Posted July 19, 2013 by Shane Tripcony in Blog

Five Questions for a Smarter Choice in Selecting a Prepaid Debit Card

Five Questions for a Smarter Choice in Selecting a Prepaid Debit Card
Five Questions for a Smarter Choice in Selecting a Prepaid Debit Card

Five essential questions to ask before choosing a prepaid debit card

By Shane Tripcony

No, this is not a test, and there definitely won’t be a grade handed out. Actually, scratch that completely. In the quickly expanding universe of prepaid debit cards the choices are multiplying faster than rabbits. Knowing which card is best for your individual circumstances requires a little self-examination. And the only way to do that is by answering the right questions. You know, a test.

But here’s the big difference between the questions below and the ones that stared you in the face in the classroom. Unlike what teachers told you, there really are no right or wrong answers, just ones that apply to your situation. And the grade you get won’t be an A, B or C; instead, it will be choosing the right card among so many options. Fully answering these questions will help.

How often will I use the card?

This is more of a concern than many people realize.

While it’s true that monthly fees for maintaining an account and transaction fees for using it are standard for many prepaid cards, some are more extreme than others. Obviously, searching out the cards with the lowest monthly fee is important. But anyone who is planning on using the card for routine purchases should pay extra close attention to the charges levied on individual purchases. Fortunately, cards that tout their lack of fees are getting easier to find, especially if you search through the reviews at

The fees that apply if you plan to use your card frequently go beyond the obvious ones. For prepaid debit cards, the most obvious one to look out for are reload fees, which is what card issuers charge when you add money to your account (discussed further below). The more you use your card, the more frequently you are likely to reload it, putting you at greater risk of these fees.

Also, the more you use the card, the more likely you are to need to check your balance. And yes, sometimes there's a fee for that, too. Linda Sherry, director of national priorities at Consumer Action, a non-profit advocacy and educational organization dedicated to advancing the interests of consumers, has some advice for the curious. “Steer clear of balance inquiry fees by checking your balance with a call to customer service, when free, or by checking your account online or scheduling email or text alerts,” she says. But her caveat, “when free,” is a reminder that you have to know your card's rules – sometimes there’s a fee for calling the card issuer to obtain your balance.

There's one more thing to mention. Besides fees for various kinds of activity, some cards charge fees for inactivity. So sitting on your card may do more harm than good.

How do I plan to load funds onto the card?

When you buy a vehicle, you know it will need refueling on a regular basis. That's why you ask about how many miles per gallon it gets. Your fuel bills will help determine how much of a deal you're really getting on your new ride.

Reloading money onto a prepaid debit card is like refueling an automobile. It's unavoidable and you will have to do it repeatedly, which makes it a potentially big expense. So you should do it as cheaply as possible. As a cardholder, you need to be keenly aware of both how you plan on adding money to your account – either by direct deposit or bank transfer or some other method – as well as what fees are charged for each.

Once you decide how you will reload, look for the card with the best deal on that method. A card's website will explain the various ways of reloading, and should show in detail what each will cost. If a card never charges for your particular method (or methods) of reloading, that's obviously ideal. In some cases, it comes down to how often you plan to top off your card. For instance, if you plan to reload only twice a month, and the card doesn’t charge you until the third reload, you're OK. The point is to keep the fees to a minimum.

Sherry says reload fees are the main ones that customers should try to avoid. “Reloading fees can often be avoided by using direct deposit or funds transferred from a bank account,” she says. That's true for customers who have bank accounts and want to use them in connection with their prepaid cards. People who don't will have to look at other options, including reloading less often.

Will I frequently use the card to get cash from an ATM? 

ATMs are part of our everyday lives. Most people with bank accounts use them, and getting charged a fee for using one is common, especially if it’s not one of your bank’s ATMs.

This is one realm where prepaid debit cards don't differ much from traditional bank accounts. Some cards hit you hard on ATM use, while others are gentler. When you're shopping around for a card, look for one that makes the ATM experience a little less painful. Another way to avoid ATM fees, Sherry says, is getting cash back at a retailer when you use your card.

Is this card for me or for a family member?

How you plan to use a prepaid debit card is a critical factor in determining which one you choose. But what if you are not the person who will use the card? In that case, you very likely could end up with a card that you wouldn’t actually choose for yourself.

There are numerous reasons why you might want to get a card for a family member. It could be an outright gift. Or it could be your way of giving a young relative some experience in budgeting. But whatever the reason, you should remember that a prepaid card is a financial tool. And when you give a new tool to a novice, it should be low-maintenance.

In other words, it should be a card with a simple fee structure. A newcomer should get one that he or she can understand thoroughly. The card's limitations and the kinds of problems a person can run into with it should be clear.

The simplest deal is not always the best deal, of course. The prepaid debit card you choose for yourself may have a fairly complex set of fees, but one that you can use for maximum savings by adjusting your spending habits.

But the fact that you are reading this article indicates you take financial issues seriously. The relative who gets handed a card may not be so focused (and may not even use the card when its initial value is gone). If the relative makes some mistakes, and winds up getting less value out of the card than was possible, it will be a lesson learned. And the more obvious the lesson, the more impact it will have.

Could I do better?

If you already have a prepaid debit card, you may be satisfied with it. You know how to use it effectively and minimize the fee, and you no doubt came across some cards that are much worse. But don't get into a rut. With the increasing popularity of prepaid debit cards, and the rise in competition, there may be one available now that is far superior to the one already in your pocket.

And you also may be better at managing a prepaid card yourself. If you've handled your card wisely and learned its potential, you could be better equipped to evaluate the many new ones on the market. Is the time right for an upgrade? It’s a question worth pondering.

Shane Tripcony