewed up and spat out by the corporate machine.
For a repayment mortgage, that difference in term directly translates into higher monthly payments.
Altering the viability equation of a property deal. Impacting the affordability of servicing the loan.
Workable then. But the next time? Unlikely.
An old friend, well older than me anyway, recently visited a financial advisor for the first time. He came away with more questions than answers, and a troubling thought that had stuck with him since.
His advisor had rolled out the old cliché that his next three decades could be described as the “go-go years”, followed by the “slow-go years”, and then finally the “no-go years”.
The former consisted of all those post-retirement bucket list things people dream of doing, but endlessly put off until “some day”. Relatively high levels of expenditure and (hopefully) enjoyment.
The middle decade contained more of the same, though at a slower pace. Age means his intent would conflict with his ability to follow through. Range and horizons narrow. Spending reduces, requiring much less than expected.
The third decade sees the frailties of age conquer ambition. Spending falls away in all categories but for health and aged care. The cause? Not a lack of means, but a lack of mobility.
My friend found the advisor’s glib summation troubling.
On the one hand, he was relieved he might not require as much money to retire as he had thought.
On the other hand, it was confronting to be told his chances of still being able to “go” at all in just 15 years were slim. The worst part? The assessment wasn’t unrealistic.
His current mortgage was destined to be his last.
Downsizing by necessity once the honeymoon period ended.
Paying the price for decades of equity release refinancing and making minimum repayments.
Lamenting that borrowed money was no longer free, and was destined to become even more expensive.
My friend is a good few years further down the path than I am. He provides a cautionary tale of the importance of seizing the moment, remaining self-aware, and being prepared.
Which is how I found myself scrolling through the Tinder of consumer financial services products, hoping for financial love, but willing to settle for an attractive short-term hookup.