Sobriety's New Prepaid Card
Three sober addicts have created the Next Step Card to help people in early recovery manage their money.
After grappling with addiction since he was a freshman in college, 28-year-old Eric Dresdale finally spent four months at a Florida inpatient rehab facility in October of 2010. Although he had learned the tools for living a sober life during his time in treatment, Dresdale soon realized that he had virtually no concept about the value of money. “Within two weeks, I had blown through $500 on all these ridiculous purchases like going to Starbucks, buying food for people,” he says. “I wanted to feel in control of the situation and money is a way that can help you do that sometimes. It helped fill the inadequacies and the voids I had.”
The realization that he had never learned to spend money responsibly is something that many newly sober addicts awaken to, often when looking through previous bank statements. And access to cash can often be a quick route to buying drugs or just engaging in other activities not encouraged in recovery. With that in mind, Dresdale teamed up with his friends Louis Fisher and Ryan Jaffe to launch the Next Step Card, the first prepaid card ever to be specifically marketed for those recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. It officially went on the market last month.
This is a MasterCard that comes with built-in controls so that it is automatically declined when the cardholder tries to use it at liquor stores, bars, casinos or with escort companies. It also prevents cardholders from taking out money at an ATM or earning cash back with a purchase. Co-signers on the card—typically a parent or counselor—can also set daily spending limits. And the number of transactions per month can also be limited.
"It was like learning how to walk again financially when I left treatment,” he explains. “I had no idea how to budget money.”
“A daily spending limit deters someone from spending money without a care in the world,” explains Dresdale. “My parents didn’t want to give me money when I left treatment because my trust with them had been so diminished that they were concerned about where it would go. Having access to this kind of system would have allowed me to build trust and would have also given them peace of mind.”
Next Step’s mission is also educational: their website includes monthly budget reports that recovering addicts are encouraged to review so that they can gain a better understanding of where their money (or their co-signer’s money) is being spent.
“There’s very little accountability with a normal ATM debit card, no trace with cash and people often sell or trade gift cards,” says Dresdale. “We want to encourage and teach financial responsibility because there are so many rationalizations you can make in your head for bad money habits. You don’t have to be using to be spending money recklessly. And you can get sober from alcohol or drugs and still become a gambling or shopping addict.”
Since he hails from up an admittedly affluent family on Long Island, Dresdale didn’t grow up overly concerned about money. But what started out as standard high school partying during weekend trips to NYC turned into a full-blown problem when he was a freshman at Indiana University. A high-functioning alcoholic while he was establishing a successful career in commercial real estate, Dresdale was forced to put down the bottle when he was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis; by then, his painkiller use had rapidly increased.
Several of Dresdale’s closest friends held an intervention in October 2009, but he convinced them that he could manage his drug use. Yet after attempting to get clean on his own and quickly relapsing, he checked into rehab the following year. Once he left, it took him four to six months to kick his bad spending habits—even longer than it had taken him to deal with his addictions. “I had been in the professional world for six or seven years and doing okay, but it was like learning how to walk again financially when I left treatment,” he explains. “I had no idea how to budget money.”
Dresdale’s business partner Fisher, meanwhile, joined the marines out of high school, where he was introduced to drugs (and later discharged). By 2005, his slow but steady pill use had escalated into addiction and he ventured into and out of the rooms of AA for the next four years. Shortly before his 30th birthday, Fisher entered a treatment center in Florida and has now been sober for over a year. “I’ve always provided for myself and never got to that place where I couldn’t, but having something like a limited number of transactions per month would have been a great tool for me,” Fisher says. “I’m always trying to fill a void through shopping or whatever else, so I would have had a lot more stability in the beginning if I’d had something like this.”
Although far cheaper than a rehab facility or other methods of treatment, some potential customers may nevertheless balk at the idea of paying Next Step Card’s $9.95 activation fee as well as their $14.95 monthly fee to access their own money. The budget reports also don’t include individual items purchased and only show the total amount spent at an establishment. And of course it’s still possible for addicts to get alcohol or drugs in other ways—like buying alcohol at a supermarket instead of a liquor store. The card creators have tried to remedy some of these potential issues by teaming up with shoeboxed.com, which allows card users to scan their individual receipts and post them online for co-signers to review. “This card isn’t relapse prevention,” Fisher explains. “It’s money management.”
While some of these restrictions may seem infantilizing to grown men and women, medical experts believe they may also be necessary. “If you give someone a bicycle and they continually crashed, you’d probably opt for training wheels,” says Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, a sober doctor who has appeared repeatedly on Good Morning America, among other shows. “This type of card makes someone think several times about how they’re spending money. Not being able to get alcohol in one place may bring on a cognitive break where that impulse to drink would be diminished."
Of course all of these restrictions mean that, unlike traditional credit cards, Next Step is angling for the short-term customer. “While we are a for-profit company, there is a huge altruistic component to what we are doing," Dresdale says. "We do not encourage enabling and have already suggested to some individual customers that if the person they are supporting continues to use money on things other than necessities, or are attempting to make ATM withdrawals, they stop using our card and providing financial support.”
The early signs for the Next Step Card have been encouraging: the company has been steadily building up their roster of customers and has received positive feedback from card users and co-signers. Enough recovery facilities have also inquired about the card that they are looking into creating a corporate program for rehabs and halfway houses, which would allow each facility to be the main signer on the program and to distribute cards individually. “Life skills aren’t addressed enough in treatment,” Dresdale says. “The end goal is becoming a productive, successful member of society who can live independently. We’re simply offering a service that helps facilitate that.”
McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer currently residing in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Time Out New York, The Huffington Post, abcnews.com and usopen.org, among others. He has also written about Carré Otis and Celebrity Rehab, among many other topics, for The Fix.