Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailToday’s top story: Finding the best tax software. Also in the news: The cost of the marriage tax penalty, how to convince your spouse to stop spending, and the hidden costs of buying a home.

Which Tax Software Is Best for You?
Which program best serves your tax needs?

How Much the Marriage Tax Penalty Will Cost You
Your spouse’s higher income could bump you into a new tax bracket.

How to Persuade Your Spouse to Stop Spending Money
Compromise could make all the difference.

The Hidden Costs of Buying a Home
Fees, fees, everywhere fees.

Should You Put Your Tax Refund On A Prepaid Card?
Faster access to your money could mean less of it.

A good prepaid card? It’s no longer an oxymoron

Credit card backgroundFinally, there’s a prepaid card that may deserve a place in your wallet.

The American Express Serve card eliminates, or at least makes it easy to avoid, most of the niggling fees that make typical prepaid cards a bad deal:

  • Users will be able to load the card with cash for free at 14,000 CVS and 7-Eleven stores, according to Stefan Happ, Amex’s senior vice president for U.S. payment systems. (The usual procedure involves a reload fee of $3 to $4, and it’s a hassle: you have to first buy a reload card at a store, then call a toll-free number or go online to add the money to your account.)
  • ATM withdrawals are free at 22,000 MoneyPass network machines. The fee for out-of-network withdrawals is $2. That compares favorably to the $2.83 to $2.88 the average prepaid card charges, according to NerdWallet.
  • There is a $1 monthly fee that can be waived if you use direct deposit (have paychecks or government checks loaded directly onto the card). The fee is also waived if you load at least $500 that month.
  • Getting a card is free through the end of the year; after that, buying one will cost $2.95.

The card has a bill pay function and will have mobile check capture (where you can take pictures of checks to deposit them) later this year.

And get this…the card even has a savings account, called Reserve. You can set up one-time or recurring transfers that can help you save up for a purchase or get started on that all-important emergency fund.

American Express has a similar product called Bluebird, developed with WalMart, which provides free cash reloads at its stores. Not every community has a WalMart, however (shocking, I know)—New York City being one example of a WalMart-free zone. Bluebird has been singled out, by NerdWallet and others, as one of the best prepaid cards; Serve makes a good thing even better.

This is the first card I’ve seen that could actually be a viable alternative to a real checking account. That’s the audience Amex is targeting, of course: the tens of millions of Americans who are “unbanked” or “underbanked.” Many either can’t get an account or have given up on traditional banks because of all the fees. But because so many cards have hidden or less obvious fees—reload fees charged by third parties, or ATM surcharges—they often wind up paying more than they might at a consumer-friendly

“We want to be consumer advocates,” Happ told me. “We really put our money where our mouth is.”

Normally I’d dismiss that as PR happy talk. This card, though, delivers on the premise.

It’s also a decent alternative for delivering allowances to teenagers. Happ has set up two subaccounts for his daughters (who are over 13, the minimum age for such subaccounts), and delivers their monthly allowance to them via Serve cards.

The one bummer—it’s an American Express product, so it’s not accepted everywhere that Visa and MasterCard are. I haven’t experienced that as a huge problem; most stores I use accept Amex, and typically the only time I have to pull out an alternative I’m at a smaller independent store or a doctor’s office. But it’s something to keep in mind.

Prepaid cards aren’t a great choice for travel

Dear Liz: I have been granted a Chapter 7 bankruptcy discharge of all my debts. I’m now debt free and plan to stay that way. I’ve been saving like crazy and have enough to afford a cross-country driving trip to attend my son’s wedding. I’d like your advice on using prepaid debit cards to cover expenses such as fuel, food and lodging. My plan is to load each of three cards with an amount of money to cover each category of expense, based on my best research estimates, as a means of controlling how much I spend. If you feel this is a good plan, which would be the best brand of card to use?

Answer: Your determination to stay out of debt is admirable, but prepaid cards are problematic. You don’t have the same federally mandated consumer protections you have with a debit or a credit card, so merchant disputes or a lost or stolen card can wind up costing you big time.

Furthermore, these cards can be expensive. You often pay to activate the card, to load it with cash and to access the cash in transactions. Card comparison site studied 40 popular prepaid debit cards and found that the average card cost nearly $300 annually in basic fees. Monthly fees of up to $14.95 took the biggest toll, but $1 to $2 fees per transaction and for ATM use could easily cost a typical user more than $20 a month.

If you’re convinced prepaid cards are the best money-management tool for your situation, though, you might want to choose the American Express Bluebird, which was dramatically less expensive than its competitors in the NerdWallet study. The Amex card charges no monthly or per-transaction fees and allows for direct deposit. ATM withdrawals cost $2 apiece and cash reloads are just a buck, compared with an average of $4.50 with other cards.

Eventually you may want to look into getting a secured credit card to help you rebuild your credit scores, since prepaid cards won’t help with that. A secured card is one in which you make a deposit at the issuing bank, usually between $200 and $1,000, and get a card with credit limit equal to your deposit. You don’t need to carry a balance on these cards, but you do need to have and use credit if you want to rehabilitate your battered credit. NerdWallet recommends the secured cards issued by Orchard Bank and Capital One.