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Getty Images

5 Modern Banking Services You Might Take for Granted

Getty Images
Getty Images

Although banks aren't the most beloved institutions out there, there's a ton of useful stuff we can do with a modern bank. Many people around the world are "unbanked," meaning they don't have a bank account—and that means they miss out on all sorts of conveniences that we, the banked, often take for granted.

In South Asia, 78 percent of working adults are unbanked; in sub-Saharan Africa the number is 88 percent. Here in the United States, an estimated 1 in 12 households is unbanked. Here's a look at what the unbanked are missing out on.

1. Direct Deposit

Image courtesy of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Many working adults never actually see a "paycheck" per se; instead, the funds are automatically deposited in their bank accounts on payday. Direct deposit is used both for paychecks and for government assistance programs, so money goes directly into the account, bypassing the physical check stage.

Direct deposit has two obvious benefits: because it's automatic, you don't have to "do" anything to get the money, and there is no physical paycheck to lose on the way to the bank. There are other benefits, though—if you don't have a bank, you likely take your paycheck to a check-cashing service, which can take a cut ranging from 2.5% to 10% of your income. Also, once you have a wad of cash in your pocket, that cash is vulnerable to theft.

In Afghanistan, where 95% of the population is unbanked (!), employers are experimenting with mobile payments to deliver paychecks, as a way to introduce the benefits of banking to working adults. A pilot program in Kabul is delivering mobile payments to 500 teachers, which saves them the hassle of standing in line at a bank—and gives them a mobile bank account as part of the deal. (This is one of our 6 Ways Cell Phones Are Changing the World.)

In addition to direct deposit, mobile deposit services are becoming popular. With a mobile phone and an app from the bank, you can deposit checks from anywhere, saving you the hassle and risk of bringing checks to the bank, mailing them, or feeding them into an ATM.

2. Access to ATMs

Image courtesy of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

ATMs are a tremendous privilege, but they're so commonplace now that it's easy to overlook their value. ATMs allow the user to access cash at (or near) the point of purchase, rather than carrying cash on you at all times. If you keep your money in the relative safety of a bank (rather than under your mattress), withdrawing a few bucks to buy dinner is a convenient way to access your money when and where you want it. This reduces the danger of theft.

ATMs also increasingly provide banking services like deposits and money transfers in addition to simple cash withdrawal. When an Automated Teller Machine can do the majority of what a human teller at a bank could do—and that ATM is available at the convenience store near where you live or work—that's a huge convenience. Simply cutting out trips to the bank saves time and money.

3. Access to Credit Cards

While credit cards can be problematic, if used properly they're an extremely useful tool—and potentially a way to bridge the gap between one paycheck and the next. If you don't have access to a credit card but need immediate access to cash, the main alternative in the U.S. is a payday loan. These loans often carry absurdly high fees. The New York Department of Financial Services explains, "The annual percentage rates on payday loans are extremely high, typically around 400% or higher." While credit card interest is often painfully high, it's not "typically 400%."

Credit cards also have the benefit of fraud protection mandated by federal law, at least in the United States. Generally, you're liable for a maximum of $50 if your credit card is used for fraud. (Debit cards differ; CNN reported, "if a fraudster uses your debit card, you could be liable for $500 or more, depending on how quickly you report it.")

4. Online Bill Payment

Image courtesy of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In the absence of online bill-payment services, paying bills means one of two things: mailing a check, or physically going to an office and handing over money. It's hard for most of us to remember what a hassle this is, but it's easy to calculate how much money you save simply not using stamps to mail checks to various places. (Stamps now cost $0.49 in the US. Multiply that by the various bills you have, and that—plus your time to write checks—is what you're saving by using an online service. My online bill payment service reports that I paid nine bills online last month. That's $4.41 in postage saved, not to mention my time writing out checks and licking envelopes.) Of course, if you don't have a bank, you don't have checks—and money orders cost more than $1, not including postage.

The unbanked don't have the luxury of online bill payments, though some progress is being made with mobile banking and mobile payments. Impatient Optimists wrote, “Paying bills by mobile phone can be up to 40 percent cheaper than a bank visit, says Michael Wakileh, CEO of software company ProgressSoft, which specializes in digital payment systems.”

5. Deposit (and Other) Insurance

In the U.S., the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insures each depositor for $250,000 per insured bank. In simple terms, this means that if your bank goes under, and you've got less than $250,000 in there, you'll get your money back. This stands in stark contrast to the old "money in the mattress" model, where your capital is always at risk.

