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Wal-Mart, American Express offer non-bank option

This undated image provided by American Express shows Bluebird prepaid card thWal-Mart Stores Inc. American Express announced Monday Oct. 8

This undated image provided by American Express shows the Bluebird prepaid card that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and American Express announced Monday, Oct. 8, 2012. The two companies said Monday that Bluebird, begun during a pilot program late last year and acts like a checking account but without the fees that have increasingly frustrated shoppers. It will have no minimum balance and no monthly, annual or overdraft fees. They say the only fees that will be associated with the card will be transparent and within the user's control, such as out of network. (AP Photo/American Express)

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Updated: May 3, 2013 12:15PM

It’s the odd couple of personal finance. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and American Express are teaming up to circumvent the traditional banking system by offering a new, mostly free product to consumers.

The new Bluebird account is being billed as an alternative to debit and checking accounts while offering most of the same features. But its biggest attraction is that there is no minimum account balance, no fees (either monthly or annual), a free debit card, and no credit inquiry required to open the account.

Bluebird of banking happiness

The account offers a Bluebird card, which you carry in your wallet. But you can access your money or deposit cash at any Wal-Mart cash register. You can download a free app for your smartphone, letting you deposit a check by taking a photo, similar to apps now available at the largest banks. And you can pay bills online from this account at

Friends or relatives with Bluebird accounts can transfer money directly to you — or you can set up sub-accounts for your teens or college students, allowing quick money transfers.

If you sign up for direct deposit of your paycheck, the card can be used with no fee to withdraw cash at MoneyPass network ATMs, more than 22,000 locations. Withdrawals through another ATM network are charged a $2 fee — and local network fees may apply.

The Bluebird card itself is an American Express product, so it can be used to charge purchases at any merchant or online site that accepts American Express. Those purchases benefit from AmEx guarantees such as purchase protection. And holders also get AmEx roadside assistance, Global Assist services and fraud protection.

No fees

This card is designed to appeal to consumers who recognize that banking fees and charges have soared dramatically in the past two years. Wal-Mart and AmEx point out that last year, banks received more than $31 billion in overdraft fees. And studies show that consumers pay an average of $259 per year in basic checking fees.

The Bluebird account has a fee schedule that is all zeros, including no charges for inactivity, for a replacement card, for any electronic bill payment, for customer service calls, or for foreign currency transactions. There are no overdraft charges, because you can’t withdraw or charge more than your account balance.

Getting started

Bluebird is designed to be a “bank account in a box” says Wal-Mart’s VP of Financial Services Daniel Eckert. You will be able to pick up this starter kit box at Wal-Mart checkout aisles for $5. Or you can sign up free online at Start by depositing from $1 to $500 to open the account. That can be done right away at the Wal-Mart register. You can add as much as $10,000 per month to the account, with a limit of $1,000 in deposits in any one day.

Some caveats

The Bluebird account is not an FDIC insured bank account. It is backed by the resources of American Express. So it is designed to be transactional, not serve as a savings reservoir. You cannot write paper checks on this account — yet. The partners hint that service is coming in 2013. And you won’t build up your credit record using this account since it is solely a debit card.

What this new Bluebird account does do is force traditional banks and credit unions to compete to serve their customers at lower costs. The Wal-Mart and American Express partnership doesn’t have the huge overhead and physical infrastructure of traditional banks — so their costs are lower. And the ordinary consumer is getting the benefit of that advantage. That’s the Savage Truth.

Terry Savage is the Chicago Sun-Times’ nationally syndicated financial columnist and a registered investment adviser.

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