Saturday, September 20, 2003

Cards help to budget bucks

MUBucks put money on student IDs

By Anna Guido
Enquirer contributor

[IMAGE] Cassie Uhl of Skippers Pub on High Street in Oxford swipes an Uptown Bucks card.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
OXFORD - Next week, Miami University ID cards will be transformed into debit cards.

The program, MUBucks, is a cooperative venture between the university and a local business. It will give students the power to use their college IDs to make purchases at participating off-campus businesses.

MUBucks combines on-campus, prepaid-debit-card uses of the student ID (also known as the One Card), with off-campus, prepaid-debit-card uses of the Uptown Bucks card.

"It's easier and less of a hassle," said Tyson Keppler, 20, a junior mass-communications major who recently signed up. "Now I don't need to worry about scrounging up some change to eat, and it helps me keep track of my spending."

Keppler, who works full time in the summer and part time during the school year, said his parents will make monthly deposits into the account, but he'll manage it and reap the perks.

Here's how MUBucks works:

• Students and other authorized account holders (such as parents) can make personal or online deposits into the MUBucks account.

• Funds are appropriated into three separate accounts to help students budget. One account is for dining on and off campus; one is for off-campus businesses; one is for on-campus services such as laundry, vending machines and printing.

• Students can spend only what is available in each account.

• Transactions are processed in real time on proprietary software that shows insufficient funds immediately.

• Transactions can be viewed online.

Chris Herron and Amanda McDermott, owners and operators of Uptown Bucks, will maintain and administer MUBucks. The 2003 Miami grads opened Uptown Bucks at 44 E. Park Place in 2001. They also started offering Uptown Bucks at Ohio University in Athens in 2002.

Their business has grown steadily, and last year they had about 2,500 customers, mostly students.

"The debit-card issue has been kind of a hot topic in Oxford," Herron said. "Students wanted more flexibility to purchase things in town. Merchants wanted access to student dollars. We realized that there was a need in the community, which is why we started Uptown Bucks."

MUBucks takes the program one step further by combining the services of two cards into one.

Miami University's office of student housing and meal plan service will promote MUBucks to students and parents. All Oxford-area merchants will be invited to participate, but the card cannot be used to buy alcoholic beverages.

Cost is what kept the university from developing a program of its own.

"It would have cost us $120,000 to $150,000 a year to set this up and run it," Adolph Haislar, senior associate vice president for auxiliary services, said. "We basically would have been a university going into the credit card business."

Now, the university's cost is minimal because the system has already been put in place with Uptown Bucks, and there are no extra cards to produce, Haislar said.

In addition, most businesses will have no installation or equipment charges because MUBucks can use existing credit-card terminals. If MUBucks cannot integrate with a credit-card terminal, it will loan merchants the equipment necessary to accept MUBucks at no cost.

Haislar said MUBucks is the first cooperative venture of its kind in the country, and its benefits are numerous.

Besides its feasibility, the program is a boost to the local economy, provides parents a cap on student spending and gives students an out-of-classroom education on budgeting.

MUBucks will earn the bulk of its revenue from transaction fees paid by merchants. The transaction fee is 4.75 percent and is calculated twice a month. A reduction in overhead prompted Herron and McDermott to offer a rate lower than the original Uptown Bucks transaction fee of 7 percent.

An expected increase in the number of participating merchants, student cardholders and subsequent increase in the volume of transactions should compensate for the lower rate, Herron said.

Interest earned on accounts provides minimal revenue. The rate now is about 1 percent and fluctuates according to the market.

"Uptown Bucks brought us a good bit of business, and we assume that MUBucks will bring us even more business because all they have to do is swipe their Miami University ID," said Diana DiPaola, owner of La Bodega, a local deli and cafe.

"It's something that all of the uptown merchants wanted for a long time," DiPaola said.

Who is eligible

The MUBucks program is open to all Miami University ID holders - students, faculty and staff.

• Participants are eligible for discounts at participating businesses, contests with prizes and access to a free video library.

• Student users of Uptown Bucks can switch to MUBucks by filling out a form.

• Uptown Bucks will remain in effect for nonstudent users.

• Lost cards can be replaced within 24 hours for $25.

For more information, call (513) 523-3663, or go to Web site.

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