Once known for a wide array of fees, the market for prepaid cards is changing as more companies dive in and the playing field evolves. On Wednesday, a day ahead of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau hearing on new rules for the industry, Consumer Reports issued a ranking of 23 prepaid cards.
"Competition has helped bring down fees, and many prepaid cards offer an attractive option for managing your money," said Christina Tetreault, a Consumers Union attorney. "But some cards come with costly fees that aren't always disclosed clearly, and prepaid cards still lack the same legal protections consumers get with debit cards."
For some, reloadable cards have become an alternative to using traditional banks. Others see it as a way to budget their spending. After all, you can only spend what you put on the cards.
Celebrity-branded cards, such as the Suze Orman card, took a big hit in the past year after they were taken to task over onerous fees. The Orman card was discontinued. Some cards still charge monthly fees up to $9.95 a month and fees for opening an account and even for just about every use from contacting customer service to withdrawing cash to making a purchase.
Consumer Reports considered the cost of use, convenience, level of protection (such as government insurance) and transparency of fees. The magazine ranked the cards in two categories: Those used as a substitute for banking and those used as a supplemental card.
Best Prepaid Cards for Supplemental Use
Bluebird card from American Express (AXP) and Walmart (WMT): The magazine liked that its fees are easy to understand, and there is no monthly fee.
H&R Block (HRB) Emerald Prepaid MasterCard (MA): This has no monthly fees or purchase fees.
Chase (JPM) Liquid Visa (V): With free ATM access and clear fee disclosures, this card ranks third.
Worst Prepaid Cards for Supplemental Use
American Express for Target (TGT): Unlike the other cards, this card does not have FDIC insurance, according to Consumer Reports.
NetSpend Prepaid Visa Fee Advantage Plan, NetSpend Prepaid Visa Pay-as-You-Go Plan, and AccountNow Gold Visa Prepaid Card: All have high monthly fees, making them particularly inefficient for those who use the cards for budgeting. The Pay-as-You-Go Plan charges $1 or $2 per purchase, according to the magazine.
Best Substitutes for Banking Accounts
Bluebird card from American Express and Walmart: There's no monthly fee, and no fees for other basic services, like calling customer service. In addition, there's a bill-paying feature.
Chase Liquid Visa: There's no bill pay feature, but the magazine rates it highly due to many other features that resemble bank accounts.
The American Express Serve and Prepaid Visa RushCard Rush Unlimited Plan were ranked just behind the top two as being good values with a range of features.
Worst Substitutes for Banking Accounts
NetSpend Fee Advantage Plan, NetSpend Pay-As-you-Go Plan and the AccountNow Gold Visa Prepaid Card: With no in-network ATM access, users are being set up to get slammed on fees when they try to get cash.
American Express for Target: The card's lack of FDIC insurance troubles the magazine.
7 Costly Myths About Banking, Credit Cards Debunked
Consumer Reports Ranks the Best and Worst Prepaid Cards
Yes they can.
The CARD Act did get rid of the most outrageous abuse: they can no longer increase the interest rate on existing balances unless you go 60 days past due.
However, you need to remember that:
Most credit card interest rates are variable and are linked to the prime rate. Your high rate will only go higher when interest rates increase.
Based upon risk, your credit card company can still increase your interest rate on all future purchases. Your existing balances are protected, but future purchases would be at the higher rate. And determining risk is not limited to your behavior on your existing card. If you miss a payment with another lender, that could lead to an increase on all of your credit cards.
After 12 months, they can increase your rate for almost any reason. But the increased rate only applies to future purchases, and they need to give you 45 days notice.
Credit cards are incredibly expensive ways to borrow money. If you use a card, your goal should be to pay off the balance in full every month. Then, the interest rate doesn't matter.
Bottom line: If you do have debt, you should never be paying the purchase APR. Look for a balance transfer, or get a personal loan to cut your interest rate. And take a long hard look at your spending to put more money towards paying off that debt.
No, they are not.
There is a big difference between a 0% balance transfer (where the interest is waived during the promotional period, discussed above) and 0% purchase financing offered at many stores (where the interest is only deferred).
I regularly encourage people to use balance transfers to help them pay off their debt faster. With a balance transfer, interest is switched off or reduced during the promotional period. Once the promotional period is over, interest starts to accrue on a go-forward basis. This can take years off your debt repayment.
