My girlfriend is an elementary school teacher in the New York City public schools. One of the benefits of her employment is the reimbursement for the purchase of supplies and materials used in her class. Any teacher will tell you that they are required to pay for many of their own materials, and the amount of the reimbursement is subject to a maximum that never covers their full expenses.
The reimbursements until recently were distributed via check, an old-fashioned method of payment. More recently, the City of New York switched to prepaid Visa debit cards, offered by Chase Bank. This must be the result of some sort of a deal between the city and the bank because it does not make much sense for the employee.
Debit cards are meant to be used for spending, but these reimbursements take place after the spending is completed. If you want to use the reimbursements to pay yourself back for your spending on items for the classroom, you must visit a Chase branch to convert the card to cash. We tried taking the debit card to her personal bank of choice, TD Bank, but they claimed to be unable to do anything for us with the debit card.
These prepaid debit cards seem to be the latest trend for rebates. Verizon Wireless, the cellular carrier of choice for both me and my girlfriend, offers rebates on a number of its phones. The last time she needed to purchase a new phone, the rebate came not in the form of a check as it had on prior occasions, but in the form of a prepaid debit card. These cards are touted for their “convenience,” but absent direct deposit I would prefer a check.
Verizon Wireless offers a feature where you can replace your debit card by entering your information online, thus deactivating the card and issuing the old-fashioned paper check to the address on your account. This is a better option but introduces an extra step that many people will simply ignore.
Checks find their way directly into bank accounts while debit cards only make appearances in stores for purchases. If your spending is tight, this might not make a difference. If you use the debit card to purchase something you would have had to purchase anyway, without the debit card, the form of payment won’t affect the amount you spend. Most people’s spending is not tight and controlled. When you send debit cards out to 80,000 teachers, I would believe that many will be used for extra spending and some will not be cashed or used at all. The same is true for wireless phone customers who receive those rebates.
There are reports that the debit cards issued for consumer rebates are unreliable. Some have no problems while others find that cards are declined when they should not be. Even worse, some of these prepaid debit cards have monthly fees. The new rebate debit cards offered by Staples charge a $3 monthly “account maintenance fee” after six months. In states where they are allowed, which I believe is every state except California, fees can eat away at your rebate card balance until you are left with nothing. It is best to cash these rebates or convert them into a check and deposit the funds as soon as possible.
Have you seen more rebates offered in the form of prepaid debit cards? What are your experiences?
Updated September 17, 2011 and originally published August 24, 2009.