Prepaid reloadable cards are growing rapidly in popularity as a way to manage money.
You can acquire the cards in stores, banks, or online, and load them up. They're an easy way to pay for purchases, and they can take the place of a traditional bank account. Consumer Reports has analyzed the terms of 20 cards and has advice on the best ones.
Catherine French, her mother, and son all use prepaid cards. For James, it takes the place of a bank account.
"I've used it almost anywhere, from restaurants to convenience stores, gas stations, anywhere," said James French.
Catherine says the prepaid card makes it easy to give James only what he needs for school and to avoid the perils of a credit card.
"I know I'm not going to let him loose with my credit card with his name on it," said Catherine French.
Consumer Reports evaluated the terms of 20 prepaid cards and says they are better than they used to be.
"One of the big improvements is safety. All of the prepaid card issuers we checked now voluntarily offer some of the same protections as bank-issued credit and debit cards," said Margot Gilman, chief money editor, Consumer Reports.
However, you must register your card to get those protections, and since they are only voluntary, they could be revoked. Consumer Reports also evaluated the cards for value and convenience.
"For those who use the cards in place of a bank account, it's important to be able to pay bills, add money, and withdraw cash without incurring a lot of fees," Gilman said.
The lowest-rated card, the Netspend Prepaid Visa Pay-As-You-Go, has relatively high fees, and there's always a fee to use an ATM.
In response, NetSpend says it offers "a feature rich product" that may not be comparable to prepaid card programs Consumer Reports reviewed.
"The four highest-rated prepaid cards worked well for those who use them instead of a bank account, as well as for those who use them for shopping," Gilman said.
They are the Bluebird from American Express and Walmart, ChaseLiquid issued by Chase, and the Green Dot Prepaid Visa.
All have low fees, voluntary safety protections, and are widely accepted.
The government's Consumer Financial Protection Board is expected to issue new regulations for prepaid cards this spring. They will guarantee protections for lost and stolen cards, and make it easier to understand and compare fees.
More information on choosing a prepaid card is available on our website. *Consumer Reports Buying Guide on Prepaid Cards is available free at: http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/prepaid-cards/buying-guide/index.htm
All Consumer Reports Material Copyright 2016. Consumers Union of U.S. Inc. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Consumer Reports is a not for profit organization which accepts no advertising. It has no commercial relationship with any advertiser or sponsor on this site. For more information visit consumer.org
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