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Debitable, but debatable no longer
Harvey Mackay

February, 2012

mark twain 

By Harvey Mackay

  

Mark Twain was one of the keenest minds ever to put pen to paper.  He was also an utter bust managing his money.  Twain poured a fortune into technological innovations that didn't work.  His publishing house went broke printing books the public didn't buy.

 

In the end, a buddy -- oil baron Henry Huttleston Rogers -- saved Twain's bacon.  Rogers made the creator of Huck Finn and Hellfire Hotchkiss declare bankruptcy.  Until Twain paid off his creditors, Rogers took total control of the author's finances.

 

Wallet wisdom is not the strong suit of some, no matter how sharp in other ways.  How about young people of all mindsets?  They're prodded to shop-till-they-drop. 

 

Keeping wallets shut is not a skill set we encourage.  A huge segment of the population has become walled off from traditional banking.  According to a MarketWatch column, "banking industry statistics show that about 25% of American households are 'unbanked' or 'under-banked.'"  Let's face facts:  Many folks need a helping hand -- not a handout -- to stay fiscally responsible.

Enter the prepaid debit card.  These cards give people with patchy credit ratings a way to complete purchase transactions without carrying cash.  The card is also a plastic pathway to pay hotel bills and airfares without worrying about cash.  The prepaid debit card isn't the last and best solution . . . and it has its critics.  But it can be a rational way station toward a financial footing.

suze ormanFinancial commentator Suze Orman is a beacon of creativity.  That's why Oprah latched onto Suze as a regular feature for O magazine.  Suze's string of 9 New York Times bestsellers has wowed the publishing industry.  Her CNBC show is a long-running Saturday evening staple.  She has won more Gracie Awards for women in media than anybody in history.  She has also raised more bucks for Public Broadcasting than any other fund-raiser.

Suze scaled her way up with unstoppable determination.  At the age of thirty, she was still earning $400 a month as a waitress.  Then came an entry-level job at Merrill Lynch . . . a vice presidency at Prudential Bache . . . and now marquee billing as today's leading personal finance expert.

Suze Orman has come up with her own take on the prepaid debit card.  It's called the Approved Card.  Her design goals were to:
  • Keep fees low and transparent,
  • Help card owners "track their spending,
  • Protect their identity,
  • And keep users secure.
Another objective was to pave the way for debit-card spending to be included in personal credit reports.  Up until now, people with "responsible debit-card spending behavior" have been unable to build a track record.  This can prove a non-starter for someone who later wants a car loan or home mortgage.  "The Approved Card is the first debit card in history to share information with a major credit bureau."

The Approved Card is also a commercial product with its own business purposes . . . and critics.  One of them is columnist Chuck Jaffe.  He wrote the MarketWatch piece cited above.  Jaffe acknowledges "prepaid cards can help consumers who don't have the discipline to stop from overdrawing their bank account."  Jaffe even admits he is "not a big fan of Orman.  That said, she has helped millions of people pick themselves up by their financial boot-straps, build up the courage to change their habits and take control of their finances, and generally come to have a healthy relationship with money.  She deserves all the respect and credit I can muster for that."

As a debit-card downside, Jaffe mentions the fees required to reload the card with cash.  And he points to a plus:  "It's a prepaid debit card that in many ways is superior to much of the competition."  But Jaffe also builds a case that its features aren't that special in several respects.  His verdict:  "the Approved Card could be a very good pick for" a light rather than a "heavy card user. . ."

Our everyday financial system has been through a meat slicer in recent years.  Not recommending personal financial tactics remains a personal policy of mine.  I intend to stick to it.  However, when someone like Suze Orman tackles a sticky problem with fresh thinking, who can afford to ignore it?

Mackay's Moral:  As Mark Twain said, "Denial ain't just a river in Egypt."  When it comes to money, who can beat dollars and sense?

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