NEW YORK (MainStreet) — T-Mobile has announced plans to disrupt the U.S. personal finance industry by transforming smartphones into mobile money managers. But is there anything particularly new about T-Mobile's mobile finance managers? And will a mobile phone company realistically be able to sort out the U.S.'s personal finance woes?
A study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research revealed that half of Americans say they could not get $2,000 together in 30 days in order to pay an unanticipated bill. When faced by such an unforeseen event, millions have little choice but to call upon the predacious clenches of financial institutions. Within these clutches, people are forced to pay excessive rates for payday lenders or other unprincipled creditors, thus falling into a downward spiral of debt.
So what's the answer to America's unscrupulous banking tactics and personal finance woes?
T-Mobile believes it has come up with the solution. Not content with conquering one industry, the Seattle-based mobile network company is moving into the realms of personal finance. The company's latest offering, Mobile Money, is designed to free consumers from excessive cash fees they are often forced to pay to use their own cash. T-Mobile will offer customers a reloadable T-Mobile Prepaid Visa card accompanied with a mobile money management app. According to T-Mobile, once a customer signs up to Mobile Money, he will no longer have to pay charges for routine financial transactions. T-Mobile will therefore eradicate charges for activation, monthly maintenance and replacement of lost or stolen cards. Money withdrawals will be free from 42,000 ATMs throughout the United States with the T-Mobile card, which will be able to be used anywhere Visa is accepted.
"We've already transformed how Americans use and pay for phones, tablets and wireless service -- why stop there?" said John Legere, president and chief executive officer of T-Mobile in a release.
"Millions of Americans pay outrageous fees to check cashers, payday lenders and other predatory businesses – just for the right to use their own money," Legere continued. "Mobile Money shifts the balance of power for T-Mobile customers and keeps more money in their pockets."
Consumer Confidence and Trust
The prospect of having a mobile company stop cash-strapped families from being charged for merely accessing their own money certainly sounds appealing. A telecommunications company effectively becoming a bank is definitely a brave move. Will customers however have confidence and trust in using a mobile communications company with something as important as banking?
Consumer confidence in T-Mobile is likely to have been tarnished because of the company's recent security breach. Earlier this year, T-Mobile announced that unauthorized access to a file stored on a supplier's server might have exposed personal information. It was reported that T-Mobile is planning to offer customers identity theft insurance for up to one year due to the incident.
An Innovative Move?
It's no secret that mobile operators have been trying for years to create new revenue by launching banking schemes. In 2013, Boost Mobile launched Mobile Wallet, enabling customers of the Sprint-owned MVNO to set up bill payments. It also offers consumers a prepaid Visa card that's directly tied to their Wallet balance. Boost Mobile's Wallet is unique in the sense that it focuses on what's referred to in the finance industry as the "unbanked," people who deal almost entirely in cash. Both Boost's and T-Mobile's "banking" initiatives are certainly signs at just how crowded the mobile payments market is becoming.
Free for All?
So a service designed to "shake up America's personal finance industry" by eradicating unscrupulous banking costs must be free, right? Not exactly. Anyone can apply for Mobile Money. While fees for the service get waived for T-Mobile customers, non-members will have to pay for maintenance and transaction fees. How much they will have to pay remains uncertain.
We have to hand it to T-Mobile. Its bank service initiative is not so much a revenue source but rather a prevailing tool to attract and retain customers. You don't have to be a T-Mobile customer to use the service, but the company saves its best benefits for its own customers.
Shaking up America's personal finance afflictions with a service that effectively charges you monthly fees "unless you're a customer," doesn't sound like the most effective solution. Perhaps a more constructive way to improve money management skills among Americans would be for the U.S. for follow in the U.K.'s footsteps and make finance literacy a mandatory part of the school curriculum?
--Written by Gabrielle Pickard Whitehead for MainStreet