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How to get started if you’ve never had a bank account

Managing your money without a bank account is doable. But it can pose challenges — and the COVID-19 pandemic has only added more. 

In the US, your economic impact payment might’ve arrived weeks or months after others’ did, in the form of a cheque or prepaid debit card, because you couldn’t choose the faster delivery option of direct deposit into a bank account. And if you’ve gone to the store lately, you may have been asked to pay with a debit or credit card or in exact change due to a nationwide concern over germ transmission. 

A bank account can make life easier in these situations, among others. To avoid future issues, consider opening one — or try again if you’ve been rejected in the past. Here’s a guide to getting started. 

ASSESS YOUR MONEY NEEDS 

If you’re one of the millions of adults without a bank account, you might have a system that works for you. Maybe that includes using alternative products such as prepaid debit cards and cheque cashing services. Financial counselor Brandy Baxter has worked with clients who used cheque cashing services for practical reasons. 

“They preferred to walk in, walk out with cash in hand,” says Baxter, an accredited financial counselor and financial coach who runs the firm Living Abundantly in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in Texas. 

Check cashing stores come with a steep fee, which can range from one to six percent or more, of the cheque amount. 

Bank accounts can fulfill money needs beyond what prepaid cards and cheque cashing services can. For example, their fraud protections can limit what you pay if you’re victimized, and many accounts let you lock debit cards remotely when stolen. 

And once you’ve begun a relationship with a bank, other doors open: Credit cards, auto or small business loans and cheaper alternatives to payday loans may eventually be within reach. 

Chequing accounts “don’t just help you save costs; they’re the stepping stones to use other financial products,” says David Rothstein, principal at Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund, who manages BankOn, a national platform that promotes financial inclusion. 

FIND A BANK THAT FITS YOU 

If you find banks intimidating or have had issues getting an account before, building socities and credit unions tend to be more accommodating than national banks and are often mission-driven — for example, focusing on the financial health of their surrounding communities. 

“We’re very lenient at giving someone a second chance,” says Pedro Murillo, area branch manager in the San Francisco Bay Area for Self-Help Federal Credit Union. “If an employee comes in to apply for a loan and doesn’t have pay stubs, what else (can they) show us? A letter from (their) employer? We don’t want to give up.” 

Like other credit unions, Self-Help requires a person to open a savings account to become a member; the minimum to open an account is typically small. Then members can apply for other products, like a credit builder loan. 

WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT APPLYING 

To open an account, you’ll generally need your Social Security number, one or two forms of identification and money for the first deposit. 

Finding and opening the right bank account involves some effort. But once you’re approved, having a safe place for your money and a better chance to get affordable loans can make it worthwhile. 

“To have a checking account… is the cornerstone of any financial empowerment effort,” Rothstein says. 

This article originally appeared on the personal finance website NerdWallet. Spencer Tierney is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: spencer.tierney@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @SpencerNerd. 

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