New effort aims to teach benefits of bank accounts

Push aims to improve banking habits

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When she was growing up, Esther Bush said, the financial advice she got time and time again was to save her money and to buy a house.

Also good advice: open a bank account.

The Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh -- with the support of United Way of Allegheny County, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, financial institutions and local community groups -- recently launched a program to encourage people to sign up for low- or no-cost bank accounts.

The goal of "Bank On Greater Pittsburgh" is to discourage people from using resources such as payday loans and check-cashing businesses, which can often charge heavy fees, and instead use a bank account for paying bills and saving money.

In other words, said Ms. Bush, president and CEO of the Urban League, take the money you would have spent on a payday loan and add it to your grocery bill, or put it toward a car payment.

"There is a lot of common sense in this," she said, adding that talking about financial literacy is part of getting people to plan their finances, rather than live paycheck to paycheck.

"We want to help them to develop these habits," she said.

In Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, it seems, it's a message that could be particularly useful.

Bank On, a program that has been applied in many other U.S. cities, including San Francisco, keeps data on its website about the percentage of households that are "unbanked," meaning without checking or savings accounts, and that are "underbanked," meaning that the household has an account but still uses other services such as rent-to-own agreements and payday lending.

According to data on the Bank On website, which cites research statistics from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, 7.7 percent of households nationwide are unbanked and 17.9 percent are underbanked.

In Pittsburgh, the percentages are higher.

Ten percent of households in the city are considered unbanked, and just under 20 percent are underbanked.

In Allegheny County, 5.9 percent of households are unbanked and 17.4 percent are underbanked.

Not having a bank account can get expensive. The Bank On website, citing data from the Brookings Institution, said paying the extra fees that come with not having a bank account -- such as buying money orders or paying for check-cashing services -- can amount to $40,000 over a lifetime.

But while opening a bank account might seem an obvious step to take, not everyone does.

Angela Reynolds is director of programs for financially struggling adults and families at United Way of Allegheny County, which is funding the Bank On program with a $150,000 grant for three years. She said some people might live in neighborhoods where there's no traditional bank but there is a check-cashing place. Others might have grown up with the idea of keeping their money stored in the home.

Debra Squires, director of the family growth and child development department at the Urban League, said some people feel they do not make enough money to open a checking account, while others do not have the money to pay fees or meet the minimum balance. Still others have had a bad banking experience in the past and feel they might no longer be eligible to open an account.

"Those are just some myths," Ms. Squires said.

The Urban League's program seeks to dispel many of those myths, by partnering with nine banks and federal credit unions, including PNC, Citizens and Dollar, which offer free or low-cost checking accounts.

Huntington Bank, one of the partners, has already signed up seven new customers who were previously unbanked or underbanked, introducing them to an account that has no minimum balance, no fees and a 24-hour grace period for overdraft fees, said Susan Baker Shipley, president of the bank's Western Pennsylvania and Ohio region, who added that another benefit from banking is that once a person has an account, he or she has created a relationship with a bank that can allow them to access further services.

By the end of the year, Ms. Squires said her goal is to have 1,000 people who were previously without a bank account or dependent on other, less reputable sources signed up.

"I am expecting that it will be much higher than that," she said.

Community groups, such as Just Harvest, are helping to spread the word about the Bank On program. For Just Harvest, it's a good time of year to be talking about opening an account, because the organization already has a program helping people complete their taxes, often finding that clients have no account into which they can place their refund checks, said Rochelle Jackson, its public policy advocate.

The bank account program will be coming up in conversation this tax season, she said.

"We're reaching out to them, to say, 'Hey, here's a better option for you and your family.' "

The Urban League won't consider its work done once a person opens a bank account, Ms. Squires said.

Just as Ms. Bush was encouraged to save and to buy a home, the next step is building the financial literacy of new bank account holders, and encouraging them to save and spend responsibly.

"We want ultimately to help families begin the asset-building process," Ms. Squires said.

More information is available at or by calling 412-227-4191.

Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707.

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