The American Dream as we know it is being destroyed. Between millions who’ve faced foreclosure and college graduates battling crippling student loan debt, financial hardship has been constant headline news. These financial crises have resulted in a shift in how Americans manage money. With banks driving customers away and Americans losing trust in traditional banking options, millions of Americans now fall into a group known as “the unbanked.”
“Unbanked” or “underbanked” describes those who can’t or choose not to use traditional banking services like a checking or savings account. These consumers are often blocked by banks because they’ve had problems in the past, or they choose not to open bank accounts for various reasons. Instead, the unbanked are turning to a variety of alternatives including startups and technology they feel better meet their needs.
This unbanking of Americans has led to some surprising statistics and interesting trends. Here’s what we know about the unbanked.
1. About 70 million Americans are “unbanked” or “underbanked”
According to the FDIC, about one in four American households are either unbanked or underbanked. About 29 percent of households don’t have a savings account. About 10 percent don’t keep an open checking account, either.
2. The unbanked population is diverse
Unbanking affects a wide array of Americans. The FDIC reports the unbanked “have diverse demographic characteristics, past banking experiences, reasons for not holding an account, and future banking plans.” Yet, higher rates of unbanked and underbanked individuals are found amongst non-Asian minorities, low-income households, younger households, and unemployed households.
3. Banks have “blacklisted” millions of Americans
Before a bank allows you to open an account, they’ll likely check the “ChexSytems” database. This database has information on the consumer’s banking history as reported by other banks. If you’ve overdrafted your account or abandoned an account with a negative balance, it likely shows up on a ChexSystems report.
ChexSystems was intended to protect banks from fraudsters who wrote bad checks. However, minor infractions that show up in the ChexSystems database are preventing some Americans from opening an account. These black marks can be as small as a single bounced check or an account that’s overdrawn by less than $100.
In one case reported by the New York Times, banks denied a consumer with a minor black mark a checking account. Her ChexSystems report indicated an overdraft of $40 three years prior. While she repaid the overdraft including interest and fees, she was still blocked from opening an account at nearly every bank she tried.
4. ChexSystems black marks doesn’t go away quickly or easily
The ChexSystems database keeps information on for five years from the date reported. People who have black marks on their ChexSystems report are often ineligible to get a bank account during this time.
Even if you pay balances owed that shows up on your ChexSystems report (like in the case above), the black mark often won’t be removed. The entry will likely show that the money was paid, but the entry will stay on for the full five years and potentially affect your ability to open an account until then.
5. Alternative financial services cost Americans $89 billion per year in fees and interest
Cashing checks, paying bills, and conducting other transactions normally done at a bank can be costly. Check cashing services, money orders, and prepaid cards often come with fees that can take a big chunk of the paychecks. Payday loan services charge interest rates as high as 300%, which can lead to a cycle of debt that’s tough to escape.
The costs of these services add up. American Express recently produced a film called Spent: Looking For Change. Spent tells the stories of the unbanked, who rack up $89 billion per year in fees and interest by using alternative financial services.
On the individual level, these fees add up. Spent tells the story of a family whose payday loan of $450 balloons to a $1,700 debt after interest and fees. In an article by the New York Times, one unbanked New Yorker says “nearly 10 percent of her $450 weekly paycheck was eaten up by fees.”
Aside from high fees, unbanked Americans sometimes resort to risky money practices. Stashing money under a mattress or using unsecured prepaid debit cards can result in lost money that’s untraceable and unrecoverable.
6. Millennials are the largest age group of the underbanked Americans
According to a Javelin Strategy & Research report, about 41% percent of the about 64.4 million underbanked Americans are under age 35. The 26 million underbanked millennials are larger than any other age group.
7. Many unbanked Millennials prefer to live without traditional banks
While the number of unbanked Millennials seems like an alarming trend, this might not be as bad as it seems. Many Millennials are choosing to forgo traditional banking options by choice. These younger Americans feel that banks don’t serve them well, and often seek to bypass traditional banking when possible.
Millennials are increasingly looking to new technology to avoid the big banks they dislike. According to the Millennial Disruption Index, about half of Millennials “are counting on tech start-ups to overhaul the way banks work.” Many options young Americans are embracing allow them to manage their money from their phone, such as paying bills with a smartphone app. Millennials can pay for student loans, utilities, credit cards, and more from their phones. These options are often quicker, easier, and can cost less in fees compared to a traditional bank account.
This trend seems likely to continue into the future, with traditional banks playing a smaller role in how young people manage their money. TechCrunch notes: “It’s not hard to imagine that a majority of the people in the U.S. could be ‘banking’ with startups, in one form or another, in the next three to five years.”
Jeffrey Trull is a nationally-recognized freelance writer. Today’s post is the first of many he will be contributing to the Evolve Money blog.
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