Well, no, that’s not quite true. I was never a Farepak customer. My mother, on the other hand, was at one time, so I’ve been keeping an interested eye on the slow-burning news that has followed Farepak’s collapse.
It’s more than ten years now since my mother stopped buying a hamper from the Farepak catalogue, and she did it at my persuasion. Farepak’s method of business: hard-pushed home-makers send them a small sum every week, through the year. Just before Christmas they receive several boxes of food; what seems like an impressively large amount. Its value, though, was usually rather less than the total you’d contributed through the year. I pointed out that if she opened another savings account, and paid into it a similar amount every week, then by Christmas she’d have rather more money than she’d put in, instead of rather less.* At the expense of going out and buying it herself, she could end up with a rather larger hamper.
That system relies on self-discipline, of course; my mother has rather more of it than I do, and rather more than most people. If you can afford to save at Farepak’s negative interest rate, though, you can afford to save with a bank. Much of the media commentary on Farepak’s bankruptcy seems to suggest that the company should have behaved more charitably to its customers because of their relative poverty; or that its bankers should have been more accommodating as the company was doing Good Deeds. This forgets, though, that the point of a company is usually to make money, and Farepak was no exception to that. It’s possibly unfair to say they were exploiting the poor – after all, a prepayment scheme like Farepak’s is far better for the customers than buying on credit. They were, though, making money out of the poor, by showing them how to afford something rather nicer than they thought. Moreover, they do seem to have been making money – all the news stories suggest that the collapse was due to losses elsewhere in the parent company.
Farepak, and its competitors, gave and give their customers one great benefit: they forced self-discipline onto them. If credit unions offered similar accounts – pay in an agreed amount all year, then get your balance paid out at Christmas – then it would be a great help. Never forget, though, that both Farepak and its bankers were out to make money. That’s how our system works.
* Admittedly only pence more – but still.