Miyae Mumford of South Baltimore pays $5 a week to load her Forever 21 paycheck on a Visa card and use the money a few days early. ATM fees eat up more money when she needs cash. And if she has a paper check, she gives up a slice of that at a check cashing place.
"It's awful – they work so hard to try to get a nickel from you," said Mumford, 21, who wants to open a bank account but is daunted by all the choices.
One in five Baltimore-area households rely on check cashing services and payday lenders rather than bank accounts to manage their money. It leaves them cobbling together a patchwork of financial services estimated to cost up to $40,000 over a lifetime, fees that advocates say are avoidable and unnecessary.
Mumford was one of 23,000 people expected to file their tax returns for free with help from the CASH Campaign, a nonprofit that tries to steer low- and moderate-income Marylanders like her to reputable banks and credit unions that have little or no fees. It is part of a movement to guide people to checking and savings accounts as a gateway toward financial stability by reducing debt, improving credit scores and securing loans with competitive fees and interest to buy cars or homes.
People don't use or even avoid banks for a variety of reasons. Some say they don't have a checking or savings account because they don't have enough money to keep it, or they just don't trust the institutions with their money. Others get blacklisted by banks when they bounce too many checks, abandon accounts with unpaid fees or get flagged for fraudulent behavior.
Robin McKinney, CEO of the CASH Campaign of Maryland, which stands for Creating Assets, Savings and Hope, said connecting with people during tax season can help them take their return – the largest lump sum payment many will receive all year – and deposit it in a new bank account, buy savings bonds or load the money on a pre-paid debit card.
"This is the time of year that people are focused on their financial goals," McKinney said. "It is a moment when we can get people to talk about their hopes, their dreams, their financial goals, their challenges. Tax preparation is a transaction, but we want to build a longer-term relationship."
The CASH Campaign is working with the decade-old Bank On initiative to connect with government groups, nonprofits and employers to spread the word about which banks and credit unions offer safe accounts with very low fees, and teach people how to use them.
The campaign's counselors try to walk clients through their options, including whether a checking or savings account would work better, what fees and costs they come with and what bank matches their needs, McKinney said. The Baltimore-based nonprofit group received a $90,000 matching Bank On grant for a fellow to negotiate with banks and credits unions to certify accounts that are safe and low cost and organize events to guide people toward those accounts.
McKinney said people without bank accounts are considered "unbanked." Those who have a checking or savings account but rely on alternative services such as money orders, payday loans and rent-to-own products are considered "underbanked."
A 2017 survey by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. shows about 2 percent of households in the metropolitan statistical area that encompasses Baltimore, Columbia and Towson are unbanked and about 19 percent are underbanked.
That's a marked improvement over 2015, when about 6 percent of area households were unbanked, and 2011, when about 7.5 percent were, according to the survey.
Nationwide, about 14 million adults do not have checking or savings accounts and another 50 million are underbanked. A large share of the unbanked and underbanked are black or Hispanic and earn less than $30,000 a year.
The No. 1 reason people say they don't have a bank account is not having enough money, according to a February survey by the California-based nonprofit Next Gen Personal Finance. The other top reason is distrust of banks followed by privacy concerns and high and unpredictable account fees.
Some people can't open accounts even if they want to because they've been barred by the banks for past financial problems. Banks use a consumer reporting agency, ChexSystems, to flag risky clients. Often, McKinney said, people do not know they've been flagged until they try to open a new account. Once a person finds out they have been barred from doing business with a bank, they can request a copy of their ChexSystems report to figure out what problems they have to resolve, she said.
Kathleen Murphy, president of the Maryland Bankers Association, said some banks offer "second chance" accounts and gateway services to people who have had problems with an old account. With time, if the customer keeps the account in good standing, he or she can switch to a traditional account.
The banks also hold community meetings and conduct financial literacy programs in schools and in branches at night to help people, she said. Such education efforts help combat the number of people who are unbanked and underbanked, she said, a cause also helped each time the economy improves and more people are working.
"Underpinning all of this is making sure the consumer is aware of what financial opportunities and choices there are," Murphy said.
When people must watch every dollar to live, they make careful decisions about which services give them the most flexibility and peace of mind, said John Peter Krahel, an accounting professor with Loyola University Maryland's Sellinger School of Business.
"Money is a deeply personal thing, not just because of social status but because this is how I am going to eat," Krahel said. "I am going to be very cautious about taking any risk. The last thing I need is any perceived threat."
Managing money, however, without a bank account can be even more costly. Research from the Brookings Institute shows that over the course of a 40-year career, a full-time worker could save as much as $40,000 by relying on a checking account rather than using alternative check cashing services.
Carol Nixon of East Baltimore said she never felt much choice other than to pay whatever fees her financial service providers charged. She opened her first bank account in March with the guidance of the CASH campaign after filing her taxes – but she's not sure the account is working for her. She is less disciplined with her new debit card than she used to be with a prepaid card where her employer, a uniform laundry, deposited her check.
"I've always wanted a bank account, but I never tried to get one until this opportunity came up," Nixon said.
Jonathan Mintz, CEO of Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund, said research shows cities like Baltimore with high poverty have more unbanked and underbanked families. Bank On is an initiative of the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund.
"Baltimore is particularly hard hit, and that is not OK," Mintz said. "Baltimore residents deserve better."
Mintz said his New York-based nonprofit focuses on finding partners to reach large populations of people, such as prisoners who are completing their sentences, agencies that provide subsidized housing or summer jobs programs for young people. One such partner is the Mayor's Office of Employment Development in Baltimore, which operates the YouthWorks jobs program for teens and young adults.
YouthWorks issued paper checks until about three years ago, when organizers realized the young people were turning to check cashers, paying high fees and walking around with their entire earnings in their wallets, according to Jason Perkins-Cohen, who runs the city's employment development office.
"That's not safe or effective for managing your money," Perkins-Cohen said.
Now, as part of the program's orientation, the thousands of participating youths learn about budgeting and can sign up for an account the Windsor Mill-based Securityplus Federal Credit Union created specially for teens. Since 2017, more than 700 young people opened accounts connected to those summer jobs, Perkins-Cohen said. About 16 percent of the YouthWorks participants said the Securityplus account was their first bank account.
Kaijah Dawson, 19, spoke to the youths last summer as a money mentor with the CASH campaign. She was 12 the first time she opened a bank account – and she wanted to spread the word to other young people about the advantages.
"We talked about budgeting, how to manage your bank account, your money, your card, all of that," Dawson said. "Use your money wisely. If you absolutely have to have it, then make sure you have it. Necessities first, then your extras."