What would you do with $600?

That question seems to be on a lot of people’s minds these days, thanks to the newly announced $150 billion stimulus package.

“I would like my check and I think everybody else feels the same way,” said David Wyss Chief Economist for Standard & Poor’s, defending the package.

Let’s be intellectually honest. Wyss is not getting a check. I’m not getting a check. Given the demographics of my readers, chances are that you’re not getting a check either. (Sorry.) The giveaway begins to phase out at $75,000 in income for individuals and $150,000 for couples. It’s also intellectually dishonest to call the giveaway a “rebate,” given that many of the recipients don’t pay federal income taxes.

On CNN last week, anchor Tony Harris asked CNN personal finance editor Gerri Willis (neither of whom are likely to be getting checks) what he should do with his check. Her answer: use it to pay down credit card debt. And if you don’t have debt? Invest it.

That’s sound personal finance advice. If I were getting a check, that’s what I’d do. Unfortunately, if everyone did that, it wouldn’t accomplish the goals of the stimulus package. There are a lot of questions about whether the giveaways will stimulate the economy anyway, but they certainly won’t if people just put them in the bank. Good thing few Americans ever listen to personal finance experts.

Another challenge with the giveaways is that different types of spending have different impacts on the economy. $600 spent at Wal-Mart has a much lesser impact on the U.S. economy than $600 spent taking a trip to Chicago.

The marketer, economics geek and fiscal conservative in me thinks there’s a better way. Instead of mailing out paper checks at taxpayer’s expense, do a deal with VISA, MasterCard or American Express to issue the giveaways as debit cards.

The credit card companies pick up the administrative costs of the program in exchange for the interchange rate on the transactions. Because it’s a debit card, you can’t just take the money and put it in the bank or use it to offset fixed expenses like rent or a mortgage. You pretty much have to spend it. And economists and policy wonks could get hard data on where people spend money that’s dropped in their laps.

You could even code the cards so that they can only be used on purchases most likely to stimulate the economy, such as domestic travel and eating out.

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About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is CEO of redesign | mobile. Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. His personal blog is at http://blog.agrawals.org and tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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One Response to What would you do with $600?

  1. Pingback: Occasional reader - WSJ, GPS, food orgies, tax rebates « reDesign

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