My Debit Card Confusion

I have a debit card. I think. It’s the ATM card my bank gave me. It’s got the MasterCard symbol on it, so I think that means I can use it to buy stuff. Of course, this is just a theory. In the ten years it’s been in my wallet I’ve never thought to test it out. Why would I?

Credit-cards Lotus Head I am going to admit right here that I am pretty obviously missing something when it comes to debit cards. Debit card transactions now outnumber credit card transactions. This mystifies me. I can think of only three reasons to carry a debit card rather than a credit card.

1) You are considered a poor credit risk and cannot get a credit card.

2) You can get a credit card but will not because of ethical or religious objections.

3) You find it too difficult to overcome the temptation to borrow more than you should if you carry a credit card, so carry a debit card that will limit your spending to cash you actually have.

I can’t get my head around how half the transactions in the country could be made by people in one of these categories. I know credit standards are tighter than they used to be, but I am sure that the vast majority of folks can get a credit card if they ask nicely. Ethical and religious objections can’t cover very many more.

And the third reason, that debit cards limit your spending, doesn’t usually pan out. As a plaintive article in yesterday’s Times points out, what generally happens if you run out of money in your account is not a denial the next time you try to buy something. What happens is the same as what happens when you write a check that overdraws your account. For most people at most banks, the check is covered but the bank charges interest and a significant fee for its trouble.

So if you bottom out your cash on hand in the account, your debit card doesn’t stop your profligate ways, it just turns into a really bad credit card.

(The Times article has a loopy defense of the fees charged, quoting an economist who says that 3,000 banks and credit unions would go under if they lost this fee income. "That is because 45 percent of the nation’s banks and credit unions collect more from overdraft services than they make in profits." That just means that 45% of banks either lost money last year or roughly broke even. Just about any single source of revenue will be bigger than the profits they made. And I thought credit unions weren’t supposed to make a profit at all.)

To be fair, some banks (including Citibank and INGDirect) do not automatically cover debit overdrafts. So a person could legitimately carry a debit card as a means of spending self-control, provided he shopped around for a debit card that worked that way. But my basic confusion remains. Most debit cards don’t put a practical limit on spending, so my reason #3 above can’t account for very many more users of debit than #1 and #2.

In a more perfect world, debit cards would be cheaper to use. There is no credit being provided, so it’s a service that should be cheaper to supply. In fact, the messy reality is that you pay exactly the same amount for something purchased with a credit or debit card. The big difference being that with the credit card you’ve got a few weeks to pay.

And if you’ve got a "rewards" or rebate credit card, using credit is actually cheaper. There are debit cards with rewards programs, but they are much less generous, because the banks get lower transaction fees from merchants and so have less to share in rebates.

And yet more than half of transactions are debit, projected to hit 60% by 2015. I don’t get it.

[Photo: Lotus Head]

No Comments

  • By Alexandra, September 9, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

    I don’t get it either.

    Worse still is that many bank accounts only allow a certain number of free transactions before they start charging a per transaction fee (I think 60 cents is the going rate). Using your debit card for all your purchasing greatly increases the chances of you exceeding that limit and handing even more money over to the bank.

    As far as I am aware, you can do millions of transactions with any credit card each month and there are never any transaction fees.

  • By My Journey, September 9, 2009 @ 2:29 pm

    2 Things:
    1) “To be fair, some banks (including Citibank and INGDirect) do not automatically cover debit overdrafts.”
    Ing Orange Checking provides overdraft protection for up to $150 but charges you under 10%apr on that…which I think is under the national average.

    2) I think there is a 4th option – that most people follow the talking heads on each of their fav cable news channel who scream at the use of CCs?

    Btw, for me its #3, I wanted to get rid of all CC debt prior to starting over and paying it off each month (which I have started to do).

  • By Rick Francis, September 9, 2009 @ 2:39 pm

    The only way it makes any sense is that some banks give larger interest rates on their accounts if you fufill a list of requirements- one of which is to make a minimum number of debit card purchases each period.

    I personally haven’t bothered- there were too many hoops and if you didn’t meet all the requirements you got a very low rate. Card rewards are just simpler, and I suspect total up to more unless you have a lot of cash.

    -Rick Francis

  • By Neil, September 9, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

    I’m equally confused. I use my debit card when there’s a minimum purchase requirement for credit, since I don’t carry cash. I also use it at Costco because the hassle of getting and carrying an Amex just to shop at Costco exceeds the potential point value.

    This may not work elsewhere – in Canada debit is a separate network from credit, so the transaction fees are very small (used to be 15c flat, may be up to 25c or so by now), and almost every retailer offers it even if they don’t take credit.

  • By Jim, September 9, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

    There are people who dislike credit because they do not like debt. So those folks may prefer a debit card over a credit card since they dislike debt in any form. Its not that they cant control their spending but they just do not want to use credit. My father is in this category. It has nothing to do with Dave Ramsey and he doesn’t think credit is ‘evil’ he just doesn’t want to pay interest. Obviously if he pays off the bill every month he wouldn’t pay interest, but he doesn’t have any incentive to do that when he can just use a debit card.

    There are also some establishments that will only take debit and will not take credit. Winco grocery store is like that here and Costco will only take limited credit cards. So people may use debit at these or similar merchants since they don’t take your preferred credit card.

  • By Dave, September 9, 2009 @ 3:00 pm

    I don’t think it’s as mystifying as you make it out to be. When someone spends down to a zero balance in their checking account, a $35 fee per transaction is surely a big disincentive for further spending. I think for a lot of people this serves as crude form of budgeting. This approach which would not work as effectively using a credit card, since presumably one’s credit limit is many times larger than one’s paycheck. I know of at least one family member who uses this “system” to control spending.

