Prepaid cards, which are just now beginning to take hold in the region, offer buying convenience without temptation and give people who don't qualify for a traditional bank account a way to go cash-free.
Prepaid credit cards offer controlled freedom
Akshita Vibhakar admits that she can be careless with money.
In fact, when she is out with friends, she sometimes loses it entirely. But we should probably cut Akshita some slack. After all, she is only 15 years old.
Akshita, who arrived in Dubai 11 years ago from India, recently came up with a solution to her problem. She persuaded her parents to let her apply for a prepaid credit card and, since then, it has remained firmly in her pocket.
"I prefer it to carrying cash with me," she says. "I have friends who have credit cards, but I know their parents aren't happy about it. It's only been a week, but I am now budgeting my money and my parents give me money through the card. As a teenager, I really don't need a credit card."
Although fairly common in western countries, prepaid cards are now taking hold in the UAE, offering all the convenience and services of conventional credit or debit cards, but without the bills, temptations and sky-high interest rates.
Akshita's "Bling" prepaid card, from RakBank, is topped up with Dh50 at the beginning of each week, allowing her parents to monitor her spending while also giving her the responsibility of managing her own money and account. Sharjah Islamic Bank has recently come out with a similar "Jeans Card" for teenagers that even sends parents a text message each time a transaction is made.
But children are just the tip of the iceberg in an otherwise massive prepaid card market, according to delegates at the Middle East Prepaid Summit 2011. Held in Dubai last month, the summit attracted more than 200 retail, payment and banking experts and aimed to take advantage of this growing market.
In a world still reeling from the financial crisis, where individuals, banks and entire countries suffered under the weight of massive debt, the prepaid concept seeks to empower consumers and promote budgeting. But most importantly, it represents a shift towards the money we actually have to spend - not the money we can borrow.
"We believe this market is now entering the mainstream stage," says Scott Salmon, the head of the prepaid market expansion for Visa. "People see it as an empowering opportunity and consumers want to manage their money more responsibly. This is a financial instrument for children as an alternative to cash or a credit card. But beyond that, for adults, it's an easy way to promote financial literacy and manage the weekly or monthly spend."
Based in Singapore, Mr Salmon is tasked with spreading and managing the prepaid concept for Visa. India represents the company's largest growth market, he says, and it's followed closely by the GCC. He estimates the world market segment to be worth an estimated US$6.2 trillion (Dh22.7tn), which should rise to $7.2tn by 2012.
Although a growing sensitivity and awareness of money management is one driving factor, "unbanked" customers, or people who would otherwise not qualify for a bank account or credit card, is another major reason for this growth.
Many labourers and other blue-collar workers in both the UAE and abroad are now being paid through the prepaid method rather than in cash, Mr Salmon says. Signing up for a prepaid card requires very little paperwork and virtually no other requirements, and yet they are accepted at ATMs, online and in malls or supermarkets.
In general terms, prepaid cards provide "entry level" financial services to those who might not otherwise have access.
However, this convenience comes with a cost. Consumers can expect to pay an initial fee of as much as Dh200 to receive the card and, depending on the bank, other charges can apply when it comes to the transactions.
Mr Salmon also identifies a number of other "unbanked" demographics serviced by the budding prepaid industry. Children, tourists and students are a few of the groups Visa seeks to target because consumers want more innovative and efficient ways to spend beyond the use of cash.
In the UAE, where only residents with work visas can open bank accounts, prepaid cards also offer a solution to spouses or housemaids.
"There are plenty of people who don't qualify for credit cards, or perhaps don't feel comfortable with them, or need them," he says.
But this market, Mr Salmon adds, goes beyond the convenience of carrying cash through plastic. He believes prepaid cards are also spurring innovation around the world in terms of how we spend our money.
In Australia, for example, the concept is now being integrated into student ID cards, he says. In Russia, kiosks, rather than ATMS, are springing up specifically geared towards this market, and New Zealand has developed a special travel card that can hold multiple currencies at the same time.
Satish Dave, the senior director of TNS Middle East and North Africa, the global market research firm, says most people are already aware of the prepaid concept through one form or another. In the UAE, for example, mobile-phone cards, gift cards and Dubai Metro passes are commonplace and all utilise the same concept.
"This is taking it to the next level," he says. "It won't take away credit cards, but it is filling a niche and changing the market."
One of the more interesting developments Mr Dave has observed in regards to prepaid cards is the rise of online banking. Consumers in the UAE are more suspicious of transactions over the internet, he says, when compared with other parts of the world. However, using prepaid cards "inherently gives people a feeling of security, simply because there is no credit limit and there is a set amount on it".
After receiving her Bling card, Akshita says the first thing she purchased was a video game over the internet.
"I ordered it and it arrived in three days, so I was happy with that," she says.
Mr Dave agrees with Mr Salmon that prepaid cards can play an important role in budgeting and spending responsibly.
"You can't spend more than what's on the card," Mr Dave says. "With debit cards, you can still spend everything in your bank account. The act of physically reloading the prepaid card makes a difference. It's a way of carrying plastic, but not living beyond your means."
Akshita can see the merits of learning how to budget, save and spend money properly, and she says the process of using the card, checking her balance online and not having to worry about limits or interest rates makes things easier.
But at the end of the day, what she really likes is the "Bling" in her pocket.
"Parents have to instil money skills and for me, it's just fun," she says.