For years, credit unions have urged members to regularly review their accounts in order to avoid overdrafts and quickly spot questionable transactions.
It appears the recession, coupled with the growing number of mobile devices linked to on-line banking, is prompting members to heed that message.
Marc DeCastro at IDC Financial said more people are using on-line banking more often. At the same time, traffic is up at call centers and branches.
DeCastro suggested increased call center volume may be related to the fact that more people are facing a financial squeeze. They find their situation embarrassing, so rather than repeatedly heading to a branch to find out if there's enough to cover their mortgage or car payment, they're using what they see as a more anonymous option that still gives them human interaction.
"We'll have to see if this is a one-time spike that will drift away. Instead of people doing two or three touches a week to their financial institution, they might be doing 20 touches a week using five or six channels," he said. "Here in the United States, mobile is very different than in Europe or Asia, where adoption rates are much higher. Credit unions are still a little gun-shy as to where they're going to make their investments."
"You would think the fact there is continuing high unemployment would impact people's ability to pay for mobile plans with unlimited data and so on. But we're finding out people are more likely to pay their mobile bills than their credit card bills and other bills."
If a credit union can truly migrate transactions away from the branch to the lower-cost delivery channels, that's obviously what the credit union wants to do. But DeCastro suggested what has actually happened is an increase in the number of interactions with members.
"Each institution needs to look at its own foot traffic," he said. "Just because you have alternative channels in place, that won't necessarily drive down the number of more expensive transactions. Branches are as important as ever, and that's not going to change anytime soon."
From the viewpoint of the credit union, he added, it isn't enough to simply say you're going to have the best branch network in your market area. A member's needs may vary, depending on whether the member is five minutes from a branch or 1,000 miles away on vacation. You've got to have a full range of contact options.
Overall, DeCastro believes people are becoming somewhat smarter about handling their money. He noted debit card use is outpacing credit cards, and when using a debit card people realize the balance is important. When you know the money in the checking account is limited, you want to make the right purchasing decisions.
At the same time, credit card companies are reevaluating their portfolios and trying to cut their risk. Financial institutions have been locking down home equity lines. People are trying to keep their financial affairs in order.
Will consumers continue their cautious habits as the economy improves?
"There do seem to be more people at the malls and at the restaurants," DeCastro answered. "People are short-sighted. As soon as things turn a little bit rosy, they'll be off to the races again."
"The difference now, I think, is how many people have been really hurt with the mortgage situation. Everyone has lost equity. People were using the equity in their homes as kind of an unlimited piggy bank. I think people will be more prudent. They're curtailing what they're spending-at least until they get more comfortable with their jobs and their futures."
Jim Carroll, a futurist, stresses a couple of trends. The number of on-line banking tools has expanded, and it's easier for credit unions to develop new applications than it was even a year ago. Financial institutions have realized they have the opportunity to develop such applications, and more have been released.
"I tell financial institutions I think it's quite likely that pretty soon our iPhones and BlackBerries will become credit cards,' Carroll said. "I won't have plastic cards in my wallet. I'll have a mobile device that will do the transaction for me. All the new mobile devices have GPS capabilities. I'll be able to find, based on where I am now, the nearest store that takes Visa or MasterCard."
At the same time, a new generation has grown up with mobile banking. Carroll cites what happened when his 15-year-old son broke his cell phone and had to live through a day without text messages.
"He didn't know what to do with himself," Carroll recalled. "As young people begin to establish financial relationships, the natural trend is they will be more on-line."
Carroll is among the observers who believe the shift to people checking their accounts more regularly is a habit that will stick. The sophistication of today's tools encourages that-it makes it easier.
"New competitors are emerging," he noted. "There's a South African bank that is entirely text message based. The folks at PayPal are talking about becoming one of the next credit card companies."
At the same time, Carroll is bullish about the future of credit unions. "Your time is now. You've got the technology and you have to understand it. Credit unions can tap into it. They've got to be as sophisticated as the competition," he declared.