Friday, August 1, 2008

land of the free (or deeply discounted)

One of the things that was most shocking about Switzerland was how they find a way to charge for everything. Nothing is free in Switzerland, and nothing is cheap, either.

On the flip side of that, coming back to the States has been a continuous stream of surprisingly cheap (or free) experiences. I still have my Citibank accounts from before I moved to Switzerland, and regularly transferred money from Switzerland to the US so that I could pay credit card bills and send money towards my student loans. It was easier than trying to do those things from my Swiss accounts, and besides, there weren't any monthly fees on my US accounts, so why close them? 

Now that I'm back, I have a bit of a dilemma - do I keep my Swiss accounts open? On one hand, it's convenient to have them there so that I can transfer money to the tax authorities once my final taxes are calculated. Also, if I closed them, I wouldn't be able to open new Swiss accounts as a non-resident unless I could give them at least $50,000 as an opening deposit. On the other hand, there is no such thing as free banking in Switzerland - every month that my accounts there remain open, the bank takes its cut, and doesn't even give me any interest. It's a great racket they have going on there.

In contrast, I opened another random bank account after getting back here, with a bank I never intend to use, simply because it's free, and the bank offers its customers good car loans and other nifty services. All for free, with a $50 minimum balance. So to recap - the minimum balance is 1/1000th that of a Swiss bank, they pay interest, there are no monthly fees, and they provide lots of free services and cheap loans. I have no idea how they make any money. I would have said that maybe American banks are less profitable and less stable, but it isn't like Credit Suisse and UBS have been having a stellar time of it these days, either.

It isn't just services like banking that are especially cheap - the shopping is ridiculous. I went to Target a few weeks ago, and spent an hour wandering around trying to figure out what, out of the endless aisles of random cheap stuff, to put in my cart. I have never spent much time in stores like Target, since I lived in big cities since leaving home, and big cities aren't really Target country (indeed, I have never set foot inside a Walmart, and hope I never do), so I was completely bowled over by how much stuff there is, and how little they charge for it. Do people really buy all of it? What do they do with it? How do they decide they need it? How do they get it home? Where do they have room for all of it? In the end, I bought a cartload of storage containers and bathmats, paid a measly $180, and called it a day.

Have I mentioned how cheap the food is? I haven't gone out to eat that much since getting back, since the food is free at work, but when I have gone out, the total per person is usually below $30, including appetizers and drinks. That's just absurd, after spending four years in a place where the entrees alone at a mediocre restaurant can run about $40. 

But cheap is still more expensive than free. Everything you have heard about Google food is true. It is all free. It is all good. It ruins your appetite for restaurant food, because why go to a restaurant and pay $20, if you can get better food for free, without even leaving the comfort of your office building? I was afraid I would gain a lot of weight after starting work at Google. Everyone talks about the Google Fifteen - the weight you gain in the first few months at Google - and I am food-lazy, meaning that when confronted with the prospect of having to go to the store, buy groceries, bring them home, prepare a meal, eat it, and then clean up, my tendency is to skip the whole process and watch TV, instead. 

I was worried that without a laziness barrier to over-eating, I would become a big, fat, "Midwest tourist" version of myself. I became even more nervous when confronted with such menu options as bubble tea, oysters, foie gras, Kobe beef sliders with Gruyere cheese, lobster risotto, and made-to-order sushi. So I exercised portion control (usually with success), and compensated for large lunches with small dinners (also free). Add on some stress and weekend food laziness, and the net result so far has been that I've lost maybe five pounds. So for me, I guess it's the Google Negative Five, and my pants don't fit right anymore. D'oh.

Does this mean that I got a free diet, too? I wonder how much such a diet would cost in Switzerland... 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I vote for shuttering the Swiss accounts. Your last tax payments seem to be a one-off thing, and there doesn't seem to be any good reason for you to want to open a new Swiss account in the future unless you become a resident all over again. I'm not sure I follow what you're saying about their lack of interest (if that's possible, that really stinks), but $50,000 sitting around without interest seems like an all around bad deal.

Google has quite a racket going on there, too, since it seems the food serves as a positive incentive for staying at work for all three meals , which then makes people want to to use the in-house facilities to counteract all the added calories. =)