When I started receiving Social Security benefits, I didn’t have a bank account.
I considered the paper checks option, but paper checks get lost in the mail, and they’ll soon be obsolete.
US DirectExpress is a debit card issued for the sole purpose of receiving federal government benefits. “It’s fast, it’s easy, it’s convenient,” read the web site pitch. No carrying (losing) cash, deposits made automatically each month (no lost paper checks), works like a credit card. Buy something and get cash back if you need it.
All of this sounded great and, without a bank account, DirectExpress was my only choice.
Fast it was, and easy as well. Automatic deposits, use it anywhere, as much cash back as I needed, when I needed it. But imperfect.
Since the card isn’t issued by a specific bank, there was always an ATM fee unless I went out of my way to a location with a surcharge-free machine. No, the local ones aren’t where the malls are, where people shop; they’re all in party stores out on the edges of town. That was okay; three dollars at an ATM once, maybe three, times a month when I needed cash but didn’t want to make a purchase, I could live with that. I think. Seems unfair for someone on a fixed income, to whom every dollar can be important, but I’m not there. Yet.
Since funds from other sources — cash, paper deposits, transfers from bank accounts or other on-line payment accounts — can’t be added, Paypal won’t accept DirecExpress as a linked account to my Paypal account. That’s okay, I thought; I might need something from Ebay, and Paypal can be my source of funds for all on-line purchases.
By now, however, the okays and I thinks were adding up.
I lost my card in a bank ATM. I simply forgot to take it with me when I was done. The bank destroyed the card. (How nice of them.) Something that no doubt happens to a lot of seniors who, despite their fading memories, want to maintain a sense of independence by going to town on their own and running errands without help. No access to my money for a week, until I could get a replacement card, and I don’t like having to borrow momey from friends under any circumstances.
If the card had been the bank’s card, and not the foreign DirectExpress card, the moneyless week wouldn’t have been necessary. It would have also be nice if the bank’s ATM didn’t swallow cards in the first place (not all of them do), but that’s for another article.
The DirectExpress card was refused at two unlikely places; the Michigan Secretary of State branch office as payment for a renewed driver’s license, and the county courthouse as payment for a passport.
But Wal-Mart took it and I could get cash, the buffet took it, and I was happy, still.
When a pre-paid legal service refused the card. I called DirectExpress customer service. Customer “service” call centers staffed by people who would otherwise be mixing up the orders at McDonald’s being the absolute last resort.
A man whose tone became more belligerent by the minute insisted the ZIP code on my account wasn’t correct, even after I read it to him from the letter sent with my replacement card. He threatened to hang up on me. Then something stopped him. His computer crashed.
He suggested I hang up and try a different customer service representative (burn more minutes). I did, and learned the whole call center had lost Internet contact with the outside world.
I already had a bank debit card on the way, linked to my new bank account, that will soon replace the troublesome US DirectExpress card.
The US DirectExpress card isn’t the answer. The things it can’t do, and the customer “service,” are an insult to anyone dependent on any kind of government benefits. If you’re due them and don’t have a bank account, open one. Borrow a couple hundred if you have to, and pay it back from your first direct deposit.
Banks give with one hand and take away with the other, and a handful have destroyed a once thriving economy, but at least the branches are live and local, and the people who work in them maintain a veneer of civility. For deposits of government benefits, a bank account with its own debit card is infinitely more practical than a US DirectExpress account.