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Not having a bank account costs poor people big money

Those without a bank account likely face high check-cashing fees, including for federal stimulus and child tax credit checks.

An FDIC survey indicated that 13.8% of Black households were unbanked in the United States in 2019. Among Hispanic households, 12.2% were unbanked. That compares with 2.5% of White households.
An FDIC survey indicated that 13.8% of Black households were unbanked in the United States in 2019. Among Hispanic households, 12.2% were unbanked. That compares with 2.5% of White households.Read moreSusan Tompor / Detroit Free Press

Roughly 8.8% of households in metro Detroit haven’t taken what financial experts call the first step toward economic inclusion.

They don’t have bank accounts.

And it's costing them big money to cash checks and borrow money outside the traditional banking system.

Need to cash your $1,400 stimulus check? Call a local party store or check cashing store in metro Detroit, and it could cost you $60 to $100 in fees. The bigger the check, the more money you’re handing over if the fee is based on a percentage of the check’s dollar amount.

Check cashing fees can be 6% or more in some local outlets. A $4,200 stimulus check for a family of three could trigger $252 in fees if the store has a 6% fee.

Consumers without bank accounts face ongoing costs

The problem doesn't disappear with what could be the final round of stimulus checks.

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan calls for sending the Child Tax Credit, designed to reduce child poverty, to families in periodic installments of $300 or $320 from July to December. The rest would be claimed as a credit on the 2021 tax return. Low- and middle-income families could receive $3,600 for children 5 and younger and $3,000 for those ages 6 to 17.

Those without a bank account, though, could be looking at check cashing fees. Paying sizable dollars to cash those checks defeats the purpose of that stimulus money, said David Rothstein, senior principal at the Cities for Empowerment Fund, which leads a Bank On initiative to expand affordable banking access.

"These are public dollars that are supposed to go toward fighting the COVID recession and child poverty," he said.

Nationally, 5.4% of U.S. households do not have bank accounts, according to the “How America Banks” 2019 survey by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The next survey will be fielded in June, with a report expected in 2022.

The FDIC survey indicated that 13.8% of Black households were unbanked in 2019. Among Hispanic households, 12.2% were unbanked. That compares with 2.5% of white households.

Why are some avoiding banks?

The top reasons given for not having a bank account include not having enough money to meet minimum balance requirements, not trusting banks, and high or unpredictable fees.

The numbers of unbanked are expected to grow following the COVID-19 pandemic, given the rapid increase in unemployment and the lingering loss of eight million jobs across the country since the pandemic began.

FDIC surveys show that those who are unemployed are four times more likely to fall into the unbanked category. They don't have direct deposit of a regular paycheck to qualify for some banking accounts. They may face financial challenges that trigger a string of unaffordable overdraft fees — and a bank or credit union account could risk being closed.

Millions of consumers — including people of color — aren't able to easily cash a check or visit an ATM because they're not customers of regular banks.

In a positive twist, some options have opened up for those trying to save money when cashing a stimulus check. Chase Bank, for example, will cash stimulus checks with no fee for non-customers at all Chase branches. And Kroger stores are offering free check cashing for government checks, including stimulus checks.

Even so, not having access to a bank account — where you might be able to pay bills online — when offices or stores are closed hurts consumers during pandemic protocols.

“Both COVID and the recession that immediately followed really did exacerbate the challenges of being unbanked for families,” Rothstein said. “They were literally shut out of the economy and that was almost overnight.”

A new campaign to #GetBanked

The FDIC has launched a #GetBanked promotion to help 7.1 million U.S. households without a bank account find an affordable option, such as a “checkless checking account” that allows use of a debit card instead of writing checks. See

One reason to "Get Banked," according to the FDIC: "When your money is direct-deposited into an FDIC-insured bank account, you get access to your money sooner than you would with a paper check. You can also save money by not having to pay check-cashing fees."

In October, the American Bankers Association called on every bank in the country to consider offering "Bank On-certified accounts" to expand access to banking services and reduce the number of unbanked and underbanked Americans. More than 40 banks offer such accounts today. The minimum opening deposit could be $25 or less.

The Bank On accounts charge small fees or no fees, have low monthly maintenance fees, and no overdraft fees.

A key feature for many financially challenged consumers is the fact that the Bank On accounts make it structurally impossible for you to triggers overdrafts and the related costly fees.

Overdraft fees can be $30 or $35 a pop.

"There are a lot of people paying hundreds of dollars in fees," Rothstein said.

PNC, others offer affordable options

PNC, based in Pittsburgh, announced in late March that it now has two certified Bank On products to offer consumers: Foundation Checking and the PNC SmartAccess Prepaid Visa Card.

Cathy Niederberger, PNC’s director of Community Development Banking, said the products can help many people who are looking for what she calls a controlled environment when it comes to possible fees or overdrafts.

The goal is to provide banking options for customers who may not have had access to traditional checking or savings accounts.

Some consumers might not be eligible for a traditional banking account because they bounced too many checks in the past or they have too many unpaid bank fees.

Or some college-age consumers might want a product that doesn’t allow overdrawing from their checking accounts, Niederberger said.

For Foundation Checking to qualify for its Bank On certification, PNC reduced the monthly fee on that product from $7 to $5 and eliminated the overdraft fee, which was $36.

The $5 monthly service charge associated with Foundation Checking is waived for customers aged 62 or older.

"We call it a second-chance checking account," Niederberger said.

The Foundation Checking account includes a money management course that is available on mobile devices. The account also offers low-balance alerts.

PNC Bank said it is the first bank to offer two products that meet the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund’s Bank On national certification.

“Our goal with SmartAccess and Foundation Checking is to help customers enter the banking system and to remain in it,” Bonnie Wikert, head of PNC’s Retail Segments and Deposits, said in a statement.

The SmartAccess Prepaid Visa Card allows direct deposits of your paycheck or government benefits but it does not include a checking account. The prepaid card includes a mobile app, access to online banking, low-balance alerts, no overdraft fees, and no fees for cashier’s checks. Fee-free cash withdrawals are allowed if the money is taken out at a PNC-operated ATM.

The SmartAccess card offers consumers a way to get their tax refund directly deposited onto that card, too.