In addition to deposit insurance, many banks and credit unions also offer access to other forms of personal insurance. My credit union offers free life insurance (admittedly not much free life insurance, but it exists) as a perk of membership.

YouTube / thelostdisney
5 Fun Facts About Health, Toilets, Muppets, and Presidents
YouTube / thelostdisney
YouTube / thelostdisney

We've been running a series about global health since August 2013. Here are five of the most interesting facts we've uncovered since then.

1. There is a "World Toilet Organization" Run By "Mr. Toilet"

Jack Sim goes by "Mr. Toilet." He left the business world to found the WTO—no, not that one, the World Toilet Organization—in 2001. Starting that year, Mr. Toilet declared November 19 "World Toilet Day," and since then has been on a mission to bring sanitation to people in developing countries.

I urge you to drop what you're doing and watch this short video about Mr. Toilet. Yes, he says "shit" a lot. And it's awesome.

In addition to founding the World Toilet Organization and establishing World Toilet Day, Mr. Toilet is working to convince the world to abandon flush toilets, because they waste water. Sim reminds us that flush toilets waste up to 22 liters of water every day. Something to think about next time you debate whether to "let it mellow."

Learn more in 5 Reasons World Toilet Day is Awesome.

2. The Seven Dwarfs Helped Fight Malaria

Disney made an animated film in 1943 called The Winged Scourge featuring the Seven Dwarfs. It was the first in a series of animated propaganda shorts dealing with public health issues, and the only to feature established Disney characters. I'll summarize this ten-minute video for you: mosquitoes transmit malaria, malaria is bad, so let's kill mosquitoes. With help from dwarves. (Snow White doesn't make an appearance.)

Note that around 0:45 in the video, we see that malaria is still established in the United States in the world map. Malaria wasn't eliminated in the U.S. until 1951.

Read more in 8 Surprising Facts About Malaria.

3. George Washington Had Tremendous Health Problems

"Life of George Washington—The Christian Death" by Junius Brutus Stearns, courtesy of the Library of Congress

George Washington is likely the founding father to have suffered from the widest variety of awful diseases, so let's review some of the worst things that happened to him. As a young man, Washington traveled to Barbados with his brother Lawrence in 1751, in an attempt to cure Lawrence of his TB with fresh air. The attempted cure failed, and George became infected with TB in the process. He also managed to pick up smallpox while in Barbados.

George Washington returned from Barbados only to come down with pleurisy, while his brother Lawrence died from TB. George also contracted malaria (see above), and later suffered from dysentery. He died at age 67 while being treated for a throat infection. The treatment involved bleeding him (32 ounces of blood removed—probably what actually killed him), making him gargle vinegar, inducing vomiting, and nearly suffocating him with a molasses/butter/vinegar potion.

Washington's struggle with disease was so epic that PBS produced an entire article describing and discussing his medical problems and how they might have been solved today. (They noted that he also suffered from diphtheria, quinsy, a carbuncle, pneumonia, and epiglottitis. Ouch. Oh yeah, and he lost his teeth to infection and decay, leaving him with just one remaining tooth upon inauguration as president. He lost that one too.)

Check our the history of presidential pain in 6 Awful Illnesses Suffered By US Presidents.

4. Cookie Monster Promotes Handwashing and Healthy Eating

In April 2013, Cookie Monster emphasized the importance of handwashing as part of an effort to promote sanitation work around the world. (2.5 billion people don't have access to toilets!) He granted an interview on the subject, conducted by the Impatient Optimists blog. Here's a snippet:

Impatient Optimists: We know you’re a cookie enthusiast. Can you tell us your cookie eating ritual?

Cookie Monster: Me cookie eating reputation precedes me. Of course me have ritual! First me wash hands. This part very important because it help keep me healthy. Me not sure exactly how long me wash, but me sing the ABCs slowly and when me get to Z, it time to rinse and then look out, om nom nom nom nom. Me also like to share me cookies with Elmo and Big Bird. Little known secret, a birdseed cookie is delicious.

Cookie Monster also famously sang in 2005 that "A Cookie is a Sometimes Food" in an effort to combat obesity. (In the song, various fruits are declared "anytime foods.") In this video, he struggles with the choice between fresh fruit and a delicious cookie:

Cookie Monster also tackled food issues with a 90s-style rap about healthy eating, complete with gold chains. "Nutrition, it really hip!" Me love it.

