Neil Weinberg's article, "Why I Love Bank Fees and Regulators Should Too," presented an amusing exposé of the banking industry's pretense of offering "free" services, which are anything but free.
I submit that this pretense helps to explain why the efforts to herd "unbanked" consumers into bank accounts continue to fail miserably.
First, checking accounts are too expensive to maintain for low-balance customers. Second, consumers are regularly disappointed when they are drawn into accounts portrayed as "free" and then wind up being socked with fees and charges. Third, disappointed customers tell geometrically more people about their disappointing experience than satisfied customers tell about their satisfying experience.
Instead of questioning the "financial literacy" of consumers who use nonbank providers, bankers should look at the situation from the consumers' point of view.
Check cashers and other money service businesses offer their services on a fee basis.When customers use their services they expect to be charged fees – and they are.
Bankers portray their services as "free." When customers use their services they do not expect to be charged fees – but they are.
As banks – especially big banks – seek to rebuild their franchises and the public's trust, I'd like to suggest they try a long-forgotten strategy: Honesty.
If it costs $350 a year to maintain a checking account, don't tell people that it is "free" and try to sneak in an assortment of nuisance fees and charges to bridge the gap. It shows dishonesty from the start.
If you want to offer a "free" account, then develop one that doesn't cost much to operate. If you don't know how to do that, then hire someone who does.
Lastly, transparency does not trump stupidity.Publicizing the imposition of a capricious debit card usage fee or a bill payment convenience fee doesn't make it acceptable.It just exposes more people to your folly.
Jim Wells, the president of Wellspring Consulting International Inc. in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., specializes in expanding access to financial services for consumers who do not use traditional financial institutions.