A customer outside the California Check Cashing Store on Mission Street

More than half of recent immigrants surveyed in the Mission District keep their money under the mattress, a new study has found.

In the month before being questioned this year, 25 percent of those interviewed had also cashed checks at pay centers, according to findings presented Friday by the Mission Asset Fund.

Though check-cashing stores can charge fees up to 13 percent, some recent immigrants see it as their best option. Hidden and excessive banking fees left many without much trust for banks, according to preliminary findings.

“Bank accounts are trial and error,” said Rhea Serna, community investment program coordinator at Mission Asset Fund. “Lots of people say ‘forget it’ and go back to putting their cash under their mattress.”

The Immigrant Financial Integration Initiative survey studied the financial behavior and attitudes of 250 Latino immigrants in the Mission District in May and June of this year. Based on these findings, the survey’s authors say banks should offer accounts that address the struggles faced by low-income immigrants.

The survey found that just under half of recent immigrants have a checking account, but that number tends to rise the longer people remain in the country. Some 70 percent of those surveyed who had been in the U.S. for 20 years or more have a bank account, compared to 76 percent of the general U.S. population.

Immigrants in the Mission District tend to use banks at higher rates than Latino immigrants in the rest of the country, the survey found. Serna attributed this to the number of financial institutions in the neighborhood.

Moreover, the city’s Bank on San Francisco initiative, a partnership between the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank and several other banks, helps connect “unbanked” people with low-cost accounts and financial education.

Under the program, banks charge fewer fees, forgive overdraft charges and bounced checks, and waive minimum balance requirements.

Despite these steps, Latino immigrants, particularly the undocumented, still face challenges.

Opening a bank account requires proof of identification, which for undocumented immigrants can mean a trip to the local consulate and a lot of paperwork. The city offers a municipal identification card to San Francisco residents regardless of immigration status, but Serna said some bank managers have yet to recognize it.

What’s more, though many banks in the neighborhood have bilingual tellers, Serna said not all bank literature is available in Spanish.

Banks need to tailor their products to the needs of the community, the Mission Asset Fund argued. The group recommends that banks offer low-cost starter checking accounts with no penalty for dipping below a minimum balance. In addition, banks should explain overdraft-protection fees — Serna said many surveyed unwittingly racked up fees without realizing they had signed up for overdraft protection.

The group also urges banks to promote services such as joint checking accounts for family members who often pool their money to meet expenses or support other relatives.

And immigrants who are unfamiliar with the U.S. banking and credit system need more culturally sensitive financial education, said the group. For example, some immigrants said the idea of carrying debt in order to build good credit doesn’t make sense.

“They don’t understand why they don’t have a good credit score,” said Serna, adding that many immigrants only use credit for concrete investments or emergencies.

The group also hopes banks will replicate culturally relevant programs such as tandas — group-lending circles — which are common among nonprofessionals in Latin America. In Mexico, 36 percent of people participate in tandas, while only 25 percent have bank accounts, according to Jose Quinonez, executive director of Mission Asset Fund, which has worked with One California Bank to formalize these lending circles.

Daniela Salas, assets and savings program director, said the program helps participants build credit because the bank recognizes peer lending as a loan.

The Mission Asset Fund will meet next month with Supervisor David Campos. The supervisor made a brief appearance at the meeting but had to leave to attend the funeral of one of the victims of the recent shootings at 24th and Potrero streets. Next year the organization will publish a complete report on its findings.

Follow Us

Bridget writes about community groups, non-profits and collectives for Mission Loc@l.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Please keep your comments short and civil. Do not leave multiple comments under multiple names on one article. We will zap comments that fail to adhere to these short and very easy-to-follow rules.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Wow, sounds like an amazing opportunity for a smart, culturally sensitive investor. It’s not hard to beat Western Union’s 13% fee, I bet. And what the hell is going on with 2 Western Unions on the same block on 24th street?