Leave it to American Express to make things more confusing in an already-crowded market by offering two very similar options for people who are looking for an alternative to a traditional checking account. They are the Amex Serve prepaid card and the Bluebird account — both of which are assuredly great options.
But, if you were left to pick one of the two, you might have trouble identifying the features that separate them.
I’ve broken down the key factors of the two accounts to help sway your decision process.
|Card||American Express Bluebird||American Express Serve|
|Monthly fee||$0||$1 ($0 in NY, TX, VT), waived with monthly direct deposit, $500 load or link to Isis mobile wallet|
|Unique fund reloads||Mail in checks||Free for cash reload at CVS, Family Dollar and select 7-Eleven stores, AND fee-free reload by credit card (cash advance fees may apply)|
|ATM access||$0 at MoneyPass ATMs with direct deposits, $2 at MoneyPass ATMs (no surcharge without direct deposit), $2 at all other ATMs (surcharges may apply)||$0 at all MoneyPass ATMs, $2 at all other ATMs (surcharges may apply)|
|Unique ways to spending||Ability to write checks||Link to Isis mobile wallet for offers|
Monthly fees are absolute turnoffs. You hate them. I hate them. But with prepaid cards, monthly fees are often unavoidable, which is why it is so refreshing to see that American Express offers consumer-friendly fee policies.
The Bluebird account doesn’t charge any monthly fee at all — a very desirable trait.
Meanwhile, the Serve card carries a monthly fee of $1 per month (free in NY, TX and VT), which can be waived with any direct deposit or $500 loaded into the account per month. But, the very best way to avoid the fee is by linking the Serve card to the Isis mobile wallet app. It’s the no-brainer option because the app is free and you just have to connect the card to it to avoid the monthly fee for good!
Despite the easy fee-waiver on the Serve card, Bluebird wins this matchup slightly because there is no possibility of a monthly fee.
You’re getting a prepaid card because you need a financial account to conduct transactions. Essentially, you’ll be spending. So, you’re obviously thinking about how much its going to cost to refill your prepaid account.
For both Bluebird and Serve, it is free to reload the account by direct deposit, debit card, checking account, savings account, mobile check deposit and at Walmart. Cash-reload packs are available for both accounts, but the cost will vary by retailer.
However, take note of the unique reload options offered by each account.
Bluebird only: Mail in checks.
Serve only: Free cash reload at CVS, Family Dollar and participating 7-Eleven location AND fee-free reload by credit card (watch out for cash advance fees!).
The Serve card takes the cake on this aspect due to the ability to reload cash at more retailers — a much greater convenience than mailing in check.
Regardless of what type of account you have, you want to know that you can access your money whenever you want to, preferably for free. Who wants to fork over a few bucks every time you withdraw cash? You certainly don’t want to.
Both accounts have a relationship with the MoneyPass ATM network (24,000 ATMs nationwide including Walmart and other major retailers) but the Serve card has the better fee policy.
Bluebird: Cash withdrawals are free at MoneyPass ATMs only if you received a direct deposit within the last 30 days. Otherwise, they cost $2 each at MoneyPass ATMs (no surcharge) and $2 at all other ATMs (possible surcharge, too).
Serve: Cash withdrawals are free at all MoneyPass ATMs. All other withdrawals cost $2 each (surcharge possible).
When it comes to the friendlier ATM access policy, I’d take the Serve card without a doubt.
Can you imagine being charged every time that you used your card to pay for something? Many prepaid cards impose such a transaction fee. Luckily, you won’t face those charges with either of these American Express accounts. Additionally, external bank transfers and online bill pay are free.
Interestingly enough, both accounts have tools to help you control spending. They have Reserve accounts that allow you to allocate funds for a specific purpose. And, they let you create sub-accounts for others. You’ll want these tools if budgeting is a financial priority.
Despite their equal footing so far, there are unique features that set them apart. Strangely, one account reinforces the “dying” trend, while the other account attempts to usher in a new financial age.
Bluebird: You can write paper checks, if you still happen to be part of the shrinking consumer group that still uses this medium of financial payment.
Serve: You can link the card to the Isis mobile wallet to receive various offers on purchases. For instance, from March through December 2014, you get $1 back on each purchase of $1 or more at select merchants when tap-to-pay through Isis (linked to the Serve card) is used for the purchase.
It’s hard to pick out a clear victor in this category, so I’ll say that they come out even.
Verdict: American Express Serve
For the better all-around prepaid option, Amex Serve is the way to go. The monthly fee is extremely easy to waive (just link the card to Isis — you don’t even have to use Isis if you don’t want to!), but the cheaper reload options and ATM access are the key differentiators that make Serve better than Bluebird.
The sole reason that I would recommend the Bluebird account above the Serve card is if you want to write paper checks. If you haven’t written a check in the past three months go with the Serve card instead.
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