Wal-Mart ( WMT) jumped into the consumer banking wars with a plan to open 1,000 Wal-Mart MoneyCenters in stores nationwide by the end of 2008.

The idea is to give Wal-Mart customers access to low-cost money services, including check cashing, money orders, bill payment and money transfers.

A key feature of Wal-Mart's push to reach the so-called unbanked -- typically poorer consumers who don't have traditional bank accounts -- is the launch of a national campaign to promote the Wal-Mart MoneyCard. The reloadable prepaid Visa card is being issued through GE's ( GE) Money Bank.

Wal-Mart previously applied for a noncommercial bank charter and was turned down -- some say under pressure from traditional banks. These new centers and the MoneyCard do not require a banking charter, since they use a partnership arrangement with GE Money Bank and the GreenDot network, a Los Angeles-based financial services company.

The MoneyCard, which is branded with the Visa logo, can be loaded in Wal-Mart stores by depositing cash, or by depositing a paycheck or government check. It can also be reloaded at any GreenDot network location. The card can be used as a traditional debit card, to pay for gas at the pump or to pay bills online, or to receive cash without paying a fee at the checkout counter. The cost is a one-time $8.95, but there will be no additional fees, such as overdraft fees, since the credit line is the amount of the customer's deposit. There is no credit check required to get the card.

Jane Thompson, president of Wal-Mart Financial Services, says the new Wal-Mart MoneyCenters and Money Card will capitalize on the trust that both the Wal-Mart and Visa brands have created in consumers' minds. Thompson says the new services will save the average family about $450 a year in fees that otherwise would be paid to check cashing services and higher-cost financial institutions.

To watch Rob Lenihan's video take of this column, click here .

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