Read more in 13 Sesame Street Muppets That Make a Difference.

5. One Man Created Eight of the Most Common Vaccines

Image courtesy of Images from the History of Medicine

Although most people have never heard of him, Maurice Hilleman developed dozens of vaccines, including eight vaccines that you may have received. Hilleman developed vaccines for chickenpox, Haemophilus influenzae bacteria, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, measles, meningitis, mumps, and pneumonia (among many others). His vaccines saved millions of lives, and I've received a bunch of them myself! His obituary read, in part (emphasis added):

"Hilleman is one of the true giants of science, medicine and public health in the 20th century," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

"One can say without hyperbole that Maurice has changed the world," he added.

... "If I had to name a person who has done more for the benefit of human health, with less recognition than anyone else, it would be Maurice Hilleman," Gallo said six years ago. "Maurice should be recognized as the most successful vaccinologist in history."

His obituary is well worth a read, including colorful lines like: "'Montana blood runs very thick,' [Hilleman] said later, 'and chicken blood runs even thicker with me.'" (He grew up on a farm and worked with chickens quite a bit in developing vaccines.) His story is also told in the book Vaccinated: One Man's Quest to Defeat the World's Deadliest Diseases.

Read more in 5 Things You Might Not Know About Vaccines.

YouTube / ONE
How Missed Calls Amplify Farmers' Voices
YouTube / ONE
YouTube / ONE

This week, Farm Radio International (FRI) announced the results of an innovative poll covering thousands of farmers. The biggest surprise was the way farmers voted: by calling a phone number and hanging up.

The survey was conducted in Tanzania, where smallholder farms (small family farms) make up around 75% of all farm production. FRI, an international radio service that partners with local stations, wanted to poll those farmers in order to help make their voices heard by the Tanzanian government. But how do you reach thousands of tiny farms spanning a whole country? In the case of Tanzania, the answer was radio talk shows and basic cell phones.

Photo courtesy of ONE / Do Agric

The Power of Radio Talk Shows and Cell Phones

Across Tanzania, there are radio stations broadcasting talk shows aimed at farmers. Those programs are already popular for the people the survey aimed to reach, so FRI partnered with five radio stations in different regions across the country. The local presenters added discussion segments to their programs dealing with the poll issues.

Radio broadcasters concluded the poll segments by asking yes/no questions, then giving out phone numbers that voters could dial into. But people generally don't want to waste their cell phone minutes on a poll, so a clever solution came into play: just call the number, then hang up. The missed call is logged, and that log constitutes a vote. This system is called "Beep to Vote," and it's free for voters because the missed call doesn't incur charges for using cell phone minutes. For yes/no questions, there was one phone number for "yes" and another for "no." A total of 8,891 smallholder farmers participated.

In addition to the "Beep to Vote" yes/no questions, the poll included a multiple-choice question that most voters responded to using SMS. Voters texted a single character ("1" for the first option, "2" for the second, and so on) to a specified phone number, and those results were tallied by computer. In addition to the SMS voting method, farmers could opt to make a voice call to an automated system, listen to the five options, and press a number to indicate their choice. 4,372 people responded to the multiple-choice question. The system was also able to send SMS reminders to voters in case they voted for one of the poll questions, but not the others.

The data was crunched in realtime using a system made by Telerivet, so poll workers could watch as votes came in. The system also checked incoming phone numbers so each phone (which roughly equates to each voter, or household) could only vote once per question.

Photo courtesy of ONE / Do Agric

Why This Matters

From a technological perspective, this poll is a brilliant example of choosing the right technology for the job. If a similar poll were conducted targeting middle-schoolers in the United States, it's likely that technologies like YouTube videos and click-to-vote within the video would be used. But for these Tanzanian farmers, the prevalent technologies are radio and cell phones. By putting them together, in a near zero-cost way, FRI was able to collect data that could influence government policies, which in turn could change livesusing just cellphones and radio.

This poll was part of a campaign called Do Agric, focused on encouraging African leaders to invest more in agriculture, in order to improve farming (and in turn, daily life) in Africa. Here's a video about the program:

When the results were announced earlier this week, Tanzania's President Kikwete said, "Action on agriculture has to be today, not tomorrow!" The voices of 8,891 farmers reached the president's ears.

For more on the survey, check out FRI's page on methodology and results.


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