Avoid fees with a new idea in banking

Are you fed up with your bank? A new banking experience comes from an unlikely retailer that is just about everywhere.

Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, is now in an alliance with American Express for a partnership called Bluebird. After first launching in fall 2012, this service has been named the best banking alternative by Consumer Reports. 

With Bluebird, you get an essentially fee-free alternative to debit and checking accounts that all starts with a stored value card that’s branded with the AMEX logo.

It’s easy to use. You simply deposit money online, via a smartphone app, or at any Walmart cash register in the United States. You also can write checks like you would from any regular account. About the only thing you don’t get is limited banking hours; Walmart retail locations will become 24-hour banks almost all over the country.

Another nice benefit of the Bluebird card is that it comes with no foreign currency transaction fee, so that makes it an ideal card for travelers to use overseas. 

But note, your Bluebird account is not FDIC insured. Your money instead is under the protection of American Express. AMEX would essentially have to go bust for you to lose your money. An unlikely scenario, but one I do need to point out.

We’re in an era where megabanks are trying to fee customers to death. A recent report from BankRate.com found the minimum balance required to avoid fees on a checking account is up 365 percent in five years.

You won’t encounter that with Bluebird. Meanwhile, what Walmart and American Express are doing is similar to what PayPal is doing with Discover — all of them are non-bank entities looking to reinvent banking.

Consumer expert Clark Howard’s column appears here each Thursday in conjunction with Deal Spotter, a weekly print section in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Find more answers to your consumer questions at Clark's website.

-- Clark Howard -- Save More, Spend Less, Avoid Rip-offs -- for the Atlanta Bargain Hunter blog

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