Pros & cons of debit cards for SSI recipients

Thu, 03/27/2008 - 9:29pm
By: The Citizen

Social Security Disability Insurance recipients need better understanding of pros and cons of new debit card, Allsup says

Belleville, Ill. – March 27, 2008 – Starting next month Social Security Disability Insurance recipients in some states will have the option of receiving their benefit payments electronically on a debit card, rather than via a paper check.

However, eligible individuals – many of whom are “unbanked” – should have a clear understanding of the pros and cons of opting for the debit card, particularly the financial ramifications, according to Allsup (, which represents tens of thousands of people in the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) process each year. It also offers services that support the financial and health well-being of individuals with disabilities.

“Before signing on to or totally dismissing the idea of the debit card program, potential cardholders should look at how they are likely to use a card,” said Paul Gada, personal financial planning director of the Allsup Disability Life Planning Center. “For some, the card may make sense. For others, they may realize after looking at their spending habits that getting a bank account may really be the best option. And there will be others that will always operate with cash only, regardless of the drawbacks it presents.”

The debit card program, called Direct Express, is run by the U.S. Treasury Department through Comerica Bank with the intent to encourage Social Security recipients who do not have a bank account to elect to have their benefits loaded electronically onto a debit card. The Direct Express program will be introduced this spring in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas before being phased in across the nation during the summer.

The cost savings for the government could be significant, based on estimates from the Treasury’s Financial Management Service. For example, it cost 89 cents for the government to issue a paper check in 2006 compared with 9 cents to process an electronic payment. As a result, if the 4 million recipients of Social Security, SSDI and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) who don’t have bank accounts were to sign up for the debit card, the savings could be $44 million annually.

Having monthly benefits electronically deposited onto debit cards also has its advantages for recipients, most notably convenience and security.

In the case of individuals with disabilities who may have limited mobility, for example, having the debit card would mean that they would not have to make a special trip to cash their SSDI award or be concerned if they were hospitalized or otherwise unable to retrieve their benefit payment when it was due to arrive.

Additionally, funds on the card are FDIC insured, just like money in a bank account, so the money is fully protected if the card is lost or stolen; though a card replacement fee will be assessed the second time a card needs to be replaced in any given year.


While cost savings for the government – and taxpayers – are obvious, the cost savings may not be as clear-cut for debit-card recipients. They might end up paying even more in transaction fees than the average $6 to have a paper check cashed, especially if they don’t pay attention to how they’re using the debit card.

Among the questions Gada recommends potential cardholders consider before signing up for a debit card include:

• How accessible to you is an ATM in the Comerica network?

• How often would you make ATM withdrawals and would those ATM withdrawals be at in- or out-of-network ATMs?

• How often would you use the electronic bill payment feature?

• Will the companies you are paying electronically charge you a fee for electronic payment?

• Is there a bank in your area that could provide you with a more cost-effective solution for the features you want, such as ATM, electronic bill pay or direct debit?

• If you are concerned about opening a bank account, why is that and have you spoken with a local bank to see if they can help alleviate your concerns?

Social Security recipients participating in the Direct Express program are allowed one free ATM cash withdrawal per month from a designated ATM. They are assessed a 90-cent fee for each additional ATM withdrawal.

Cardholders may be charged an additional “surcharge fee” by ATM owners outside of the Comerica Bank network, which issues the debit cards.

Additionally, program participants have access to online bill payment for a fee of 50 cents per online bill payment and can receive a paper statement for a 75-cent monthly fee.

Gada advises potential cardholders to consider how they would use the debit card, looking at the trade-off between potential costs and benefits.

For example, rather than having to pay for a cashier check or carry large amounts of cash and pay bills in person, incurring a small transaction fee for electronic bill payment may be worth it, particularly for individuals who have a difficult time getting around.

However, he noted, individuals should check to see if the organization they are paying will assess an additional charge for accepting electronic bill payment.

On the other hand, individuals who are going to head for an ATM every time they need cash will find transaction fees quickly adding up to little added value.

“In these cases, it’s time to seriously consider what is preventing you from getting an account at your local bank, because that probably would be your best option,” said Gada. “Many banks offer no minimum balance checking accounts where you can have your Social Security benefits direct deposited and electronically pay bills or use their ATMs at no additional charge.”


One of the reasons that some Social Security recipients continue to insist on paper checks is the fear that their bank accounts could be attached by creditors.

However, under federal law, Social Security benefit payments are protected from attachment, meaning creditors do not have the right to take these funds from a recipient’s bank account. The same rules will apply to funds placed on Direct Express debit cards.

There are a few explicit exceptions to the rules guarding against attachment of Social Security benefits. For example, Social Security funds can be taken to pay child support or alimony payments the individual owes.

“At any given time, there are likely millions of dollars in Social Security payments that are at risk because people on fixed incomes got into debt or are having a dispute with a creditor,” said Gada. “Unfortunately, they are acting on inaccurate information that has them afraid to put their money into bank accounts where it can be protected and they can be afforded other benefits of being banked.”

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