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Prepaid debit: oasis for unbanked?

By Claes Bell, CFA · Bankrate.com
Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Posted: 11 am ET

If you follow this blog with any regularity, you know I've been writing a lot lately about prepaid debit cards, which are increasingly becoming a challenger to traditional checking accounts.

I caught up with RushCard CEO Rob Rosenblatt this week to give him a chance to respond to my criticism of its new RushGoals savings program and what I consider high fees on the company's prepaid cards. Here's what he had to say.

Who typically uses prepaid debit cards? Give me an overview of a typical user profile.

To begin with, the user base right now is extremely broad and it is growing, in large part because of -- and by the way, I come from the banking community, so I'm well aware of the impacts of the Durbin amendment and the CARD Act before it -- the combination of those two pieces of legislation have made the banking system ill-suited to serve those customers that typically don't maintain large balances with them.

In fact, there were two quotes I wanted to cite for you. The CEO of Bank of America Brian Moynihan has said that they're going to be focusing on the top 20 percent of the most profitable customers and getting rid of the unprofitable ones. And Jamie Dimon, who's CEO of the bank I just left, Chase, mentioned that it cost $350 on average to provide a free checking account each year.

If you think about the overhead associated with maintaining a large branch and ATM system with multi-hundred-million-dollar advertising budgets, every bank in America is having to get more focused.

We define our customer set as anybody for whom the banking industry and more loosely defined check-cashing system don't adequately serve them. Those numbers are somewhere between 60 million and 70 million customers. And typically, they live in urban environments in inner-city areas, where you may see a bank branch once in a while, but you don't see many of them.

I live and work in New York City, and my son is a baseball player, and he practices on some Saturdays about a mile away from Yankee Stadium and it's a little bit of a dangerous neighborhood where he plays, and I have to drive him. In the course of that drive, we sometimes pull over to go get him something to drink, something to eat, and typically we walk into a large drug store, where in the middle of the drug store is somebody behind bullet-proof glass cashing checks at a cost of anywhere from 2 (percent) to 10 percent per check and also doing money transfers for folks who need to send money back home. That business is a little bit murky; it's not well understood.

We believe that there's a customer base out there. It's going to be a little younger than the traditional check-cashing user. There is a high preponderance of single parenting. A lot of these customers have children. Some of them are on some kind of public support, some of them earn hourly wages. Many of them, by the way, are holding down two jobs, so this is a very hardworking population that has very strong aspirations, and actually, interestingly, is relatively optimistic from a psychographic perspective about the future. Basically, they use these cards to give them what the banking and check cashing systems can't do, and that includes, by the way, the ability to have access to my money, the ability to spend in a way that is anonymous that doesn't identify me as somebody that has to pay with cash, the ability to put my money in a place that's safe and sound, and also the ability to pay my bills.

What we try to be is a fairly valued substitute for those that really don't get the proper level of value for the money from banking and check cashing.

Do you find your customers habitually and are putting money into it every month?

The best way to use the RushCard to help manage your financial needs is to direct deposit your paycheck or your government check, and that way the money is on the card immediately. And by the way, we announced today that we're giving customers access to their direct deposited check up to two days early.

But the basic thing there is that there's no fee for direct deposit, the money is automatically loaded; you can get it early in many instances. Basically, we run the highest direct deposit rates in the business and our customers do stay with us longer, and that's because we've been at it for a long time. We've been doing this for eight years. The majority of our cards were acquired over the years through our direct-response television efforts, where we really spent a good chunk of the last eight years defining the category and explaining its benefits. So our customers have made relatively well-considered decisions as opposed to just picking our card off a rack at the front of a drugstore.

Is RushCard really better than a checking account overall? I looked at your numbers and definitely, if someone's making a lot of overdrafts, it's going to be cheaper to go with the Rushcard, but now with changes to Regulation E, overdrafts are opt-in. Do you still see the RushCard as a cheaper alternative to a checking account?

The fee structure in the banking system remains in disarray. You had BofA, who was going to charge a $5 fee in any month in which a debit card was used, and trust me, you had other banks lined up ready and waiting if BofA had survived that debacle. So suffice it to say, this is a customer that typically cannot maintain the average balance required to avoid entirely a monthly maintenance. So you're talking about a customer that is incurring anyway $10 to $15 a month in these account maintenance fees. And to your point, fewer of our customers now are incurring the overdraft fees, but you've got to remember that there's a host of fees that are still sitting in the banking system.

What I'd say to you is, the reasons to get our card are relatively basic. It's about safety, convenience, peace of mind, ability to segregate funds, ability to get access to my funds early if I  direct deposit. So, to your point, if I'm someone who never incurred NSF fees or who opted out, then I may be in a better place (with a bank). But understand that for our customers, NSF fees have been a way of running their lives, and so one of the reasons we think the card is right is it prevents you from even incurring an NSF fee. Trust me when I say that our customer, if given the option, is still going to opt in to an NSF fee and should not be. It's a bad thing; it's a bad way to live.

