Due to High Bank Fees, Many Americans Are Using Wal-Mart as Their Bank

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Americans say they are fed up with banks. They are protesting on Wall Street and raising a ruckus over outsize fees. Now there is a surprising beneficiary: Wal-Mart.
A Wal-Mart Money Center in Dickson City, Pa. The Money Center charges 1 percent to cash a check under $300, and $3 to cash a check from $300 to $1,000.

Geoffrey Cardone, a 26-year-old factory worker, said he dumped his bank account because he felt that he was being nickeled and dimed by fees. His new payday ritual includes a trip to the Wal-Mart here in northeastern Pennsylvania.
“It’s cheaper,” said Mr. Cardone, who was charged a flat fee of $3 to cash his paycheck. Many check-cashing stores keep a percentage of the check, which tends to be higher.
The Wal-Mart here has a clerk in a brightly painted Money Center near the entrance, like more than 1,000 other Wal-Marts across the country. Customers can cash work and government checks, pay bills, wire money overseas or load money on to a prepaid debit card. At most Wal-Marts without dedicated Money Centers, the financial services are available at the customer service desks or kiosks.
Four years ago, Wal-Mart abandoned its plans to obtain a long-sought federal bank charter amid opposition from the banking industry and lawmakers, who feared the huge retailer would drive small bankers out of business and potentially conflate its banking and retail operations. Ever since, Wal-Mart has been quietly building up � la carte financial services, becoming a force among the unbanked and “unhappily banked,” as one Wal-Mart executive put it.
Even before the recent outcry against banks, the services had become popular with cash-poor customers, many of whom never had a bank account and found the services more affordable than traditional check-cashing operations. Now newcomers to the ranks of the banking disaffected are helping to swell the numbers, Wal-Mart officials said.
The run from banks is happening elsewhere, too. In the last four weeks, as anger over debit card fees festered, more than 650,000 customers signed up for credit unions, according to the Credit Union National Association. The association was still tallying how many additional consumers had signed up on Bank Transfer Day, an initiative on Saturday to abandon traditional banks organized by people associated with Occupy Wall Street.
“We have a tremendous opportunity ahead of us, and it’s largely due to what you’re seeing around us happen in the industry,” said Daniel Eckert, the head of Wal-Mart Financial Services. “We’re not a bank, but we can serve a lot of types of functions you would see someone go into a bank for.”
Wal-Mart says it has no intention of reviving its plans to become a full-blown bank that could make loans and accept federally insured deposits. But the retailer has obtained bank charters in both Mexico and Canada, leading some bankers to suggest the company is laying similar groundwork in this country.
“It’s the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent,” said Terry J. Jorde, senior executive vice president at the Independent Community Bankers Association. “Once they get in and offer some financial services, they will continue to push for other products.”
Source: The New York Times | ANDREW MARTIN and STEPHANIE CLIFFORD

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