Bankers and consumer advocates are finding more common ground as they seek to stem the tide of personal debt troubles.
Collaboration between these sometimes strange bedfellows is not unprecedented, particularly on consumer education programs.
But amid the record level of bankruptcy filings, advocacy groups are saying they have never been so hotly pursued by bankers and their associations. Both sides share a sense of urgency.
"Interest has increased in the past couple of years as credit card indebtedness and low savings rates have become issues on the public agenda," said Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America, Washington.
In September, Mr. Brobeck's group and NationsBank unveiled a national campaign aimed at increasing the personal savings rate in the United States. The campaign-"From Here to Security"-has included seminars on financial planning, educational radio programs, publications, and a Web site.
NationsBank estimates the campaign has reached 100 million people.
The Consumer Federation of America, in partnership with other consumer organizations, will soon be launching another debt management initiative with a "major industry player," Mr. Brobeck said.
Consumer Action, a San Francisco-based watchdog group, has formed ties with BankAmerica Corp., Great Western Bank, American Express Co., and Visa U.S.A.
"Corporations like to be seen as good corporate citizens, and sponsoring education materials is one way of doing that," said Ken McEldowney, executive director of Consumer Action.
Like other consumer advocates known to criticize banks' lending practices, Mr. McEldowney was slightly skeptical. "It is hard to measure the effectiveness of these (educational) efforts when you compare them with the marketing that goes into promoting credit products," he said.
Edmund Mierzwinski of Public Interest Research Group said, "Bankers are talking out both sides of their mouth. They spend a lot of money telling people to spend, and they are spending a tiny amount of money on education."
Nevertheless, groups like Consumer Action have benefited from bankers' heightened focus on consumer education. Mr. McEldowney said the money his group has received from corporations for these efforts has doubled in the last two years.
Visa U.S.A. spent millions of dollars last year to promote the services of counseling agencies affiliated with the National Foundation for Consumer Credit, said Visa spokesman David Sandor.
In September, the American Bankers Association set up a consumer affairs department, focusing on relationships with consumer groups. "If banks want consumers to be responsible, they have to educate them," said Nancy Ness Judy, the ABA's consumer affairs manager.
Recently, Gerri Detweiler, former executive director of the defunct Bankcard Holders of America, joined Debt Counselors of America, an Internet-based financial counseling service. Ms. Detweiler aims to bring about further partnerships between consumer groups and lenders.
"We are wide open to ideas," Ms. Detweiler said.