STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The Occupy Wall Street protest movement has directed much of its anger at big banks. Some people who have been burned by high fees are now satisfying their frustration and their banking needs by moving their money elsewhere, although they are not always going to small banks or credit unions. Some are opting for a giant retailer.
Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports on how many people now bank with Wal-Mart.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: At a place like the downtown bus terminal in Nashville, it feels like almost everyone is armed with the Wal-Mart MoneyCard. Linda Black is the first person I walk up to, and she's happy to show off her blue plastic.
LINDA BLACK: This is me. I use my Wal-Mart card. I do. I love my Wal-Mart card, though.
FARMER: Like others, Black has not had a good track record with banks, specifically Bank of America.
BLACK: Every time I went there, I'm owing this. I'm owing that. How am I owing, and I got money there. Why am I still owing? What am I still paying? So I said forget it, you know.
FARMER: Black says with Wal-Mart, she hasn't run into unexpected fees, just a flat $3 a month. Lisa Barnes is a waitress who says she's saving money since overdrafting isn't even an option.
LISA BARNES: You can't spend what you don't have. So you can't go over. I mean, you just - you don't get in trouble with it.
FARMER: And the card still has many of the advantages of a bank account, such as ATM withdrawals and direct deposit.
STACEY NIXON: I've been using it since last year.
FARMER: Stacey Nixon is a child care provider who sends her paycheck right to Wal-Mart.
NIXON: You fill out a form, and your money comes directly on the card.
FARMER: Is it possible to do everything you need to do with this card?
NIXON: Everything. You can buy stuff offline. You can pay your bills. You can get the movies from the Redbox. So you can basically do anything with it.
FARMER: That's why Nixon has closed her bank account, technically joining the ranks of the unbanked.
The Federal Reserve estimates roughly 60 million Americans do most of their business in cash. The unbanked have long been targeted by companies like NetSpend and H&R Block for prepaid debit cards. But increasingly, it's bank customers who are moving to services like the Wal-Mart MoneyCard.
BEN JACKSON: They are thinking about it in terms of Wal-Mart is where I go to do my money management.
FARMER: Ben Jackson follows the debit card market for Mercator Advisory Group. He says Wal-Mart has pursued financial services primarily as a way to get customers spending more inside the store. But the banking industry has felt threatened and put up road blocks. Jackson says Wal-Mart has found a back door.
JACKSON: The banks lobbied very hard to prevent Wal-Mart from getting a bank charter, and in a lot of ways, I think still their worst fears came true, in that Wal-Mart is still competing with them.
FARMER: Wal-Mart didn't make anyone available for an interview, and the company won't say how many MoneyCards are out there. But Jackson estimates as many as two million are active right now. Instead of ceding the ground to Wal-Mart, a few traditional financial institutions are coming out with prepaid offerings of their own. But going toe-to-toe with Wal-Mart isn't easy, says finance Professor Richard Grant of Lipscomb University. The retail juggernaut has the ability to keep prices low and the lights on all night.
RICHARD GRANT: Wal-Mart is open a lot longer than just about any bank I know of. I guess the way to say it is Wal-Mart doesn't have banker's hours.
FARMER: Grant says banker's hours may not be safe for long, especially when so many people like Stacey Nixon are excited by the MoneyCard.
NIXON: They're catching on. I've got to persuade my momma to do it now.
FARMER: Nixon's whole family could be banking at Wal-Mart before long. And there will be more right behind them. The research firm Aite Group predicts double-digit annual growth for prepaid cards through 2014. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.
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