November 28, 2012
American Express has two prepaid products that are remarkably similar: Bluebird and Serve. What’s the difference?
On March 28, 2011, American Express announced a new product called Serve which they described as offering “Person-to-Person, Online, Mobile, and Traditional Card Capabilities in a Single Account.” Within the miles & points community, Serve quickly became popular as a new way to run up spend since Serve could be loaded via credit and debit cards. Once loaded, the money could be transferred to a friend, transferred to a bank account, withdrawn from an ATM, or spent via the Serve prepaid card.
Then, on October 8, 2012, American Express and Walmart announced a new product called Bluebird which they described as a “new alternative to debit and checking accounts.” I first mentioned Bluebird in my October 8th post “Bluebird is coming. The sky isn’t falling.” Then, once Bluebird was available to consumers, I followed up with “Bluebird takes flight and changes the game,” “Bluebird lands. Questions answered,” “Bluebird Updates,” and “Now that you have a Bluebird card, don’t use it.” Bluebird took off in the miles & points community because Bluebird can be loaded with Vanilla Reload cards (which I first introduced in May 2012 with “One card to rule them all“). Even more so than Serve, Bluebird offered many ways to use the loaded money: transfer to a friend, transfer to a bank account, withdraw from an ATM, spend via the Bluebird prepaid card, or pay bills.
Bluebird and Serve are so similar that American Express does not allow individuals to own both. People with existing Serve accounts who try to sign up for Bluebird are told that they must first close their Serve account. Even after cancelling your Serve account, you will have trouble setting up your Bluebird account unless you use the exact same information as you had used for Serve: the same email address, name, address, etc.
The reason for allowing only one or the other, I believe, is that Bluebird and Serve are on the same technology platform. In order to introduce Bluebird quickly, it looks like American Express re-skinned their Serve web site, added bill pay, removed credit card funding, and changed some parameters. I think that was a great move because it gave them a highly functional platform for Bluebird right out of the gate. The downside is that it forces consumers to pick one or the other. One upside is that you can readily transfer money between Bluebird and Serve accounts. So, a married couple, for example, may choose to keep a Serve card for one person and a Bluebird card for the other in order to get the best of both.
Here are some of the major features of Bluebird and Serve compared:
|Load via credit card||No||Yes. Limited to $100 per day and $250 per month. 2.9% fee waived until March 15, 2013|
|Load via debit card||Online: limited to $100 per day, $1000 per month, 2% fee. No PIN required (i.e. some gift cards that say “debit” work)
At Walmart: limited to $1000 per day, $5000 per month. No fee. PIN required.
|Limited to $200 per day and $1000 per month. People have reported success in using gift cards for debit card loads (I haven’t done so personally). Currently, no fee.|
|Load via prepaid card||Vanilla Reload cards only. Up to $1000 per day, $5000 per month||MoneyPak cards only. Up to $500 per day, $2500 per month.|
|Send money to others||Yes, send money to friend who has Bluebird or Serve account, up to $10K per month||Yes, send money to friend who has Bluebird or Serve account, up to $1000 per day, $2500 per month|
|ATM withdrawals||Free at MoneyPass ATMs if you have made a direct deposit in the past 30 days||First withdrawal per month free (other than ATM owner fees), $2 per withdrawal afterwards|
|Bill Pay||Free to pay bills electronically (up to $10K per month) or by check (up to $5K per month)||Nope|
|Write checks||While it is already possible to write checks indirectly through the Bill Pay feature, Amex has said that true check writing is coming in 2013||Nope|
|Transfer funds to bank account||Free. No apparent limits other than account balance||Free. No apparent limits other than account balance|
|International use||Yes. No foreign transaction fees for purchases or ATM use||Nope|
Serve has the edge for gift cards and MoneyPaks
If you frequently need to convert Visa and MasterCard gift cards to cash, Serve has the edge since it allows funding up to $1000 per month this way (as debit cards).
Similarly, if you are able to buy MoneyPaks (but not Vanilla Reload cards) with a credit card, then Serve may be a better option for you. Note that it is much more rare to find a place that will let you buy a MoneyPak with a credit card (vs. a Vanilla Reload card), but some places do exist. For example, The Points Guy was able to buy them at a RiteAid (I was able to also until my local RiteAid stopped allowing it).
Bluebird has the edge for Vanilla Reload cards, Bill Pay, Checks, and International use
While Office Depot no longer sells Vanilla Reload cards (see “Office Depot discontinues Vanilla Reload cards“), many other stores do. For example, many people have reported success buying Vanilla Reload cards at Walgreens, CVS, and regional gas station chains.
Importantly, Bluebird also offers more ways to spend the money once it is in your account. The Bill Pay feature allows you to pay any biller on their list electronically, or any other biller via check. Also, American Express has promised to provide a direct check writing capability in the future.
Finally, don’t discount the advantage of Bluebird for international use. Bluebird doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees for purchases or ATM withdrawals so it can be a great option for anyplace that takes American Express.
One of each?
Personally, I’ve converted both my Serve account and my wife’s to Bluebird accounts. Some people, though, will see a benefit in keeping one person in a family on Serve and the other on Bluebird so as to take advantage of all of their best features. It’s helpful, too, that money can be transferred across these accounts. Before canceling my own Serve account, I was able to directly send the balance in that account to my wife’s Bluebird account. So, if you load up a Serve account, you can move the money to another person’s Bluebird account so that they can use it internationally and/or to pay bills.