NEW YORK — The nickel-and-diming never stopped.
The fees were constant: $28 to cash a paycheck. $1.50 for a money order. A dollar or more every time I swiped the prepaid cash card I bought at the drug store.
In all, I racked up $93 in fees in a monthlong experiment of living without a bank and making a go of it on the economic fringe. That works out to $1,100 a year just to spend my own money.
It may be hard to fathom why anyone would live this way, but a federal study last year found that about one in four U.S. households skirts banks and relies on services such as check-cashing and payday loans. Many of these households bring in less than $30,000 a year.
Some do it because they believe they don't have enough money to open a bank account or were burned by fees in the past. But it's not always a matter of choice: Many can't open an account because of a history of bad checks or damaged credit.
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There are other reasons too. Language barriers intimidate some would-be customers, or they simply feel banks aren't welcoming. For others, literally handling their own money offers a sense of control at a time of financial anxiety.
Federal and local governments want to bring this group into the traditional banking world. The fear is that the chronic use of high-fee services keeps the country's poorest from moving up.
Yet there are signs that the slow economic recovery is leading more people to rely on certain alternative services. And it's not just the poor.
Americans are expected to load $37 billion this year on to prepaid cards, which function like bankless debit cards and are available at drug stores and discounters. That's twice as much as last year and four times the amount in 2008.
The tradeoff is often a tangle of fees. Some cards charge a dollar a minute to call customer service and $5 just to add money to the card. The still nascent prepaid card industry will come under new federal oversight as part of this year's financial overhaul.
To find out what it's like to survive on these services I decided to put away my credit and debit cards for one month. I suspended my direct deposit in favor of paper paychecks.
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In that time, I got by using only cash and services such as money orders.
It turns out fees were only part of the problem.
I don't recall the last time I had to cash a check, so I had no idea how expensive it could be. I forked over $56 to cash two paychecks at grimy check-cashing stores. This accounted for more than half my total fees.
And I was lucky. The check-cashing fee in New York is capped at 1.83 percent. In Florida and Maine, where the cap is 5 percent, check cashing could have cost almost three times as much. About half of states set no limits.
Most of my remaining costs, about $34, went to fees on prepaid cards.
These charges were the most frustrating because they were so unpredictable. The two cards I used each cost $4.95 — on top of the money I was putting on the card — but came with wildly different terms. Some cards cost as much as $29.95 upfront.
The first card I bought, a NexisCard, was the only option at the check-cashing place I pass everyday in my neighborhood on Manhattan's West Side. I had to pay a $1 fee for each purchase. If I used the PIN code to authorize a purchase, it was $1.50. And if I wanted cash back at the register, it was $1.95. The card could also be used at bank ATMs for a fee. That's on top of the fee the bank charges for out-of-network cards. I did this just once for a total cost of $5.
The second card I bought was issued by Green Dot Corp., one of the bigger players in the prepaid market. This one had better terms but still charged $4.95 each time I wanted to reload it.
Paying rent was also a process. I couldn't mail a wad of cash to my landlord, so I went to a nearby Western Union to buy money orders with cash from one of my paychecks. Each money order is limited to $1,000, so I needed two for my $1,300 rent.
This cost a total of $3.50.
When you don't have a bank, you spend a lot more time managing your money.
So many of my finances are automated — direct deposit, automatic bill pay — that it was jarring to spend so much time waiting in Soviet-style lines to cash checks and pay rent.
At the check-cashing place, I squirmed when the clerk counted out my money by snapping each $100 bill high in the air. In my mind, the line of customers behind me was counting along in unison.
I also felt self-conscious when using my temporary prepaid card, which looked cheap, even fake. It didn't have my name on it and the account number wasn't raised as on most credit cards. A permanent card wouldn't arrive for six weeks.
If a cashier's eyes lingered too long, I wanted to pull out my Bank of America rewards credit card, which has "Platinum" in italics across the top.
Then there was the time a hotel charged my NexisCard $400 in case I incurred any incidentals. I was told the charge would be refunded at checkout. But it took multiple calls over three weeks to get my money back. NexisCard refused to lift the hold until the hotel faxed them an official release form.
The appearance of mystery transactions made me paranoid too.
When I was checking the NexisCard account online, I spotted a $3 entry for a "retail reload." This confused me because I never reloaded the card. I filed a dispute and was told I'd get a call back within three days. The call never came.
A few days later, another $3 entry appeared. The customer service representative was as stumped as I was.
It turns out both "retail reloads" were credits for my prior complaints about incorrect fee charges. I learned this only after talking with the CEO of the company, Andrew Siden, weeks later as part of the reporting process.
We determined that one credit was an error that worked in my favor.
He agreed that the transactions can be confusing and that mistakes happen. Siden noted that the company operates on thin margins and does its best to fix mistakes when they're pointed out.
But I only caught the mistakes on my account because it was part of my job. Would I keep chasing down a few dollars here and there for much longer?
I'm glad I don't have to find out.
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