PayPal targets students, parents with debit cards

New program lets parents keep track of their kids' expenses and act as the bank by funneling money into a monitored debit account.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
3 min read

PayPal on Tuesday is introducing a new service for parents with kids who are in high school or college. Called Student Accounts, it centers on the use of a special PayPal-branded Mastercard debit card that's tied to a parent's PayPal accounts. The parent acts as the provider and can funnel money in whenever they feel like it at predetermined dates, or--at what will most-frequently happen--the behest of their kids.

Some of the perks include no overdraft fees and the use of a debit card that's not tied to a particular bank account, meaning the balance can come from a variety of sources.

The system has more of an allure for parents though. It's easier for them to dole out cash and track where it goes. In other words, your kid can have the $20 they said they needed for gas money, but if it ends up being for the late-night beer run, you're going to know about it.

The other design behind the card, and one that goes far beyond tracking beer money spending, is to create an ecosystem of PayPal users that become acclimated to handling their finances within the service's confines. Considering parent-child money transfers may happen long after college attendance is complete, PayPal has incentive to get both parties used to dealing with its system.

A good example of this is that these students will one day have the option to "graduate" to having their own full PayPal accounts that they manage on their own and that includes a complete history of transactions they made when they were in school. Don Fotsch, who is PayPal's VP of user experience and design, told me that you cannot currently do this--but that it would be worked in by the time some of the early users reached that point. PayPal will also be working on a way to let students integrate any outside income they're getting from an after or during school job to be able to continue using that debit card on other purchases.

Subaccount pages let parents monitor activity, set permissions, and make new transfers. CNET

Of course, PayPal being PayPal there is a cost to this service. PayPal takes a $1 cut for every ATM withdrawal, which comes on top of any ATM fee considering the card is not affiliated with any banks. There are also the typical PayPal percentage fees for using that debit card outside of the U.S. either on purchases or trips to the ATM. For things like online purchases, or in-store purchases, there are no fees or limits though. There also aren't any sign up fees, load card fees, or annual fees.

One thing that makes the service really neat is that if the child runs out of money, they can send a text to PayPal to request more. The parent then gets a text message from PayPal asking if they want to transfer the money and can reply with a simple yes or no. The money is then piped into the account within two minutes.

As Fotsche explained to me, this system worked out great for him when his daughter needed to spend an extra $10 on a checked bag at the airport. But parents could also just set up one of these cards for their kids as a real emergency credit card and one they wouldn't have to worry as much about if it were stolen since it couldn't be maxed out. And even if some parents do end up setting up one of these cards for such a purpose, that's two users already in PayPal's pocket.