‘Spent: Looking for Change’ Documentary Details How the Bank System Has Failed Americans

Spent: Looking For ChangeYouTube/The Young Turks

Spent: Looking for Change wants to have an uncomfortable conversation. The new documentary from director Derek Doneen and producer Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman) shines a light on the “Underbanked”, the 70 million Americans across the country who are not being served by traditional banking institutions, and must turn to check cashing services or pay day loans. Unfortunately, these services often have dire financial consequences. At a press conference for the film, Doneen, Tyler Perry (who narrates Spent), New School Professor Lisa Servon, and Dan Schulman of American Express discussed the challenges facing the “underbanked,” the possible solutions to a financial system in grievous disrepair, and how education might the first step in the right direction.  

Proper financial management is a skill so few of us have. Many of the issues depicted in the film stem from a lack of knowledge of the financial system.

Tyler Perry: “I think [financial hardships affect] the children of parents who are experiencing this, if they understood how the system works, and how when you’re outside of it it can be very difficult. Because no one taught me credit or check cashing or pay day loans, it was just the norm in the neighborhood. This is what you do. Growing up with us, you didn’t go to the bank, you went to the check cash. You went to the corner, you cash your check with Mr. Johnson down there, he took his money, he gave you yours. So [we need] to have an education to let people know that there is a cost, a very high cost, outside of the system.”

Unfortunately, with the stigmas instituted by our capitalistic society, this ignorance often leads to shame.

Lisa Servon: “There’s a lot of shame around money. I talked a little with Alex, Melissa, and Debbie [the subjects of the documentary] before the show. We’re kind of made, societally, to feel like it’s our fault if we don’t have six months of savings, if we can’t make ends meet, if we somehow can’t pay the bills. So I think there’s a lot of inhibition about getting out there and saying that this is a real problem.”

More Americans are being affected by the bank system than we realize.

Dan Schulman: “Forty-five percent of Americans who earn between $50,000 and $150,000 spend all or more of their monthly income every single month. So, there’s a huge opportunity here to redefine the system.”

Lisa Servon: “I have actually started not liking the term ‘unbanked’ or ‘underbanked’ so much, because I think if you are part of the 99 percent, which I am, we’re all underbanked. The fact is, I can absorb a $35 overdraft fee, and people who are living right on the edge can’t. So this is why, I think, Alex and Melissa stopped using the bank. you saw those overdraft fees mounting up. It cost them more to use the bank than to use a check casher. So people are kind of saying, ‘I can’t afford to go over.’ At least when I go to the check casher, I get my check, I cash it, I look at what my bills are. I figure out who’s least likely to cut me off, so I’ll pay half of my Con Edison bill and three quarters of my phone bill and hopefully it will work out, but I’m not going to overdraft because this is all the money that I have.”

Reform in the bank system might be closer than we realize, and one of the first steps is education.

Lisa Servon: “I think we may be at a moment of creative destruction with respect to financial services and that we are on the brink of seeing some really innovative solutions. There’s a tendency for us to just throw up our hands about banks and say, frankly, it’s just not in their business model to serve people they don’t make money on. And yet there is a history of policy and legislation, and one of the things that we can ask legislators who are sending out press releases to do is to hold banks’ feet to the fire.”

“We all live in New York City. We’ve all seen the A, B, and C in restaurant windows – I think we should do that for banks and check cashers and credit unions. I don’t know if Chase or Citi Bank is better for me, but I want to know if they’re going to cost me more. Are they aligning with my values? If we could create a scorecard that would allow that to happen, I think banks would be a little more responsive.”

Dan Schulman: “One of the things that we’re doing, if you go to Spentmovie.com, is that we’re going to a town in Mississippi called Clarksdale. It’s down on its luck. Fifty percent of the population is underserved. What we’re doing is working with two non-profits. We’re putting in free Wi-Fi into the whole town, and we’re going into the high schools to educate high school students in the economics classes about financial wellness and health. Then, what we’re hoping to have [is] an outside third party monitor, because it really makes a difference, all of this education and technology and people caring about this… I think it is a combination of having technology but also having the understanding of what it means to be financially well.”

Spent: Looking For Change is available to stream on Spentmovie.com.