How a Maine-based bank grew $4.7 million in deposits through a checking account for differently abled people

  • We often talk about how UX makes a huge difference in how differently abled people interact with banking and financial products. But there is also the question of how the base financial product caters to differently abled people.
  • Dive into why the Maine-based Bangor Savings Bank built a transactional checking account and how it grew its deposits to $4.7 million.

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How a Maine-based bank grew $4.7 million in deposits through a checking account for differently abled people

At Tearsheet we often talk about how UX makes a huge difference in how differently abled people interact with banking and financial products. But there is another layer to this, beyond how digital interfaces or physical touchpoints like branches are structured – there is also the question of how the base financial product caters to differently abled people.

The question of tailoring products to the needs of particular communities is something banking and financial services is starting to find good answers to. We need only look at credit building products for Gen Z, spend management products for SMBs, or neobanks with niche focuses, to know that the financial services industry is acutely aware of the importance of such solutions. 

And tailoring banking products to fit the needs of the differently abled is no different. 14.8% of working-age households with differently-abled individuals were unbanked according to a survey done by the FDIC in 2021. This is more than three times higher than the percentage of unbanked working-age households without differently abled people. 

This is not to say that there are no banking products that cater to this community. Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) accounts are tax-advantaged savings accounts for individuals with disabilities and their families, and so far 137,000 accounts have been opened. 

In the absence of ABLE accounts, differently abled people had to choose between saving or remaining eligible for their benefits, the State Treasurer’s report on this matter states: “Eligibility for these public benefits (SSI, SNAP, Medicaid) require meeting a means or resource test that limits eligibility to individuals to report more than $2,000 in cash savings, retirement funds and other items of significant value. To remain eligible for these public benefits, an individual must remain poor.”

But the ABLE account changed that. Through this, differently abled people could save and remain eligible to receive benefits. The accounts also come with the ability to invest, with each individual needing to provide an estimation of their future expenditure to gauge their tolerance for risk. 

While the ABLE account removes the binary between saving and benefits, it’s only part of the solution. There is still an opportunity for banks to compete on core banking products and offer something that doesn’t require an individual to jump from being underbanked to making investments. 

“When I look at ABLE programs, nationally, the vast majority of them lead with investment based accounts. So you open this account and you’re choosing your investment elections, some do offer a checking option now, but if I think about the leap from being completely unbanked or even underbanked – using some financial technology providers or non traditional banking services, to then go and be making investment elections. That’s a pretty big stretch for someone,” said Mikayla Smith, VP, Lead Product Manager at Main-based, Bangor Savings Bank.

To fill in this gap, Maine-based Bangor Savings Bank introduced ABLE Benefit Checking account. The offering was introduced after analyzing the findings from the State Treasurer’s research that was done in collaboration with national organizations such as the National Disability Institute and the Social Security Administration. 

The research revealed that most differently abled people living in Maine specifically wanted a transactional checking account. “I think of it as an invitation to bank like the rest of America banks. We said, how can we take a checking account and make it fit into the APR regulation. So a backwards approach where instead of looking at the regulations and building the product that they prescribed. It was, Mainers want a checking account, how can we convert this checking account into something that meets all the requirements of a qualified ABLE program?” she said. 

But building this kind of a program takes time. The State Treasurer’s report came out in 2017 and the bank’s ABLE Benefit Checking went live in 2021. “While we were building, the IRS guidance still wasn’t finalized. We were building based on what the interim rules were and what we expected, the final regulations to end up being -that was a bit of a challenge. And then, we are a bank with core banking systems, not operating systems that support investment products and some of the reporting requirements, like the operational structure of the accounts, fit best in those investment type software programs. So, we did have to do quite a bit of creative, back office work to be able to send our monthly Social Security uploads, do tax filing at the end of the year, and then some customer focused changes,” Smith said.

Once a problem has been identified, a product created, then comes the part where the firm has to make sure the right consumers find the product, as well as understand it. For this, the bank has “ABLE ambassadors” that are responsible for leading training, staff, and client support. 

“If we have a constituent or a customer who is in the southern Maine market, and they have a question or really need some one-on-one support, we can connect that person with the ABLE ambassador in their region. Ambassadors who are subject matter experts on the topic can also go out and just share the word about this great programme,” she added. 

The bank now has over a thousand ABLE Benefit Checking accounts and it has crossed $5.4 million in deposits. Smith adds that the adoption has been steady but the bank is keeping its  ear to the ground to ensure it receives feedback from its customers. 

The availability of core banking products that are tailored to this consumer segment is as important as the accessibility of its customer touchpoints. Bangor Savings Bank has seen something similar: their current offering originally only had the option for branch-based account opening. But soon after their launch they learned that consumers wanted to be able to open this type of an account online, because some consumers had mobility challenges or other anxieties about being able to visit the branch. The bank launched digital account opening in November 2023, and since then, 12% of the total accounts opened have come through the digital channel. 

The preliminary results from the survey that the bank has been running to receive feedback from its ABLE account openers shows that most customers are very or extremely satisfied with the account, with one customer stating “BSB makes it work. Banks don’t typically make things work these days.” 

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