But stores offer 0 percent financing at the checkout. With a lot of these programs, interest is charged from the purchase date if you do not pay off the balance in full during the promotional period. So, if you have a 12-month 0 percent offer -– and do not pay off the balance in 12 months -– then in month 13 you will be charged a full 13 months of interest. They retroactively charge interest, and it will be like you never had a 0 percent offer at all.
This is a common practice. Online, Apple (AAPL) does this, via their partnership with Barclaycard (BCS).
Bottom line: I don't like deferred interest deals. Most people do not understand the difference between waived and deferred interest, and this practice feels deceptive. If you take one of these offers, make sure you pay off the balance in full before the promotion expires.
Credit card companies have different rates for different types of transactions. The interest rate charged on a purchase (high) is different from a balance transfer APR (low).
Before the CARD Act, banks would apply your payment to the lowest APR balance first. Imagine you have a $1,000 balance. $500 is at 0 percent (balance transfer), and the other $500 is at 18 percent (purchase). If you make a $100 payment, banks would apply that to the balance transfer. That way, they reduce the balance transfer (at 0 percent) to $400, while protecting the $500 purchase balance (at 18 percent).
The CARD Act changed that. Banks now need to apply payments to the highest interest rate first. But this only applies to payments higher than the minimum due.
If you only pay the minimum due every month, your payment will still likely be applied to the lowest interest rate balance first.
Bottom line: You should never spend and have a balance transfer on the same credit card. Banks can only "trap" balances when you have multiple balance types on one card.
Not exactly true.
The CARD Act has stopped the handout of T-shirts on the steps of the school libraries, but they can still give sign-on bonuses. And they advertise on campus. For example, Citibank (C) has a "Thank You Preferred" card for college students. If you spend $500 in the first three months, you get 2,500 thank you points as a bonus. That is $25 of value.
Bottom line: I actually find this worse. Before, you got a free T-shirt just for signing up. Now, the credit card companies encourage spend on the card for the "free gift."
In the past, banks would charge you a fee if you went over your credit limit. Today, the CARD Act requires banks to receive your consent to charge an over-limit fee. So, in most cases, banks just eliminated those fees -- which is good news (kind of).
You can still go over your credit limit, if the bank approves your transaction. But the full amount by which you've exceeded your limit will be part of your minimum payment come the next bill, which could cause a payment shock.
More importantly, utilization (the percentage of your available credit that you use) is a big factor in your credit score. Your credit score determines the price you pay for credit. So, if you're over-limit on an account, you are considered riskier. That can result in the credit card company increasing your interest rate. And it could also result in other lenders increasing your rates with them. So you do pay, but it's an indirect cost.
Bottom line: We're glad the fee is gone, but you still need to be diligent and try to avoid going over your limit. If you pay your balance in full every month but are frequently bumping up against your credit limit, ask for a credit line increase.
I have heard from so many people that the way to eliminate overdraft fees is to opt out of overdraft protection. But it is impossible to completely opt out of overdraft.
Federal regulation requires consumers to opt into overdraft protection only for debit and ATM transactions.
But, the regulation does not cover checks and electronic transactions (including bill-pay and monthly direct debits, like gym memberships). The banks have all the power. If they approve the transaction, you would be charged an overdraft fee (typically $35 per transaction at banks and $25 at credit unions). If they decline the transaction, then you would be charged an NSF fee (non-sufficient funds), which is usually just as expensive as the overdraft fee.
Bottom line: You can't opt out of all overdraft fees. To avoid them, keep a buffer or find an account, like Ally, that doesn't charge those junk fees.
Not always true.
To be protected, you need to report the fraudulent transaction within 60 days. Otherwise, you give up a lot of your rights.
On ATM/debit cards, the bank can make you responsible for up to $500 of fraud if you report more than two days (but less than 60 days) after the transaction. On a credit card, you would never be liable for more than $50 (and most banks won't even hold you accountable for $50.)
One area where you will almost always lose is when your Personal Identification Number is used. If someone manages to get your PIN and takes money out of your account, then the bank will almost always assume that you authorized the transaction. Make sure you change your PIN often and never write it down.
Bottom line: Avoiding liability it your responsibility. Track your transactions regularly and call as soon as you detect any suspicious activity. And make sure you never share your PIN with anyone, or make it obvious.