Jan. 12, 2012 at 7:04 AM ET
Financial advisor Suze Orman has created a new prepaid debit card and she wants you — and everyone else — to buy it. The Approved Prepaid MasterCard is promoted as “better than cash” and “safer than cash.”
Like other prepaid cards, you can’t go into debt because you can only spend the money that’s loaded on the card.
In an email to msnbc.com Orman says, “I decided to create The Approved card after I heard from so many people who were being taken advantage of by the tricks and traps of the banking industry. I want to help people who need a low-cost alternative to what’s out there, and who want to manage their money responsibly.”
(Suze Orman hosts a show on CNBC and is a frequent guest on TODAY, both NBC properties. Msnbc.com is a joint venture of NBC Universal and Microsoft.)
The Approved card sells for $3 and there’s a $3 monthly fee (waived for the first month).
The card comes with a lot of free perks, including: unlimited access to your credit report and credit scores from TransUnion (one of the three big credit reporting agencies), credit monitoring and identity theft protection.
You also get unlimited free use of Allpoint ATMs across the country each month, if you make a direct deposit or bank transfer to the card of $20 or more. Allpoint ATMs are in major retailers, like Costco, Target, Walgreens, Kroger and 7-Eleven.
But there are various fees that can run up the bill, including:
• $1 for pay by check
• $2 per paper statement
• $2 per over-the counter cash withdrawal
• $2 per call to talk to a live customer service agent (after one free call per month)
• $3 card replacement fee
Consumer Reports had its financial services experts review the terms and conditions of the card and found that the fees are in line with the better cards in the marketplace.
“But there are still fees to watch out for and it may not be as good of a deal for the consumer who doesn’t have the option of direct deposits,” says Suzanne Martindale, a staff attorney with Consumers Union. “It remains to be seen how useful it will be to the consumer.”
Card creates a buzz in just days
Anytime Orman pitches a product it’s sure to sell. The card, which was introduced on Monday, has already picked up some positive news coverage. But the credit experts I spoke to give it mixed reviews.
“It’s not a bad card,” says Gerri Detweiler, personal finance expert at Credit.com. “The problem is it’s not a great card either. It’s just a very typical prepaid card. And quite honestly, I think Suze could do a whole lot better for her fans.”
Detweiler gives Orman high marks for disclosing all the terms, conditions and fees about the card on the Approved card website. But she doesn’t like the fee to talk to a customer service agent.
Bill Hardekopf, CEO of LowCards.com, says the Approved card has some nice benefits and fewer fees than some cards.
“If you have to get a prepaid card, Orman’s card is a very good card,” Hardekopf says. But we still believe that a debit card that’s tied to your checking account is a better alternative than any prepaid card.”
Will the card improve your credit history?
This quote from Orman is on the Approved card website: “I am proud to say that the Approved card is the first prepaid card in history to share information with TransUnion, a major credit bureau.”
What does that mean? It would be easy to assume that using the card will improve your credit history and boost your credit score. But that’s not the case.
“The information about the usage of the prepaid card is not being reported to TransUnion for the purposes of credit reporting,” explains John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at Smart Credit.com. “It’s being sent to TransUnion for the purposes of research. If you read further into the website it says plain as day: ‘This data will not appear on your TransUnion credit report at this time.’”
Ulzheimer says several national news stories have gotten this wrong. He worries that the language on the website will confuse people.
My two cents
Prepaid debit cards are very popular. Many people believe they are a way to stay out of debt. But these cards are loaded with fees. Most importantly, they do not help you build credit because your payments are not reported to the credit bureaus. They also don’t provide the fraud protection you get with a credit card.
Credit cards are not evil. If you pay off the balance each month, you won’t get charged interest. Responsible use of a credit card will boost your credit score.
If you’re looking to re-establish credit, skip the prepaid cards and get yourself a secured credit card. You deposit a couple of hundred dollars in the bank and that’s your line of credit. The interest rates are terrible (so you need to pay it off each month) and there are fees. But your payment history does show up on your credit reports. Your goal should be to use the card to boost your credit score until you qualify for a real credit card.
Credit.com: Secured Credit Cards