Kids & Money

Bank helps young people start off right

Rich Martinez clearly loves his kids — all 15,800 of them.

That’s the number of accounts — from diaper-clad toddlers to college students — at Young Americans Bank in Denver.

As chief executive of the nation’s only FDIC-insured bank for youths age 21 and under, Martinez oversees an institution that has built a reputation over the last 26 years for providing friendly banking services and a heavy dose of financial education.

Young Americans has been one of my favorites over the years to watch because of its dual mission. Young Americans always seems to be doing something new and special for its young clientele. And this year the bank has ambitious expansion plans.

Young Americans’ customers hail from 36 states and seven foreign countries and have more than $13.6 million deposited in savings accounts, checking accounts and certificates of deposit. Keeping with its kid-friendly focus, it takes just $5 to open an account — with an adult co-signing.

The bank also offers nearly all the basic banking services, including debit and credit cards and personal loans for college or buying a car. Internet banking is available, and Young Americans in June plans to roll out mobile banking services for its tech-savvy customers who don’t write many checks.

But one of its most important banking services is the way it tries to treat each customer, regardless of age or account size.

“It’s all about being respectful and talking to kids at their level,” said Martinez, who counts his 9-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter as customers. “The kids are our customers, not the parents, and we want to make them feel comfortable.”

Since Young Americans opened its doors in 1987, it has received inquiries from people interested in starting similar banks for young people in other parts of the country. But Martinez believes the main reason Young Americans remains unique is the vision of Bill Daniels. The Colorado philanthropist and cable television entrepreneur helped launch the bank and made an even bigger commitment to cover its operating losses in perpetuity. Daniels died in 2000.

What also makes the bank special is its educational component, which starts when each customer opens an account. For those who walk into the lobby, a bank staffer spends about 45 minutes explaining how to fill out a deposit and withdrawal slip, the importance of using a check or savings account register to monitor their funds and even what to say to the teller.

The commitment to teach youths the financial ABCs runs deep. Young Americans offers outreach programs in Denver area schools, placing employees in classrooms to teach schoolchildren of all ages about banking services and the broader issues of saving and spending money. There are also age-appropriate classes, such as Banking Bingo and Savings Smarts, and parents are invited to some of them.

“The basic premise of a bank is still paramount to what we do daily,” said Martinez, 43, who has been with Young Americans for 13 years. “Our mission has always been to provide basic financial services and to make sure kids are not left out of the banking system.”

Earlier this year, Young Americans opened its second location on a public school campus in Denver that serves more than 3,000 students in five schools. It was a big step, especially because about 70 percent of the students are Hispanic and come from families that are largely part of the unbanked population, meaning they did not have bank accounts.

The bank hired bilingual tellers and handed out $5 tokens to encourage students to open accounts. So far, 200 accounts have been opened at the branch, with the goal of hitting 1,000 this year.

Martinez is expanding the footprint of the bank in another way — by beefing up its existing entrepreneurship programs for high school students. The banker said he wants to create a “youth entrepreneur ecosystem” that would link teens with mentors in the business world and provide a steppingstone for developing their bright ideas and talents at colleges and universities.

“We want (the kids) to be in control of their own future,” Martinez said.

That seems like a fitting motto for Young Americans Bank.