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Walmart's new prepaid debit card: A threat to big banks?
With a reloadable, low-cost card, Walmart and Amex offer an alternative for customers fed up with bank fees
Bluebird is the new checking-account alternative from American Express and Walmart that boasts easy-to-manage finances without the fees.
Bluebird is the new checking-account alternative from American Express and Walmart that boasts easy-to-manage finances without the fees.
Screen shot, Walmart
W

almart and American Express are teaming up on a new prepaid debit card aiming to lure away customers fed up with rising fees at big banks. The Bluebird card has no minimum balance, and no maintenance or activation fee, and customers will be able to use it to access their money for free at any of the 22,000 American Express MoneyPass ATMs. (There's a $2 fee for using a machine on someone else's network.) The card first became available in a pilot project last year, and the two companies announced Monday that they're rolling them out in 4,000 Walmart stores across the country, starting next week. "Our customers tell us that they're tired of navigating a complex maze of dos and don'ts to avoid the ever growing list of fees found on checking products," says Daniel Eckert, vice president of financial services for Walmart U.S. "Bluebird solves this problem." Should Bank of America, Citigroup, and other financial behemoths be scared?

NO
"If Occupy Wall Street couldn't get people who hate big banks to switch to smaller ones — even sympathetic people like me — why should Walmart or American Express be any different?" asks Dan Freed at TheStreet.com. "The power of inertia is far too great, and it is aided by the fact that all the automatic deposit and billpay customers set up through their banks are extremely costly and time-consuming to undo."

Prepaid cards target "lower-income families without traditional bank accounts," says The Associated Press, so the big banks don't have to worry about losing customers. It's other prepaid debit card companies, such as NetSpend and Green Dot, that should be "running scared." Executives at Walmart didn't say whether the retail giant "would stop carrying Green Dot's Wal-Mart Money Card," but the Walmart-Amex partnership will be hard to beat.

YES
"Actually, Bluebird is "exactly as momentous as they make it out to be," says Anisha Sekar at Nerd Wallet. "Whereas traditional prepaid debit cards were characterized by a-la-carte pricing that could easily cost more than a checking account's monthly fees, the Bluebird offers a way to deposit and access cash without bleeding fees."

"Prepaid cards have been trying to establish themselves as a smart alternative to increasingly expensive bank accounts," credit-card expert Gerri Detweiler of Credit.com tells ABC News, "and this program may help them do that." The median bank overdraft fee rose to $29 from $28 last year. Relatively speaking, Bluebird fees are "very low," which is going to look pretty good to people who are sick of bank overdraft fees or simply want an easier, cheaper way to manage their household budget.

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