It isn't a bank, but ssh! Don't tell Walmart

walmartWalmart isn't a bank, but it sure looks like one.

The FDIC rejected Walmart's attempts to create a bank a couple years ago, but maybe it doesn't matter. After all, you can cash your paycheck at Walmart, and they offer their own prepaid credit card. And now, they've created a bill-paying service.

If you're so inclined, you can waltz into Walmart, hand them your cash, debit card or some form of money, and they'll pay your bill for you.The cost is 88 cents for a standard bill payment (meaning your bill will reach its destination in about three days), or $1.88 for next-day service. Same-day payment through MoneyGram starts at $4.50.

You may think, "Well, what's wrong with just doing that through my regular bank account," and if that's the case, this isn't for you. Walmart is aiming its service at the "unbanked," the millions of Americans that have no checking account. If you're one of those, you probably pay a lot of your bills in cash and in person, which can take a lot of time schlepping around your community.

And as MediaPost's Marketing Daily recently noted, "Because of the recession, the number of 'unbanked ' consumers is growing, and Wal-Mart says it believes more than 21 million households pay at least one bill in person every month." They went on to add, "Other studies have estimated that more than 22 million Americans have no checking account, with African-Americans four times more likely to be unbanked than whites, and as many as one-third of Latin Americans."

Walmart certainly has its critics -- my wife and sister-in-law act like the company is a punk who once kicked their puppy -- and it's not really chic to pay Walmart compliments, but here goes: I applaud what they're doing. In this case, they hired the Aite Group, a consultancy that advises businesses on the financial services industry, to do a study of financially-challenged households across America, and they came away concluding that this service will cut the unbanked population's bill paying costs in half and could save families more than $100 million in bill-pay fees annually.

At any rate, hopefully most of us reading this won't have any reason to use Walmart's service. For all the justifiable bank complaints that the public has, we're still better off with a checking account than without one. In fact, that $100 million estimate may be low. Based on Pew Research Center estimates, if the poor could avoid using check cashiers, pawnshops and payday lenders, they'd save $150 million a year in fees.

Or look at it this way. As President Bill Clinton and Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger memorably wrote in a Wall Street Journal editorial last 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."

Of course, that was before Walmart started touting its $3 service for turning a paycheck into cash. Paying nothing at a bank is still better, of course, but $3 is a vast improvement over $40, which is what the average cost is for people to get their money from a payday lender, according to the aforementioned Wall Street Journal op-ed piece.

So Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. may not be a bank, and perhaps they'll never be allowed to have their own bank in America, as they do in Mexico and have been pushing to do in Canada. But it may not matter. The store is clearly hoping that their customers will bank on them nonetheless.

Geoff Williams frequently writes for He is also the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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