There are a lot of reasons people give for not having a bank account. 

“Everything from not having enough money, to a mistrust of financial institutions, high fees, lack of identification, credit history problems,” said Kathy Blumenfeld, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions. 

The trouble is, not being part of the mainstream financial system then leaves many who can least afford it paying check-cashing outlets to get their own money, and often doing transactions in cash or buying money orders. For some, it becomes tougher and tougher to ever get ahead. 

But a growing program in metro Milwaukee is making it easier for people who are unbanked and underbanked to join the system. The Bank On Greater Milwaukee initiative is addressing the concerns of people who don’t have a banking relationship and taking away barriers to opening a transaction account with a bank or credit union. 

Blumenfeld said having such a program operating in Wisconsin’s biggest metro area is a way to help more people improve their personal financial situation. 

“Really, having a bank account is the first step in establishing a pathway to financial wellness,” Blumenfeld said. “And so when we look at the numbers of unbanked and underbanked people, especially in Milwaukee and Milwaukee County right now, this is just a terrific program with open arms and gives them the opportunity to have that stability and have that access to basic financial accounts.” 

Constance Alberts, program manager for Bank On Greater Milwaukee, said the effort is part of a national coalition, called Bank On, that connects consumers to safe and affordable banking products.  The program certifies bank and credit union accounts that comply with its standards for product offerings. 

“One of the most important things is that there’s no overdrafts. You can’t opt out or opt in. The accounts that are available, you cannot overdraw these accounts at all,” Alberts said. “If you don’t have the money in the account, you’re not going to get charged for trying nor are you going to get a fee.” 

The Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund (CFE) set up the standards used to certify checking accounts for the Bank On program. Among other requirements: 

  • Minimum deposit of $25 to open an account 

  • No non-sufficient fund fees or inactive account fees 

  • Monthly maintenance fee of no more than $5 if not waivable 

  • Free use of in-network ATMs and maximum $2.50 for use of out-of-network ATM 

  • Debit card/pre-paid card for point-of-sale capability. 

Jeff Langkamp, chief compliance officer for Bank Five Nine, said the key feature is no overdraft fees. 

“Most of the stories that you hear — and stats back it up — people don’t have trust in the banking system, and usually it’s because they’ve been burned by fees, in particular overdraft fees,” said Langkamp, whose bank offers its Achieve Checking program as a Bank On-approved product. 

With Achieve Checking, a debit card purchase will be declined at the point of sale if the balance is inadequate. 

“They don’t have check-writing capability. They have online banking so they can use bill pay and all that other stuff,” Langkamp said. “There isn’t an overdraft fee that can be charged. We return everything.” 

Langkamp said Bank Five Nine began offering the account aimed at unbanked and underbanked people in 2020 because it fit into the bank’s stated mission to “make lives better.” It has about 30 such accounts now. 

“I know a lot of banks will freak out, that, ‘Oh, we’re going to lose income — that’s one of our drivers.’ We really, in a year and a half, have had limited customers that have even overdrawn their account,” Langkamp said. 

The Federal Reserve’s “Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2020 – May 2021” report showed that about 5% of the adult population did not have a bank account. Another 13% had bank accounts but still used alternative financial services such as check cashing, money orders, payday loans, pawn shop loans, and tax refund advances. 

Eighty-four percent of all unbanked adults had income below $25,000, and 94% had income below $50,000. 

Alberts said metro Milwaukee has “a large number of people who are not accessing or don’t have access to safe and affordable banking products.” 

Bringing them into the system through Bank On Greater Milwaukee can give them a fundamental building block for financial wellness, she said. 

The program is intended for people of all ages, not just heads of households. 

“When you look at youth, getting that first job, it’s really crucial to have that bank account,” she said. “It starts you off with a solid foundation.” 

Alberts said Bank On Greater Milwaukee works with a network of community organizations, local governments, businesses, and others to help get the word out to people who would benefit from an account with one of its participating banks. 

The Urban Economic Development Association of Wisconsin formed Milwaukee’s Bank On working group in late 2017 with help from the CFE Fund, Milwaukee’s Alliance from Economic Inclusion, local funders, and more than 30 partners from the private, public and nonprofit sectors. 

When Bank On Greater Milwaukee started in 2018, there were six certified accounts available from financial institutions in the area. Now there are 14. They are: Bank Five Nine, Achieve Checking; BMO Harris Bank, Smart Money; Chase, Secure Banking; CIBC, Easy Path Access; The Equitable Bank, EZ Checking; First Federal Bank, Fresh Start Checking; First Midwest Bank, Foundation Checking; Old National, EZ Access Checking; PNC Bank, Foundational Checking, and Smart Access Prepaid VISA Card; Self Help Credit Union, EZ Access Checking; Summit Credit Union, Balance Account; US Bank, Safe Debit; and Wells Fargo, Clear Access Banking. 

There will be more, Blumenfeld said. 

“Even organizations — banks and credit unions — that aren’t certified yet are really making strides to get there and to meet the requirements to become a certified Bank On program,” she said. 

It will take commitment and persistence, though, to persuade some of the unbanked population that a new account will benefit them. 

“It’s hard,” Langkamp said. “It’s a population that would prefer not to have a bank. To try to change that mindset to that a bank is a friend and a partner and can help you out, it takes a little while.”

Paul Gores is a journalist who covered business news for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for 20 years. Have a story idea? Contact him at paul.gores57@gmail.com.