Posted September 15, 2013 by Shane Tripcony in Blog

Tax Refunds And Prepaid Debit Cards

Tax Refunds And Prepaid Debit Cards
Tax Refunds And Prepaid Debit Cards

Prepaid debit cards have recently become a favored way for states and the federal government to pay tax refunds, but for consumers, whether it is a benefit or not – the answer is, it depends.

By Shane Tripcony

The arguments in favor of the use of prepaid debit cards over paper checks in states like Connecticut, Georgia and Louisiana are similar. Not only do citizens who lack a bank account – and therefore cannot take advantage of direct deposit – receive their refund quicker than if it came through the mail in the form of a paper check, but the governments themselves like prepaid debit cards because it save them money.

Those are a few of the issues John Friedman took up in a recent story for Bloomberg Law entitled, “Policy Perspectives On Tax Refunds: An Economic Analysis Of Government-Sponsored Debit Card Refunds.” Friedman, an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, does an in-depth cost-benefit analysis of the embrace of prepaid debit cards and arrives at some conclusions that go counter to many of the arguments policymakers have made.

To be sure, Friedman acknowledges just how popular prepaid debit cards have become as a way to dispense tax refunds. In fact, he notes that in the 2012 tax year, almost 20 million taxpayers opted for prepaid debit cards to receive their refunds. Still, despite that increasing popularity, Friedman takes direct aim at the seemingly uncomplicated assertion that governments, and thereby taxpayers, save money by utilizing prepaid debit cards.Even though states like Connecticut report that they saved about $300,000 by sending out prepaid cards instead of paper checks in 2012, Friedman points out that those calculations fail to acknowledge that governments don’t pay account setup fees; instead, taxpayers do. “It is true that state governments can cut their own costs by switching to debit cards from paper checks, but this simply pushes costs off the government budget and onto taxpayers directly in the form of fees,” he writes. “The roughly $1 of government savings is very small in comparison with the average fees incurred by individuals who received their tax refunds via debit card.”

Although he acknowledges that some taxpayers truly benefit by receiving their tax refunds on a prepaid debit card instead of a check, in particular because of the speed at which it arrives. This speedy refund, he says, means that high-interest debts on payday loans can be paid down quickly and that exorbitant check cashing fees can be avoided. But Friedman also says that the fees that come with the normal use of prepaid cards could make them a less attractive option for others. “Therefore, use of the debit card to receive the tax refund is not costless to individuals,” he says. Because prepaid debit cards are a mixed bag, good for some but bad for others, Friedman urges governments to still offer taxpayers the option of receiving refunds via a paper check.

Shane Tripcony