The plight of the unbanked: Why 50 million Americans don't use a traditional bank

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BankMillions - possibly billions - of dollars are homeless, lacking a warm, dry bank account providing a roof over their heads. Although it might seem hard to imagine a day where we're stuffing mattresses with money instead of depositing paychecks in the bank, analysts say that scenario isn't too far fetched.

According to Directo, a company providing paycards to unbanked workers, the recession has sent the number of unbanked Americans soaring to about 50 million. That's up from the estimated 28 million unbanked consumers in 2007.

While you might assume those who are unbanked are jobless, low income or even homeless Americans, that's not the case. A majority of them are employed, middle-income earners, many of whom are parents.

Kimberly Gartner, associate director, Center for Financial Services Innovation in Chicago, Illinois, told WalletPop that a significant number of those without a bank account have had one in the past. "They've either had them closed by their bank because of nonsufficient funds or other negative activity," Gartner says, "or they chose to leave the banking system for some other reason."

That reason is usually affordability.

"I can't afford to tie up the amount needed to maintain a minimum balance, and I also can't afford to throw money away on the fees I'm charged because I don't keep that balance," Lorelei Turner, 28, of Antioch, Illinois, told WalletPop in an interview. "So I cash my checks at a check-cashing service and pay my bills with cash or money orders. At least I don't have to worry I'll bounce a check and overdraw my account. Or that my bank will close."

The price of unbanking

But "unbanking" hasn't been the silver bullet to avoid check-cashing fees. In order to get their hands on their money, these unbanked consumers often look to costly check-cashing services, payday loans and pawnshops, which rake in fees topping $8.5 billion a year.

"Over a lifetime, the average full-time, unbanked worker will spend more than $40,000 just to turn his or her salary into cash," wrote former President Bill Clinton and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a Wall Street Journal column on the plight of those living outside the financial mainstream.

"Check cashing services are not an affordable alternative to a bank account," says Alan Lysaght, a strategic planning consultant for businesses and individuals, and co-author, The ABCs of Making Money, who spoke recently to WalletPop. "Especially since some credit unions charge as little as $3.95 a month to have an account with a very low minimum balance."

That compares to the average $86.83 a Pew Charitable Trust study found an unbanked American will spend, on average, every month.

And there's another price to going unbanked. "Consumers without a bank account aren't building a history with a financial institution," says Gartner. "And that decreases the likelihood they'll be approved for a loan. Or be approved for a mortgage, since most lenders require bank statements."

"I do worry about the day I'll apply for a mortgage and might not have two or three month's worth of bank statements," Turner says. "But right now, I just can't afford the account that provides those statements."

Alternatives to unbanking

Those disillusioned with banks, or unable to open an account (due to a history of NSF activity, bankruptcy, etc.) do have an array of alternatives to costly check-cashing services.

Walmart recently started a CheckFreePay service from Fiserv that allows customers to pay bills in person at all Walmart locations in the United States, including Walmart SuperCenters and Neighborhood Markets. Customers can pay household bills they receive from more than 2,500 companies such as utility, mobile phone, auto loan, insurance and credit card bills. Payments can be made using cash or a pin-based debit card. Standard payments are received by the biller within three business days, and NextDay payments are delivered on the next business day. A receipt is provided as assurance of payment.

"The CheckFreePay service enables retailers to offer consumers an affordable walk-in bill payment alternative," Paul Harrison, senior vice president and general manager of Walk-In Solutions at Fiserv, told us in an interview.

Another alternative? Prepaid credit cards. A recent survey by the Center for Financial Services Innovation found 8% of unbanked Americans have used a prepaid credit card to pay bills in the past 30 days. "Prepaid cards are a really strong option that a significant number of consumers are using as an alternative to a checking account," says Gartner. While they're handy - survey respondents said prepaid cards are 22% more convenient that checking accounts - they're not necessarily the best solution.

As Lysaght says, "Just remember these options charge convenience fees which often equate to more than what a bank or credit union might charge."

We want you back

But what if you're interested in signing up again with a traditional bank? Consumers once shut out by their bank who are now hoping to dip a toe back into the banking pool have some unique options. A report from the FDIC says 63% of banks offer basic education materials aimed at the unbanked.

Gartner says some banks are taking it one step further, offering "second chance" or "opportunity accounts" for those whose accounts were closed by their bank. Centra Credit Union, located throughout Indiana, helps consumers reestablish a banking relationship with an "Opportunity Savings Account" that can be opened with as little as $30. After completing a four-hour online financial management counseling session, $25 of the initial deposit is made available for withdrawal.

Ohio-based KeyBank is also offering those who are unbanked due to a negative history a fresh start - sort of. KeyBank has started the KeyBank Plus program, available at all of their 175 branches located in upstate New York, Ohio, Colorado and Oregon, that allows people to cash payroll and government checks at a discounted rate without opening a traditional bank account. By participating in this program, with as little as $10 to start out, consumers blacklisted by Check Systems (and thereby unable to get a bank account) can slowly transition off of Check Systems' naughty list.

As evidence in both KeyBank and Centra's programs, the road to mainstream banking usually involves participating in financial education. One such training option is Checking Network USA, a program designed to help consumers get back into Check Systems' good graces and thus be able to open a bank account. Chiquita Board, a national director for Checking Network USA, told WalletPop that the program has already helped more than 11,000 consumers navigate a path back to their banks. "We provide a resource to introduce consumers to banking principles that matter, or simply makes managing money a little easier the second time around," Board says.

Being unbanked - regardless of the reason - doesn't equate to a lack of options. As Gartner says, "Consumers have several choices, many of which are very affordable."

Gina Roberts-Grey is a freelance writer specializing in consumer issues.

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