There's been a pretty strong backlash against personal-finance guru Suze Orman for daring to attach her name to a prepaid card, even though the card's monthly fees are more in line with the low-end one offered by Wal-Mart than the VIP-only Kardashian Kard.
Shortly after Orman's card was introduced Monday, she was accused of compromising her credibility by endorsing an exploitative product. Orman lashed out at her critics, even calling one an "idiot" on her Twitter feed, for which she has apologized.
But perhaps the problem here is not one of attitude, nor of a respected authority abusing her influence. Perhaps the real issue is that to those of us with bank accounts, prepaid cards will never make sense.
Orman's prepaid card, like nearly all prepaid cards, carries fees. As bank customers, we're not used to seeing fees displayed and charged so prominently. We get all our fees waived by meeting a minimum balance and using direct deposit and online bill pay. We have no idea what our monthly fee even is. And if we ever get an unexpected fee, we pick up the phone to get it reversed.
Because we are so committed to this method of handling our money, these fee-laden prepaid cards look like a bad deal. Having such visible fees, even if they're low, is an alien concept. It's like wearing your underwear on the outside. It just isn't done.
And from this perspective, we never understand how an underbanked person views prepaid cards. In their eyes, these cards look great. They even look honest.
No story illustrates this better than a 2009 NPR piece about a man named Al Walker who uses an expensive check-cashing store even though he has a bank account. The reporter even showed Walker, fee by fee, how he would save $5 per check just by depositing them in the bank account he already had — but Walker refused to use the bank.
"I don't have to worry about an overdraft fee here" at the check-cashing store, he told NPR. "I don't have to worry about overdraft protection. I don't have to worry about whether this is free. I know what I'm paying; it's the same every time I come here — and maybe that's something banks should look into."
The audience for Orman's card, or for any prepaid card, doesn't care that it's more expensive than a bank account. The cards earn users' trust by being open about their fees instead of surprising them with overdraft charges.
Perhaps this is why someone like Russell Simmons, the music mogul behind the RushCard, can get on his Twitter account to voice his support for the Occupy Wall Street movement and, the same day, tell that audience that he charges them each $120 a year just to own his card.
To his audience, that's not predatory. That's honesty. And as Walker said, maybe that's something banks should look into.
Daniel Wolfe is an editor for risk management and technology at American Banker.