My Foolish buddy Rich Smith got his bowtie in a bunch the other day when he accused Wal-Mart Stores (NYSE: WMT ) of ruining America by giving employees payroll cards instead of paper paychecks. Can I disagree?
The "con" in consumer
Far from the con artist Rich imagined, duping consumers to get them to spend more, Wal-Mart is really a trailblazer, leading the unwary away from financial ruin at the hands of bankers.
Because it's not just payroll cards that Wal-Mart is introducing -- it's an entire suite of financial services that are remaking the discounter into a one-stop, low-cost financial services center. Wal-Mart's offering many of the services of a bank, without the accompanying bailout.
Save, save, save
Many people probably don't realize the full breadth of opportunities available to them at Walmart stores. Walk into any MoneyCenter today, and a Walmart shopper can:
- Get a money order, or transfer money anywhere in the world, with Moneygram International (NYSE: MGI ) .
- Cash payroll and government checks for just $3.
- Get a prepaid Visa (NYSE: V ) debit card (actually issued by GE Money Bank, a General Electric (NYSE: GE ) subsidiary).
- Print personal and business checks.
- Invest through ShareBuilder
The newest service is nationwide bill-payment, which the company has rolled out to all 3,700 U.S. Walmart stores.
According to a study commissioned by Wal-Mart, 21 million households pay at least one bill a month in person. Now they can go to their local Walmart and use CheckFreePay by Fiserv (Nasdaq: FISV ) to pay most of their bills.
For just $0.88 each, shoppers can pay their car, phone, cable, and electric bills. Need to get that check there overnight? It'll cost you only $1.88, and you can even get same-day bill payment -- within 10 minutes, actually -- through Moneygram, starting at $4.50. Considering the cost of a stamp, envelope, and check -- many banks still charge fees for low-balance checking accounts -- Wal-Mart's dirt cheap services are downright patriotic.
And you don't even need a checking account. To cash a check, for instance, just bring the check, an ID, and your Social Security number to any register, and you can get your cash. The Aite Group estimates that Wal-Mart had an 11% share of the check-cashing market in the fourth quarter of 2008. The Pew Research Center adds that if the unbanked stopped using payday lenders like Advance America (NYSE: AEA ) and Cash America (NYSE: CSH ) , they would save $150 million annually.
If you've got a free checking account that offers free bill payment, maybe doing your financial chores while you fill your shopping cart doesn't work for you. But for the 22 million unbanked and underbanked Americans who don't have access to traditional financial services, this represents a one-stop shop of financial independence.
Wal-Mart's not leading us down the road to ruination. It's taking us straight to the path of fiscal redemption.
Still think Wal-Mart's the epitome of evil -- or a champion of capitalist virtue? Let us know in the comments section below.