The Consumer Federation of America on Wednesday said that banks should try new ways to help low-income families save money.
"Banks must make an increased effort to provide affordable, accessible services, especially low-cost savings accounts and money orders, to low- income families," said Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the advocacy group.
The recommendation was made in conjunction with the release of a study sponsored in part by the Ford Foundation. The study of 30 low-income households in San Jose, Calif., and an unnamed town in northwest Mississippi found only five families with more than $300 in savings.
Mr. Brobeck commended banks for providing inexpensive checking accounts, but said that many of the households surveyed were still burdened by high returned-check fees. One family paid $500 in fees for bounced checks in one year.
Using savings accounts and money orders instead of a checking account would ensure that the funds promised are available, he said.
Money orders would also free these households from the burden of tracking when a check is cashed, Mr. Brobeck said.
John P. Caskey, a professor at Swarthmore (Pa.) College and author of the study, said banks should not have to subsidize low-income families by cutting their prices on money orders. Rather, they should explore cheaper ways to sell them, such as through automated teller machines.
"That is the sort of innovative thinking I would encourage banks to do," he said.
The study also found that low-income families were concerned that having savings in a bank would make them ineligible for government assistance. Others believed savings accounts were useless because they build so slowly.
In addition to the use of savings accounts, the study suggested educating low-income households on how to plan for their future.
The sites examined were chosen for their ethnic diversity, according to the study. The families were selected because they were willing to discuss their finances with the researchers.