Do you think that having no bank branches or ATM to access funds and do other business is a disadvantage? Or do you see not having that overhead is an advantage for you?

I think the answer's probably both. From the perspective of cost structure, there's no question we don't have to find a way to recoup the $350 a year that Jamie Dimon says it costs for Chase to provide checking to any customer.

On the flip side, there's no question that customers need to be able to load their cards and so the best way to make that convenient and easy and cost-free is for the customer to direct deposit. If the customer is unable to do that, then they're going to incur some kind of fee -- the Western Union fee or the Green Dot fee -- and that's not zero, so obviously it's better for us and better for the customer if they direct deposit.

But if you sign up for direct deposit, many banks, including Bank of America, will waive some of these account maintenance fees. So what it seems like you're saying is that maybe right now, if you don't run up NSF fees, free checking might be cheaper, but you're expecting higher fees in the future?

We do feel right now that by and large we are cheaper than most of the accounts offered by the Big Three, because the Big Three have quietly been imposing fees. The CEOs of those companies are on record as saying, one way or another, they're going to have to recoup the fees they just gave up. So while, for example, the BofA $5 debit usage fee has gone away, we don't think that the customer suddenly got a break.

I wanted to ask you about RushGoals, because that was kind of the catalyst for our conversation today. So it's not a savings account?

It's not a savings account. We're not a bank at the moment. We enjoy the services of a bank through a company called Bancorp. But basically, this is a reward product right now, and it was developed in response to feedback from customers that they have trouble segregating their money and what they're looking for is help with their money management.

The RushGoals product makes it easy for you to establish a goal, to segregate the funds in one or more subaccounts. The two dollar a month benefit is just a rebate; it's a small reward for behaving wisely and achieving your goals. But customers told us it's not the reason why they're doing it; they're actually doing it because of the need to set aside funds.

Now, that said, you're right. If you hit the nail on the head and you set aside $500 a month and you keep it aside on average every month for the 12 months, you do earn $24. That equates to 4.8 percent, although to be clear, it's not considered bank interest. Certainly, we'll look at, over time, the appeal of savings to these customers and how we might provide it logistically. But this is something we're able to launch fairly quickly and in a way we think is very appealing to our customers from the standpoint of how they set it up on the Web. It's very intuitive and it's very easy to understand.

So you're planning on going into savings later?

We look at everything and we're always trying to understand, you know, what it is we need to do next to justify our customers' loyalty.

Is Richard Cordray's appointment at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau going to affect your business at all?

It's always hard to know what an appointment will mean. This is a category that has never been unscrutinized. People do look at it all the time. The category in general is trending toward much greater levels of transparency, uniformity and consistency. Coming from the credit card business as I do, those have been very important factors to me, and I apply the same filter to every business I play a role in.

So I think, in general, we'll watch and wait. But a uniform set of practices means that everyone has to behave in an appropriate way and what's good for the customer should be good for the business.

What do you mean when you say the business has been scrutinized before, who in particular are you talking about?

I'm talking about the fact that there are attorneys general that look at this business all the time.

That idea that you don't see a lot of banks in the neighborhoods that you feel like RushCard serves is interesting. It sounds almost like the banking equivalent of "food deserts" -- areas where there aren't any grocery stores. So the idea is you're trying to bring financial services into areas where there aren't a lot of options?

Yes. I can't speak to our competitors' demographics, but we really do serve an urban customer that traditionally is ignored by the banking system.

It seems like RushCard customers might still need to use a check cashing store. You do cash checks, but it takes up to 10 days, right?

It does, and as a result, (check cashing) is the least used, least effective way to load your card. And it's simply because we have to go through a certain amount of verification to make sure the information the customer has given us matches up. Certainly we'd like to do a better job of that, but because of the customer we serve, it hasn't been an area of focus because we really are focusing on the unbanked.

Follow me on Twitter: @ClaesBell

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4 Comments
Bob Donovan
January 14, 2012 at 9:00 pm

The Rush card is one of the worst prepaid cards in existence. It is littered with fees.

Don't take my word for it read it for yourself. This is not an opinion it is a fact.

There are prepaid accounts available with NO fees. The media refuses to publicize them either because they are in the banks pockets or they are getting advertising revenue from rip offs like the Rush Card.

If this comment isn't published that puts bankrate.com in one of those categories.

Eric Lindeen
January 12, 2012 at 10:05 am

The RushCard presents an interesting offering for underbanked consumers: a debit card, savings account, and direct deposit. While not a traditional banking product, it provides many of the services required by a largely urban population. It will be interesting to see how the CFPB responds and how the consumer data may be used as alternative credit data in the future. I recently wrote a blog post you might find interesting about the difficulty many consumers have with traditional accounts and how prepaid cards are often the alternative.