Prepaid debit cards are in the ascendancy in this seemingly perpetual economic downturn, as people look to reduce the costs of their day-to-day money management.

Unlike regular debit cards, which draw cash from a checking account, prepaid cards are directly loaded with cash by the owner, usually through the deposit of checks or automatic deposit of a paycheck or benefits check.

The Consumer Federation of America said prepaid debit cards appeal to those who don’t have a checking account, often because of their credit condition or past experience with excessive overdraft fees and such.

The card gives them many of the functions of a bank account — including, crucially, the ability to pay bills online — while often costing just one reasonable monthly fee.

People with ordinary access to bank services also are finding value in the use of prepaid debit cards.

Parents give them to college students to meter their spending without risking heavy fee costs, or even to children at home to turn their allowance into a lesson in budgeting and account management, according to the Center for Financial Services Innovation in Chicago.

With the percent of truly free checking accounts ever diminishing — down to 39 percent of bank accounts and 72 percent of credit-union accounts, according to — especially younger consumers are finding that prepaid debit cards compare favorably for benefits vs. cost.

Between 2008 and 2012, the amount loaded onto U.S. prepaid debit cards nearly tripled to $77 billion annually, data from Mercator Advisory Group shows. The amount is expected to reach $168 billion by 2015.

As with all money management, of course, the devil is in the details that can vary greatly from card to card.

Fortunately, those details are trending in the favor of consumers.

Greg McBride, senior financial adviser for, said several large national and regional banks have entered the prepaid debit card market in the past year. While free checking is probably best if you can get it, the cards are getting better.

“Many offer cards with low, fixed monthly costs. The ability to know the total monthly cost in advance is valuable to consumers,” McBride said in a statement accompanying the company’s annual survey of prepaid debit card fees. surveyed 24 prepaid debit card issuers in February and found a wide range of potential fees, nearly all of which can be avoided by consumers who do their homework.

Some have ATM withdrawal fees, or activation fees, or bill-payment fees, or balance inquiry fees, or declined transaction fees. Some charge for a paper account statement (and some don’t offer a printed statement); some charge for accounts inactive more than 90 days (while others just close the account); and a few charge for customer service calls.

Here are a few examples of prominent prepaid debit cards among the 24 surveyed by

n Bluebird by American Express and Walmart: no monthly maintenance fee; no activation fee; ATM withdrawal fee of $2; doesn’t offer balance inquiries;

n Walmart MoneyCard Reloadable Prepaid Card: monthly maintenance fee $3; card activation fee $3; ATM balance inquiry fee $1;

n PNC SmartAccess Prepaid Visa Card: monthly maintenance fee $5; no balance inquiry fee at PNC ATMs; no activation fee;

n Chase Liquid: $4.95 monthly maintenance fee; no activation fee; balance inquiry at other’s ATMS costs $2.

About half the cards that charge a monthly maintenance fee will waive or reduce the fee depending on how much money is automatically loaded onto the card.

The Consumer Federation of America says good prepaid debit cards can substantially lower transaction costs and save time managing finances and paying bills.

But make sure you get the card that works best for you.

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