As the Department of the Treasury continues a public push for its new Direct Express Debit MasterCard (MA) - Get Report as an optional way to receive monthly benefits for programs such as Social Security, it's a good time to decide whether the card could be right for you.
The new payment card will be far safer and easier -- especially for those who do not have bank accounts. It will be "re-loaded" monthly with the benefit amount. Then, the card can be used with a secure PIN to get cash at any ATM where debit MasterCard is accepted.
It can be used for purchases at any outlet that accepts MasterCard -- as well as to get additional cash back at no cost when the card is used for purchases. The Direct Express card can also be used to pay bills over the phone and on the Internet.
The Treasury Department sends out more than 10.3 million paper checks every month to Social Security and SSI recipients -- in spite of the fact that 80% of beneficiaries have their benefits deposited directly to their bank accounts.
This new debit card program is being directed at the estimated 3.9 million recipients who do not have bank accounts. Most of them simply cash their checks, paying huge fees to get their money.
There will be no annual or monthly fee for the Direct Express card, or for the first cash withdrawal each month at one of the 50,000 participating ATM locations. After the first ATM withdrawal each month, there is a 90 cent fee for additional cash withdrawals.
But the easiest way to get additional cash without paying
fee is to ask for cash back when using the card to make a purchase. There is no limit on those free cash withdrawals made in conjunction with a purchase. And, of course, you can't "overdraw" your card, because the limit on withdrawals is the benefits deposited into your card account.
There are some other helpful features of the card. You can arrange to be notified by phone or email or text message when your card is running low on cash. You set the notification level, perhaps when you get down to $50 or $100. And you can check your account online to see where you've made purchases or withdrawn cash. For an extra 75 cents a month, you can even get a paper statement of your account activity mailed to you.
The Direct Express debit card is far more secure than cash or paper checks. Last year more than 700,000 Social Security or SSI paper checks were reported lost or stolen. Payments had to be re-issued, leaving many seniors waiting for their money.
Stolen Direct Express cards have a zero liability if their loss is reported promptly. One free replacement card is provided every year. A 24 hour toll-free helpline provided by the Comerica Bank network, which won the bid to provide this service, will immediately take care of all questions or reports of stolen cards.
"We're very excited because we already have over 50,000 people that have enrolled since we started marketing earlier this spring," says Judith Tillman, commissioner of financial management services of the Treasury Department. "And we're hoping that we will get all of our 3.9 million un-banked SSA and SSI recipients to sign up for this card."
Information on getting benefits through the new card will be included as August Social Security checks are mailed out. You can sign up now for the new debit card by calling toll-free 877-212-9991 or by going to
Terry Savage is an expert on personal finance and also appears as a commentator on national television on issues related to investing and the financial markets. Savage's personal finance column in the Chicago Sun-Times is nationally syndicated. She was the first woman trader on the Chicago Board Options Exchange and is a registered investment adviser for stocks and futures. Savage currently serves as a director of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Corp.