This month, Justin Bieber begins marketing a prepaid card designed to promote responsible teen spending to his millions of fans. He’ll take to social media to spread his message about the SpendSmart MasterCard from a company called BillMyParents, Inc.
"There’s probably no single individual out there that can send this message, that can turn a brighter spotlight on this message, than Justin Bieber," said Mike McCoy, chief executive officer of BillMyParents, Inc.
Bieber, who turned 19 Friday, began his career as a YouTube sensation. Now he has more than 51 million Facebook friends and 30 million Twitter followers, making him a perfect and powerful front man for any product. He’s joining the ranks of celebrities who have used their star power to promote plastic. Financial guru Suze Orman, basketball legend Magic Johnson and baseball great Alex Rodriguez have all pitched for prepaid cards.
"Do I see it as really valuable for kids? Not really," said Todd Mark, Vice President of Education for the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Dallas.
Mark said he is skeptical whether any prepaid card is the best way to teach teens about financial responsibility, namely, he said, because prepaid cards can be riddled with fees.
"If you’re depositing $50 and you’re paying a buck-50 every time you deposit $50 into an account. That’s horribly inefficient and not cost effective," Mark said.
Prepaid cards may charge consumers to load money on the card, withdraw cash and check their balance. There are monthly fees as well. For the A-Rod-endorsed Dynasty prepaid Visa RushCard, the monthly fee is up to $9.95 a month. Magic Johnson’s prepaid MasterCard Magic Card has a monthly fee of $4.95. Suze Orman’s Approved Card charges $3 a month. The SpendSmart MasterCard that Bieber will endorse has a monthly fee of $3.95.
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However, McCoy said the SpendSmart card has lower fees than others. He also said fees for adding money to the card can be avoided if a parent sets up a monthly or bi-weekly automatic deposit schedule. Plus, there are features of the SpendSmart card that offer parents peace of mind, differentiating it from others in the market.
"Every time a teen swipes the card both the parent and teen receive an immediate text that tells them how much was spent, where it was spent and what the balance is on the card," McCoy said.
Parents can lock and unlock the card if it’s lost or if a parent wants the child to stop using it for any reason. And it’s blocked from use at certain places.
"If the teen were to attempt to use the card at a packaged liquor store, at something coded adult entertainment or at a casino, the card doesn’t work," McCoy said.
The prepaid card industry is a fast-growing market. According to the Mercator Advisory Group, an independent research and advisory services firm, in 2005, $2.7 billion were loaded onto these cards in the United States. By 2011, that number grew to $56.8 billion. Mercator’s preliminary estimate for 2012 is that $76.7 billion were loaded onto these cards. And by 2015, that number is projected to reach $168.4 billion. That’s a compound annual growth rate of 31 percent.
According to an Aug., 2012 study from the Philadelphia Federal Reserve, prepaid cards are short-lived, typically active for six months or less and ATM surcharges can account for between 15 and 40 percent of cardholder costs.
But for some consumers, experts said, prepaid cards are a good option.
"For many adults it’s very cost effective, as opposed to alternatives they may be looking at," said CCCS’s Mark. "It’s a particularly good product for the unbanked and those who don’t, for whatever reason, they a have relationship with a legitimate financial institutions or they’re afraid of the fees of having a bank account."
Plus, Mark said sometimes paying with plastic is necessary, especially when it comes to online purchases.
For parents interested in prepaid cards, experts said it’s best to shop around and look for cards with low fees.
But for teaching teens about smart spending, Mark said he believed there may better options. He said firstly, parents and kids have to have open conversations about finances. Then he said he would recommend sticking with cash or having parents ask their banks about fee free options.
That’s what Stephanie Cole did for her 16-year-old son Farley Morris. She said she wanted the perks of a prepaid card without the fees so she went to her bank.
"When they came up with the no-fee option, I was like, 'That’s what I want,'' Cole said.
She gave Farley what’s called a high school account. It’s his own account, with his own debit card, but it’s linked to her account. This way she can monitor his account and deposit money into it whenever he needs. Plus, there are no fees and when Morris works summer jobs he can have direct deposit.
One benefit, according to Cole, there’s no overdraft protection. If Morris tries to spend money he doesn’t have in the account, the purchase is denied.
Morris said that’s happened before.
"It’s extremely embarrassing," Morris said.
But Cole said it’s teaching him a valuable lesson about money.
"He’s run up against the real world of budgeting," she said, adding that it provides freedom while teaching him about the world of plastic purchasing power.