Cashing a $100 check in a check-cashing store turned out to be a humbling — and frustrating — two-hour job.
It didn't help that the payroll check was issued by a Chicago company no one had heard of and where no one seemed to want to answer a ringing telephone.
After striking out at four places, my two friends for the day and I still had our $100 check and no cash.
So if the intended lesson of this little field experiment was to see firsthand how difficult folks without a checking account had it, lesson learned. If it was to see the nonbank services looking like predators compared with banks, well, that was less clear.
These nonbank businesses survive because they deliver what people need. I wouldn't want to talk through bulletproof glass when doing business every day, but the staffers we saw were generally helpful. And at least walk-in customers know what the deal is.
The New Money Express store charged 6 percent to a first-time customer for cashing a payroll check, one of the many fees for services listed on a big chart. If a similar chart of charges hangs on the wall of a U.S. Bank branch, I've never noticed.
I eagerly agreed to spend a good part of last Wednesday looking to cash a check because the program, called FinX, would put me in the shoes of consumers without bank accounts. FinX was developed by the Center for Financial Services Innovation, or CFSI, a nonprofit financial services consulting firm in Chicago.
We set out for south Minneapolis as a small team with a long list of tasks that included sending money via a money order, pawning a watch and asking about loans.
My colleagues were Nien Liu, a strategist at the Zeus Jones consultancy, and Eric Muschler, a program officer with the McKnight Foundation. With both a payroll and personal check in hand, first up for us was Payday America.
It had a clean, well-lit and inviting lobby, if you ignored the eight security cameras. The young woman behind the counter was maybe more friendly than knowledgeable, but she certainly tried.
The money would come on a stored value card called a CashPass. It would cost $2 for the check and $6.95 to activate the card, plus a $6.95 monthly fee that would not kick in for 30 days. OK, that leaves us $91.05 for today. We took the deal.
That's when the real learning started.
Payday America needed to reach someone at the company that issued the check, CFSI. No answer. Our check also had been detached from the check stub, and she needed to see the stub, too.
It took 25 minutes to achieve nothing, and next we tried New Money Express, on Lake Street near Interstate 35W. This store had its staff behind what we assumed was bulletproof glass.
Here the staff didn't trust our check, either, but mostly because another FinX participant had already cashed their CFSI check. A second, identical check for $100 raised suspicions. Liu did get our $30 money order sent, though, for $5 in fees.
At the MoneyXchange store on Franklin Avenue, where we next tried to cash our check, Muschler learned that the bank and account numbers on CFSI's check had showed up in MoneyXchange's database of phony check writers.
There was no chance CFSI wrote bad checks, but it wasn't an argument we were going to win. We were sent to Walgreens. The conversation there lasted less than 15 seconds.
When we rejoined the other participants, we agreed that next time we would remember not to throw away our check stub. We would figure out who charged the lowest fees. Yet it still wouldn't be easy.
My little group spent so much time trying to cash one check that we hadn't gotten to a pawnshop or discussed a payday loan. Another FinX participant on Wednesday tried to pawn a well-used Samsung Galaxy cellphone and got offered $30. We wouldn't have done any better with my old iPhone 5.
In thinking later about what folks now "underserved" by the financial system really need, it's not that different from what pretty much all of us need.
We need a secure and inexpensive way to do simple transactions. Employers don't pay in cash and taking 6 percent of a payroll check is a lot. People who don't make much income will also need a secure place for savings, and it can't cost a lot in fees.
The last thing people need is an inexpensive way to borrow money, at least in small amounts. It must be very difficult to sleep well with just the money in your wallet, knowing you can't afford an unexpected car repair or other emergency.
It's credit — payday and other small loans — that's really costly to people without much personal wealth. And these payday loans don't help build up a credit history.
My cohorts on Wednesday are working on financial products to address some of these problems with cost and availability. They would let people start with a low-cost debit card for transactions, work up to savings and then eventually to an unsecured credit card.
It's a fine idea, but it's also not going to be easy to implement. Nonprofits could sell the idea, but for this to work it has to be picked up and offered widely by a bank or credit union.
And as I heard on Wednesday, people without a bank relationship usually have already had one, and it didn't end well. At least at the storefront places there will be no unexpected fees.
We did not shop Wells Fargo with our $100 check, but in checking later, it seems Wells Fargo will open a checking account with just $50. On Wednesday we could have done that. We wouldn't have gotten cash, but a debit card would have been on its way.
Wells Fargo isn't cheap, though, charging a $10 monthly maintenance fee unless we keep $1,500 there. Would such consumers balk at that? We do know that down the street, a CashPass card from Payday America costs $6.95.