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Bank Transfer Day: Can We Call It a Success?

Nov. 7, 2011
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What started as a Facebook page created by Kristen Christian in protest of high banking fees, grew in less than a month to a powerful movement. Credit unions courted consumers, who banded together in opposition of high fees and moved their money en mass away from big banks.

The Bank Transfer Day Facebook page now boasts nearly 60,000 Likes. And the support goes beyond just a click of the mouse: the Credit Union National Association reports that credit unions across the country scooped up 650,000 new members and $4.5 billion in savings account assets since Bank of America announced its monthly $5 debit card fees at the end of September.

Can Christian and the movement she started take credit for the mass move toward credit unions? They can certainly take some. Christian’s website helped harness and organize the energy of thousands of Americans united in their dissatisfaction and frustration with the changes big banks have made since passage of the Durbin Amendment.

Like the Occupy Wall Street protestors, Bank Transfer Day plays on the anger that many consumers feel toward big business, but the movement Christian helped to spur also benefitted from having a short deadline and promoting a well defined set of actions.

From its inception to completion, the Bank Transfer Day movement had less than a month to organize and act. That’s not to say that people won’t continue their switch to credit unions post November 5th, or that the Bank Transfer Day movement won’t evolve and take on more long term challenges and goals, but milking the excitement of a quick call to action worked in their favor.

In fact, it worked so well that credit unions began using the holiday as a marketing strategy, advertising special Saturday hours, giving away Bank Transfer Day stickers, and offering special promos to people who opened new accounts in honor of the holiday.

While the official number crunching will take a while, the initial reports were impressive. Some credit unions had so much traffic that new customers had to find street parking away from overcrowded lots. Others broke their own records for new accounts.

Different ways to measure success

All in all, Bank Transfer Day was a feel-good event that inspired thousands of Americans to move their money to banking institutions that better meet their needs. Along the way, many big-name banks, including the much-maligned BofA, rescinded their new fees in acknowledgement of customer pressure and an onslaught of bad press.

Thousands of people opened accounts at credit unions, and thousands more learned about their banking options, what credit unions stand for, and the unique services they provide.

But before we go patting ourselves on the back and thinking that big banks learned their lesson, we should reconsider. Many of the big-name banks are all too happy to lose customers to credit unions and community banks. That’s because the customers who incur checking account fees at big banks (and who are thus attracted to credit unions) are primarily the small accountholders. They’re not making the bank much money to begin with, and from a purely financial perspective, big banks might as well lose this segment of their clientele.

And that’s not even taking into account the people who didn’t incur checking account fees because they don’t have checking accounts at all. Lost in the fracas over the new $5 fee was the reality that for many Americans, fees were already too high to begin with. It’s worth considering whether Bank Transfer Day did anything at all for them – and whether the unbanked and underbanked deserve their own holiday.

That doesn’t mean that small accountholders aren’t making a difference when they collectively move their money to credit unions: They’re saving money on banking fees and taking a stand against unjust banking practices, but it will take more than Bank Transfer Day to make BofA or any of the other giants sweat bullets.