The Best—and Worst—Ways to Get Your Paycheck
Payroll cards are trending in some industries, but are they as safe as checks or direct deposit?
Until recently there were basically two ways most Americans got paid: with a paper paycheck or by a direct deposit into their bank account. Today there’s a third option offered to many workers, a piece of plastic known as a payroll card.
Most common in the retail and fast-food industries, payroll cards are a type of debit card that workers’ earnings can be loaded onto each pay period. After that, they work much like bank debit cards, allowing the user to buy things in stores and withdraw cash from ATMs.
If you’re faced with a choice of payment methods where you work, here’s how to decide what’s best for you.
The traditional paper paycheck is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, and with good reason. Employers don’t like them because they are costly to produce. They are also risky for employees. About 4 million paychecks are lost or stolen each year, by one estimate.
What’s more, they can be expensive to cash if you don’t have a bank account and need to use a check-cashing outlet that charges fees. A 3 percent fee would cost you $9 on a $300 paycheck. That might not seem like much, but multiply it by 52 weeks, and it adds up — in this case to $468, or more than one and a half week’s pay.
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A payroll card can be more convenient and economical than using a check-cashing outlet. But the cards have their own drawbacks, including an assortment of fees. Some cards charge for using ATMs, for simply checking your account balance, and even for not using your card often enough. A recent review by the New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman noted that one program’s fees averaged as much as $20 per employee per month.
By law you’re entitled to a list of fees in writing. Pay particular attention to the ones you’re most likely to trigger based on how you would use the card.
While payroll cards may be safer than checks, they also have risks.You’ll need to take the same precautions as you would with a debit card from the bank, says Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education for Credit.com. For example, guard the number carefully and watch out for anyone who might be looking over your shoulder at the ATM. Keep track of your account balance, and if you detect any problems, report them immediately.
Related: 9 Tips for Using an ATM More Safely
If you report a suspected loss or theft within two business days of discovering it, your liability is limited to $50. After that, your liability shoots up to $500. If you wait more than 60 calendar days, your liability is unlimited, meaning that thieves could take all the money in your account.
“If you’re someone who never checks their account balance,” Detweiler says, “that could be a problem.”
Note that federal law prohibits your employer from forcing you to accept a payroll card. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, you must be offered at least one other option.
Signing up for direct deposit at a bank or credit union could be your best choice in terms of cost and safety. Though bank fees have risen in recent years, many financial institutions still offer basic, no-frills checking accounts if you qualify. And simply by making direct deposits, you’ll sometimes get a better deal.
When shopping for a bank or credit union, ask for a complete list of fees and, as with payroll cards, pay particular attention to the ones most likely to affect you. For example, if a bank charges a fee if your balance dips below a level that you know will be difficult for you to maintain, you probably want to take your business elsewhere.