When Tony Porter was a kid, his family lived paycheck to paycheck. His parents weren't big fans of banks; they weren't comfortable going into a bank to discuss their situation or ask questions about ways to improve it.
"Had options been available, maybe my family could have built wealth or at least stayed off government assistance," said Porter, who today leads 14 banking centers in Tulsa as a consumer banking area manager at Bank of Oklahoma. "It wasn't until I started working in banking that I felt respected when entering a bank—or at least that was my perception."
That perception is all too common for those considered "unbanked" or "underbanked." Nearly 5% of U.S. households—about 12 million adults—are considered unbanked, which means they don't have a checking or savings account. Another 11%—around 24 million adults—are considered underbanked, meaning they use some fringe financial services, according to research from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
"People fitting into these categories are too often spending thousands of dollars over the course of their lifetime to cash checks or access financial products outside of the traditional banking system," explained Krystal Reyes, chief resilience officer for the City of Tulsa.
In fact, research shows that unbanked or underbanked adults without a bank account could spend an average of $40,000 over the course of their lifetime paying for alternative financial services through systems like payday loans or pawn shops.
There are any number of reasons why people might fall into one of these categories, including fear, past experience, lack of awareness, inequitable access or even language barriers, Reyes said.
The City of Tulsa has embraced the notion of resilience through a variety of lenses, one of which is financial empowerment. "We want to build a culture where it's normal to talk about finances—helping people identify their dreams and goals or even struggles," Reyes said.
One way is through a Financial Empowerment Center initiative (FEC), which launched in 2021. The program offers free one-on-one financial counseling sessions to anyone, regardless of income.
Three FEC counselors meet with clients on a monthly basis inside Bank of Oklahoma locations.
"This community partnership has been a great resource to give our clients an additional option to help them reach their goals," Porter said. "Having the Financial Empowerment Center on-site helps our team connect underbanked individuals with the support they need to gain a foothold on things like establishing credit or reducing their debt. That may be key to them establishing a banking relationship in the future."
Porter pointed out that people without checking accounts can face many financial obstacles.
"Some folks just don't like going into banks," he said. "They don't consider a bank a resource to achieving their financial goals due to past negative experiences, being turned down for a loan or too many fees—it may feel like a bank is just part of the system that's holding them down.
"The more we can share this type of resource and educate our communities, the more we can help to change the mindset of entire communities."- Tony Porter, consumer banking area manager at Bank of Oklahoma
One step on that journey for Bank of Oklahoma (and BOK Financial®)* is its Opportunity Banking account, which has no overdraft fees, offers a low opening deposit minimum and requires only a small monthly fee.
The new account offering was recently awarded Bank On certification from the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund, which supports local coalition and financial institution efforts to connect consumers to safe, affordable bank accounts.
"We've elevated our Opportunity Banking offering for the better—to ensure we are setting our clients up for success," said Linda Cooper, director of consumer delivery at BOK Financial. "We're aiming to provide advice and guidance to help our clients create a foundation for a positive financial life."
Porter is proud of the company's alignment with the Bank On Coalition. "I believe it should be everyone's right to have the ability to access a bank. If we can offer something that doesn't allow fees to build up, it's important for these communities—it removes some of the obstacles for some folks that are already at a disadvantage."
Financial resiliency has been a key component of the City of Tulsa's COVID response and relief efforts, Reyes said.
"Communities that are underbanked are paying thousands of dollars to access their own money when those dollars could be going to long-term goals like buying a house or saving," she said. "In the big picture, financial empowerment is part of our efforts to build resilient families and a resilient community."
*Bank of Oklahoma and BOK Financial are part of BOKF, NA.