An upstart online financial management firm from Washington has found a unique way to market to low- and middle-income investors: Through water and electric bills.
HelloWallet, which launched Monday, targets individuals that make between $20,000 and $100,000 annually. The company has already joined with the City of San Francisco to offer wealth management services to its residents through direct mailings in water and electric bills. HelloWallet plans to partner with other large cities nationally this year.
For a fee of $4 to $5 a month, HelloWallet provides pricing information and advice to individuals about 50,000 deposit products, including checking accounts, savings accounts and money market funds, at banks nationally. Matt Fellowes, HelloWallet's founder and chief executive, acknowledged that there are "ton of free sites" that provide similar information, but most are financed by banks that pay lead generation fees to the sites.
"We are independent from banks," he said. "We want to be the intermediary between individuals and the banks and credit unions. In that role, we think that we can provide perspective, financial guidance and everyday money management."
According to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, more than $34 billion was paid in overdraft fees last year and 80% of Americans do not have a financial adviser, many of them in low- and middle-income households.
Fellowes, who was a scholar at the Brookings Institution, said the majority of low- and middle-income individuals store their money in checking and savings accounts.
HelloWallet advises these individuals on when they should move money into a certificate of deposit or a money market fund, and how much they can safely transfer.
"There were a lot of basic money management problems in the past couple of years that caused the economic turmoil," Fellowes said.
"There was a lot of wasted money because people made basic money management mistakes." Right now, he said, "about 70% of consumers are depositing money into noninterest bearing accounts. At the end of the day, most just don't trust banks."
HelloWallet hopes to have 300,000 subscribers by the end of this year.
It has already signed up California State University as a customer and is marketing its products to the public university system's 45,000 staff and faculty members.
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom announced the partnership with HelloWallet on Wednesday.
Fellowes said the initiative will be promoted by the city's chamber of commerce, Pacific Gas and Electric and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.
"All of the city's residents that use its water will receive a bill in the next six months that will include an opportunity to take advantage of HelloWallet at a 20% discount," he said. "The city has also bought subscriptions for low-income families that will be distributed through the water company."
HelloWallet discounted the subscriptions for the low-income families.
HelloWallet plans to target 60 cities nationally where a large percentage of low-income households do not have bank accounts.
"Financial planning is the last part of the financial services industry that doesn't get to the mass market," Fellowes said.
"We want to give the mass market access to financial guidance. We expect to get to other cities."