Small Business

Facts You Might not Know About Debit Cards

Posted on: February 8, 2010

Debit Cards

America is quickly becoming a cashless society. Whereas it would have seemed odd, or even in poor taste to do so in the past, people routinely use plastic to pay for even the smallest purchases, such as a Slurpee from 7-Eleven. Almost all gas stations allow you to “pay at the pump,” and even fast food restaurants began accepting “debit or credit” a few years ago. And that’s not to mention the millions of cashless transactions that occur every day in cyberspace, through web sites like eBay, Amazon.com, and other popular e-tailers.

Clearly, having some form of cashless payment is essential to being a fully functioning American consumer these days, and millions of people are opting to use a debit card attached to their checking accounts rather than traditional credit cards. Is this a wise move?

Dr. Jekyll’s Lovely Little Debit Card

The primary advantage of debit cards is that they give you access to cash. A little known fact about cash advances on traditional credit cards is that they begin accruing interest from the moment you get your hands on the money. This means that even if you paid last month’s bill in full, you will still have interest charges on your next bill whenever you take out a cash advance. Debit cards allow you access to cash through ATM’s at no interest – after all, it’s your money.

The other major benefit of debit cards is that they’re an option for credit constrained consumers. While it may seem like credit card companies will give cards to anyone, the truth is that once you make a serious mistake – such as falling behind on your card for a few consecutive months, resulting in a “charge off” – it can be very difficult to qualify for credit again anytime soon. Since some form of plastic is required for so many of life’s necessities, debit cards offer these people a means of remaining viable members of our cashless society.

Mr. Hyde’s “Instrument of Financial Death”

But there is a downside to debit cards, too. Consumer advocate, Howard Strong, even refers to debit cards as “financial death” cards. While his perspective may be a little over the top, he does cite several disadvantages of debit card usage in his 1999 book, What Every Credit Card User Needs to Know.

First, by using a debit card, you lose the advantage of using the credit card company’s money interest free. This interest free period occurs from the time you make a purchase until the due date of your bill. If, for example, you used your credit card to buy a $2,500 sofa the day after receiving your statement, you would then have more than 30 days to come up with the $2,500 before being charged interest. If you used a debit card, you would have $2,500 sucked out of your account the moment you made the purchase.

Secondly, using a debit card typically has no positive impact on your credit. Credit card companies report payment information to the three major credit bureaus each and every month. When you pay your bills on time, it has a positive effect on your credit score. Debit cards don’t utilize credit, so there’s nothing for the bank to report – unless, of course, you overdraw your bank account and then are unwilling or unable to pay whatever egregious fees the bank charges. In this way, using a debit card can have a negative effect on your credit.

Finally, using a debit card puts you at more risk than using a credit card because it is easier to “stop payment” of erroneous or fraudulent charges with a credit card. When Mr. Strong wrote his book in 1999, this was more of a problem than it is today, since much has been done to improve the security of electronic transactions. Still, the fact remains that someone could use your debit card to empty out your bank account, and while you would almost certainly get your money back, it could take some time. Since credit cards have no ability to draw on your savings or checking, this possibility doesn’t exist with them.

The Reality – You Need Both

If you can qualify for a credit card, even at a high interest rate, you should almost definitely have one. After all, credit cards help you build credit and the interest rate is irrelevant if you’re responsible and pay your bills in full and on time. You should also have a debit card for getting cash quickly and easily without the up-front interest that credit cards charge on cash advances.

If you’re really worried about the “Mr. Hyde” effects of debit card usage, consider opening a separate account tied to your debit card. You can set up automatic weekly or monthly transactions that move money from your primary account to this special account, so that the amount you could lose is always limited to $200, $500, or whatever you decide.

Carl Smith is a freelance financial consultant. Learn tips on how to manage your credit cards debts and access free credit reports.

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1 Response to "Facts You Might not Know About Debit Cards"

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