The Harsh Reality of Celebrity Prepaid Cards

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Suze Orman, Lil Wayne, Magic Johnson and Russell Simmons all have something in common: They have their own prepaid cards. While there are plenty of prepaid cards available, some consumers, especially younger ones, are drawn to products endorsed by celebrities -- they get a piece of memorabilia and think they are getting a deal. But do celebrity prepaid cards really let you get the best bang for your buck? Let's compare the fees and associated features to the industry's leading prepaid cards.

Target market for prepaid cards
According to Javelin Research, prepaid cards are more commonly used by the "underbanked." Celebrity prepaid cards are predominantly marketed toward the younger generation, who may be drawn in by celebrity star power. A Javelin study points out that those low-income consumers, who often don't have a bank account, are almost twice as likely to use prepaid cards as the general public.

From the study:
  • 56% of underbanked consumers report that they use their prepaid card for online purchases.
  • Underbanked consumers report higher average prepaid reload amounts than other consumers.

Industry gold
Western Union ( WU) is no celebrity, but you've probably heard of the money transfer giant, which issues MoneyWise and a Gold Card; both are real winners, according to prepaid-industry peers at the annual Prepaid Expo. This year, Western Union's MoneyWise Prepaid MasterCard ( MA) was selected as best in its class in the best general-purpose reloadable category. The Western Union Gold Card Prepaid Master Card took the best consumer value prize. Both are highly distinguished awards.

Monthly fees
Unlike other prepaid cards, with Western Union a user isn't charged a fee for purchases, online statements, direct deposits or customer service inquiries; nor is there a monthly fee. Western Union prepaid cards can be challenged only by another giant -- American Express ( AXP), which issues its own prepaid card without monthly fees. Wal-Mart ( WMT) recently partnered with American Express to offer this prepaid product under a private label, Bluebird. Having no monthly fees is a rare advantage in comparison with other prepaid cards, including the dominant Green Dot ( GDOT), which charges $5.95 per month on accounts holding less than $1,000.

In the celebrity prepaid card world, the Suze Orman Approved Card right off the bat charges a $3 upfront fee and a $3 monthly charge. This is much lower than Lil Wayne's Young Money Card, which charges $6.95 at start-up and a $3.95 monthly fee, or Russell Simmons's RushCard, which offers a monthly plan at $9.95, or the recently launched Magic Johnson Magic Card, which charges a $4.95 start-up fee and a $4.95 monthly fee.

ATM fees
Regardless of upfront costs and monthly fees, ATM fees are the common ground. Western Union ($1.95 per transaction) and American Express ($2 per transaction) charge a fee for ATM withdrawals. Celebrity prepaid cards charge between $2 and $2.50 per transaction at ATMs, although Magic Johnson and Russell Simmons offer two complementary transactions per month.

The underbanked
Russell Simmons says his card is not only for those who've been rejected by banks. Nearly 30% of RushCard applicants over the past year had a bank checking account when they applied for the RushCard. Historically, it was impossible to use a prepaid card as a bank account, since before Bluebird you could not deposit your paycheck directly. If you don't have a bank account, you must rely on check cashing services to load a prepaid plastic with cash.

The RushCard, as well as most other celebrity and noncelebrity cards, requires a purchase of a Green Dot money voucher at up to $4.95 to reload a card with cash. The only way to avoid the fees is to set up a direct deposit with your employer. If you are a seasonal or a temporary employee, or if your employer is not looking to set you up with direct deposit, you may want to avoid a celebrity prepaid card, which come with higher monthly fees that can cost you as much as $119.40 annually -- as with the RushCard.

Why get the card?
Celebrity prepaid cards do tend to have higher fees. So why get one, aside from the obvious reverence to your favorite celebrity? Some come with special features. For example, as you might expect from Orman, you get free access to your credit report for a year when you buy her card. This can be a great feature if you're looking to get your credit back on track, but it has nothing to do with prepaid cards, since they do not report to credit bureaus. Lil Wayne's card gets you up to 25% discount at Ebates.com

These features fade in comparison with the power of American Express, whose prepaid card features such perks as roadside assistance, purchase protection, aid during international travel and access to discounts from American Express partners.

Like the reality shows that dominate TV, celebrity prepaid cards may come with more drama than they are worth. Prepaid cards can be really helpful, but they are new to the market and loosely regulated, so it pays to take a close look at the fees and features associated with them.

Michael Germanovsky is an expert in personal finance with in-depth knowledge of credit cards, charge cards, and prepaid cards. He began his writing career at the Novoye Russkoye Slovo, a partner of the New York Times International Weekly; and later authored a personal finance column at The Epoch Times. In 2011, Germanovsky created the Student Credit Card Education Initiative, designed to promote financial literacy and smart credit card use by young people. He is editor-in-chief at Credit-Land.com.

More from Personal Finance

What Is Lionel Messi's Net Worth?

What Is Lionel Messi's Net Worth?

3 Ways for Retirees to Protect Their Portfolios In Volatile Stock Markets

3 Ways for Retirees to Protect Their Portfolios In Volatile Stock Markets

Credit Unions vs. Banks: What's the Difference?

Credit Unions vs. Banks: What's the Difference?

How Much Money Has Bill Gates Made Over Time?

How Much Money Has Bill Gates Made Over Time?

This Should Be Your Retirement Savings Plan When the Stock Market Crashes

This Should Be Your Retirement Savings Plan When the Stock Market Crashes