What employers need to know about benefit cards

Written by: Chase Charaba
Published on September 27, 2022.

In today's world, debit cards are one of the most used payment methods for consumer goods. They allow you to make purchases online and in stores much quicker than cash or other methods.

Given that most people are familiar with debit cards and how they work, many third-party administrators and employee benefits software solutions promote the use of benefits expense cards instead of providing employees cash, checks, or expense reimbursement.

While using a benefits card may seem more convenient than paying for expenses out of pocket, it can come with its own hassles.

In this article, we'll cover everything employers need to know about benefit cards and alternative solutions for your benefits administration.

Want an easy way to provide personalized benefits to your employees? Learn more about employee stipends with our free guide

Why are some employers switching to card-based employee benefits?

There are a few reasons why some employers are embracing a benefits card system.

More readily available technology

Much like technological advances have made remote work possible, employee benefit cards have become more prevalent in recent years thanks to software and HR tech improvements.

The use of benefits cards gives employees an easy way to use their perks while still giving employers and HR managers control over their budgets.

The rise in personalized benefits

Perhaps the most significant reason organizations are adopting benefits card-based programs is the increasing desire for individualized benefits.

With a tight labor market following the Great Resignation, perks are essential for attracting and retaining top talent. Traditional benefits such as group health insurance or on-site gyms don't have the same appeal or affordability as personalized benefits.

Instead of relying on these traditional benefits that provide the same offerings to everyone, you can provide personalized benefits that empower your employees to use their perks the way they want to.

A benefits card that’s tied to a lifestyle saving account (LSA) or employee stipend provides employees with a personalized experience. However, it isn't the only method for providing these benefits.

What types of perks can you offer a benefits card for?

There's no limit to which types of expenses you can offer a benefits expense card for. This ranges from employer-sponsored stipends and LSAs for various taxable fringe benefits to tax-free options like health savings accounts (HSAs) and health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs).

Examples of fringe benefits that may be available include:

  • Qualified transportation benefits (also called commuter benefits)
  • Adoption benefits
  • Education and tuition (such as the cost of books)
  • Work-related expenses (such as the cost of tools)
  • Meal vouchers

While the possibilities are endless, employers are often responsible for tracking any employment taxes resulting from offering these benefits.

How does a benefits card work?

Generally, a benefits card works similarly to a debit card. When your employees want to use their allocated funds on an eligible expense online or in-person, they use their card like they might a debit or credit card. Some cards may require employees to run them as credit, but others have the option to create PINs for use as a debit transaction.

Some providers issue physical cards, but virtual cards also exist. Funds are then used from the worker's employer-funded account to pay for the transaction.

Some solutions only work if your employees use their cards at an approved vendor, while others use more advanced systems to determine which purchases are eligible or ineligible according to IRS guidelines and employer-set rules. However, this generally only works if your employees aren't trying to buy other items alongside approved ones in the same transaction.

Some providers offer a mobile app that allows your employees to scan items to determine if the product is eligible under your plan.

Depending on the perks in your benefit plans, your employees may have taxable and tax-free expenses. Any taxable benefits must be reported as income on your employees' Form W-2s.

If you offer your employees an HSA, their HSA card will be connected to their individual HSA accounts at their financial institution.

Pros of using cards with your benefits program

There are many advantages to using a card-based solution for your personalized benefits package.

Faster for your employees

Using a benefits card can be quicker for your employees than other methods of providing personalized benefits. With a reimbursement model, employees must spend their own money first, then submit a request for reimbursement from their allowance.

A card-based solution allows employees to skip this step in many cases, though they may still need to hold onto receipts.

Higher benefits utilization

Because most consumers are familiar with debit and credit cards, they will likely use their new card-based benefits. There's a smaller learning curve than with other solutions.

Cons of using benefit cards

While there are many advantages of using benefit card-based programs, there are also disadvantages compared to reimbursement methods.

They can require employees to submit manual claims

To maintain compliance with certain tax-free benefits, such as HRAs, employees must submit proper substantiation each time they use their card.

What counts as “proper substantiation” will depend on what your worker is trying to buy. If they want to use their card for over-the-counter drugs, they'll need to get a doctor's prescription and a receipt from the pharmacy to submit to the third-party administrator.

While some IIAS-compliant pharmacies can bypass the manual claim requirement, most healthcare providers still require it—which makes things that much more confusing for your workers.

All of this is a burden on you and your HR department if they don't submit the required information. It's then up to you to get it from them for their HRA reimbursement to be valid.

With non-medical expenses, certain providers still require random documentation checks to ensure employees use their cards correctly. This can create problems if your employees successfully use their allowances on ineligible items.

Not everyone accepts virtual cards or benefits cards

Even if your worker is trying to pay for a qualified product or service, some businesses won't allow them to use their virtual or physical benefits debit card.

Another issue that might arise is that some places will accept your benefits card even if you're buying things that aren't qualified.

For example, let's say your worker picks up some snacks at the pharmacy while waiting for their prescription to be filled, and they accidentally swipe their benefits card instead of their personal card. That purchase may go through, and your employee will be responsible for paying that money back to their account.

Cards can't process payments over the allowance amount

What happens if your worker has a charge that's more than the amount remaining in their HRA or stipend allowance? The card simply gets declined if they don't create separate purchases for the remaining amount and the excess.

So even if they still have $100 left on their card, if they try to pay for a product or service that costs $115, the card won't process the payment unless they request a split payment.

Employees must keep a close eye on how much money is left on their cards. Otherwise, they could end up with no way to pay for what they need. You'll need to educate your employees on how their cards work to avoid these scenarios from arising.

HRA compliance and personalization can be more challenging

When employers offer an HRA without a debit card, employers have all sorts of options to personalize the HRA for their employees’ unique needs. However, these personalizations aren’t always allowed when used with a debit card.

For example, with an HRA debit card, you may be unable to vary the allowance amounts for different classes of employees. So if you want your full-time employees to have a certain allowance while your part-time employees have another, an HRA debit card may not work.

What’s more, if you want a premium-only HRA that doesn’t cover any additional medical expenses, employers may be unable to restrict the card’s usage to allow for this.

Alternatives to benefits cards

As mentioned previously, there are other methods for providing your workers with personalized benefits. One of the most popular methods is using benefits administration software, like PeopleKeep.

If you like the convenience of cards but want to avoid the extra complications, administration software is the best of both worlds. A good administrative tool will give your plan administrator the training and ongoing support needed to keep your benefits compliant and functioning smoothly.

When your employees incur a qualifying expense, they can request reimbursement through the software. Once approved, you can simply cut your employees a check or apply the amount to their next paycheck. With PeopleKeep, employers usually only spend a few minutes each month managing their benefits.


Employee benefit cards are a new way to provide personalized benefits to your employees through stipends or LSAs. As with any tool, they come with their advantages and disadvantages. You'll need to consider your organization's needs and which types of benefits you want to offer to determine whether a benefits card is right for you.

If you're looking to offer personalized benefits without the hassle, PeopleKeep can help. Our benefits administration platform makes it easy to set up and manage HRAs and stipends in minutes each month.

Schedule a call with a personalized benefits advisor to see how PeopleKeep's software solutions can help your organization attract and retain top talent through perks

This blog article was originally published on February 8, 2021. It was last updated on September 27, 2022.

Originally published on September 27, 2022. Last updated September 27, 2022.


Additional Resources

View All Resources