(MONEY Magazine) – Sometimes It Just Pays to Pay In Person
Q I recently tried to make a substantial online payment on one of my three student loans. I expected that my payment would automatically go to the loan with the highest interest rate, but instead it was split between two cheaper ones. I tried to have the problem fixed, but the bank won't budge. --S. Heydari, Los Angeles
ANSWER Your impulse was smart, but you made some rookie mistakes. You were sitting on $38,000 in graduate loans, of which about $18,000 was in two Stafford Loans and $20,000 was in a private loan with a 9.75% interest rate. You went online to make a $9,000 payment toward the private loan, but the bank split the money between the two Stafford Loans instead. For some reason, the Wells Fargo website doesn't let you select which loan to pay first.
When you checked your balances four months later (mistake No. 2 was waiting so long), you discovered the error. Wells Fargo reps offered to correct the allocation when you first called, but two weeks later they told you that too much time had passed for them to redistribute the money. (Like many financial institutions, the company has a 90-day complaint window.) That's when we stepped in.
The rep we spoke to was surprised that the website doesn't allow you to choose how to allocate payments online. That's what made the difference: The rep, who later called you, felt that what happened to you was "unfair." By press time, Wells Fargo had reallocated the $9,000 (and repaid $190.86 in interest), saving you at least $5,000 in interest over the life of the private loan. And the bank said it would look into changing the online form so users can indicate which loan they want to pay off.
You were lucky--either the wrath of MONEY or the rep's good sense came to your rescue. The smartest move would have been to forgo the convenience of the online world and either send a check (with a letter) or visit the bank in person. When a computer can't accommodate a transaction that is going to save you interest in the four figures, the answer is not to shrug and go on your merry way. Unless that merry way leads to the local branch.
The Web doesn't have all the answers. If there's no clear way to do what you want to do online, don't be afraid to go old-school with a letter or an in-person visit. After that, you can rely on the Web to ensure that the deed was done properly.
Having a financial nightmare? Need an advocate or some good advice? E-mail Ellen McGirt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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...Word watch: mouse potato ('maus pö-'tä-tö) n. A person who spends an unusually large amount of time sitting in front of a computer...
Reporting By Kate Ashford contributed to this article.