Personal finance: Iconic companies unite for better prepaid card

Personal finance: Iconic companies unite for better prepaid card

December 12th, 2012 Christopher A. Hopkins CFA in Business Diary

Since the financial crisis, big banks have bombarded their customers with a plethora of fees and charges aimed at replacing some of the lost revenue from investment banking and proprietary trading. Meanwhile, prepaid debit cards have gained in popularity, but they too can be expensive, sometimes soaking customers for reloading, calling customer service, or even for not using the card often enough.

Last month, a new and interesting financial alternative was introduced by two of America's iconic companies. Walmart has teamed up with American Express to offer a new product called Bluebird, which nicely fills a niche in the financial service landscape for people who do not qualify for free checking or are frozen out of a traditional bank account. And if you meet a few simple conditions, the price is right: zero. Zip. Nada.

Bluebird is essentially a quasi-bank account with the basic structure of a prepaid debit card. Customers can set up a new account for free online or by picking up a starter kit at Walmart for $5. They receive a Bluebird debit card in the mail, which bears the American Express logo and is accepted most anywhere other AMEX cards are welcome (except rental car agencies). Since the card is linked to an account balance, there are never any overdraft charges.

In fact, there are no charges of any kind if you meet certain minimally restrictive criteria. There are never any basic account fees, transaction charges or inactivity dings. There are also no ATM fees at any of the 22,000 MoneyPass network machines, provided that you make at least one direct deposit per month.

Shopping with the Bluebird card conveys many of the useful benefits enjoyed by traditional American Express card holders, like roadside assistance, purchase protection and a robust fraud prevention and redress capability.

The account can be reloaded easily online, by bank account transfer, direct deposit, or at any Walmart store. You may even photo-deposit checks on you mobile phone or tablet, and use the mobile app to pay bills or transfer funds to someone else. And the companies plan to add check-writing capability next year.

Another intriguing option is the sub-account, which allows up to four different users to be tied to your primary account. Perfect for teens and college students, sub-accounts allow you to set up email spending alerts, limit daily expenditures, and restrict ATM access for any of the cards on your account.

Funds deposited to a Bluebird account are not FDIC-insured. However, they are backed by the full faith and credit of American Express, which is required to hold assets in excess of Bluebird deposits at all times as security. This is the same arrangement used to secure the money you deposit when you buy travelers cheques.

This offering is compelling for those who may not have access to a traditional bank account and have used high-cost prepaid cards in the past, or those seeking to avoid death by a thousand bank fees. Additional info is available at Bluebird.com.

Christopher A. Hopkins CFA, is a vice president at Barnett & Co.