  • By Ben, September 9, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

    I don’t understand what there is to be mystified about. Some people prefer to use cash instead of credit. The debit card allows you to do that without carrying around a wad of paper bills that can be lost/stolen/destroyed. It’s a matter of personal preference and quite simple actually.

  • By Heather B, September 9, 2009 @ 3:49 pm

    Yet another reason some people prefer debit is shown by my husband: he is notoriously bad at keeping track of bills. It’s just too much of a bother for him, which you can see would lead pretty quickly to a decimated credit rating. He avoids the transaction fees because he only has the one bank account — checking — in which he keeps all his cash, so he qualifies for the fancy checking accounts with very few fees. (Side note: I was particularly pleased with that account while overseas; they charge no fees for use, including no foreign transaction fees, and they refund any fee that other banks’ ATMs charge. PNC Bank is delightful for us.)

    I personally like paying for groceries with the debit card because I can pull out my week’s supply of cash there instead of having to separately hit an ATM.

  • By Mr. ToughMoneyLove, September 9, 2009 @ 3:49 pm

    It’s not as mystifying as you profess. Some folks dislike credit card issuers and/or their fees and policies. Other folks are coming out of a bad relationship with credit cards and are exploring a more rational lifestyle. And I will give you my personal reason: Free rewards checking account that earns rewards plus pays 4.5% interest on all balances under $25k but requires 12 debt card transactions per month. Try getting that benefit with your credit card. If you can’t get any of that then you are too ingrained in our debt culture to understand.

  • By Steve, September 9, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

    The only time I use my debit card is when I am traveling out of the country. My credit cards all tack on fees for international transactions – at least they were forced to stop hiding them in a poor exchange rate! They even charged me the fee when I was in Puerto Rico, which is practically a US state! (I guess there was no exchange rate to hide fees in since they use the US Dollar?) My debit card only charges 1%, which is about as good as you can get.

    I also once or twice accidentally used my debit card for a transaction after I got a new main credit card that was the same color. Oops.

    Other than that, I certainly don’t understand the fascination with debit cards. More risk (both overdraft fees and less legal protection against unauthorized transactions) for less flexibility and less reward.

    Honestly, I think the reason for the proliferation of debit card transactions is that the banks are pushing them more, now that they’ve realized how profitable they can be. And the American populace is nothing if not susceptible to marketing.

  • By CalLadyQED, September 9, 2009 @ 3:59 pm

    You’re not paying the same amount if there’s a fee for the debit card transaction (I’ve never had any with PFF and now USBank, but my sister did with her old bank).

    Related to reason #3 (and perhaps #2), you also have high school and college students whose parents will not let them get credit cards (even though the DO qualify) and require them to use debit cards.

    Also, there are more and more rewards programs for debit cards.

    My USBank debit card can be used like a credit card. Actually, I can only get reward points if I do non-pin transactions, which means the merchant treats it like a regular VISA and I sign for he purchase. I have to click the “credit” button on the card-swiper machines at the cash register. So…are these transactions being counted as credit or debit? If they’re being counted as debit, then guess what? We may have already reached that 60% line.

  • By CalLadyQED, September 9, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

    And I forgot to point out that credit cards are usually safer and more convenient for the spender. The money isn’t tied up/taken immediately. Returns are less burdensome b/c you never actually paid for the item. You don’t have to worry about your money, which you didn’t spend, being earmarked for a few days after a gasoline purchase. You have are not faced with an empty bank account within an hour after your card is stolen.

  • By D, September 9, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

    I write this wondering if I’m going to get slammed for my irrationality.

    But I fall into category number 3 and now I operate almost completely with debit card. Two years ago when there was no credit crunch, I got a 0% apr credit card and used it to finance a flat screen tv. Before I knew it, I was swiping my credit card left and right with things I didn’t need. I knew I had time to pay the balance off so I didn’t think too hard about my purchases. Before I knew it, I was in a few thousand dollars of debt (less then 10 grand) and my 0% apr time was up. Luckily, I had good enough credit that a desperate bank was willing to take on my debt and give me another 0% apr period of a year.

    I now have opened a separate checking account where I pay almost everything from and give myself a very low amount – I am trying $450 a month. There is something psychological with me where seeing that $450 dwindle down keeps my spending in control. In the back of my mind, I know I can afford way more then that since I have over $10k in savings, money invested, and 18% going towards my 401k every month, but the fact that I make all my purchases revolve around that one tiny checking account makes all the difference in the world. My extra spending has cut down so much and I don’t think I’ll ever go back to credit cards again.

    I think there is a point in a person’s brain where they have so much debt racked up, adding a few hundred dollars to a bill of $8000 hardly seems like anything and it becomes a perpetual cycle.

    To the author of this article, consider yourself blessed that you don’t have this sickness that I do. But sometimes people take irrational and strange measures to cut down on their spending.

    For me, it was switching to the debit card. And for the record, I have never overdrawn my account and I am 26 years old.

    I hope my story helps others.

  • By Steve, September 9, 2009 @ 4:08 pm

    I intentionally requested an ATM Card from my bank. I have credit cards that I pay in full each month and use responsibly–and I reap the benefit of the (these days very modest) rewards.

    The only time I need the ATM card is for the _very_ rare times I need cash. I do not like the risk historically associated with debit cards.

    Mr. ToughMoneyLove hit the nail square on the head. Lots of people have been burned recently by credit cards: rate adjustments, “hidden” fees, etc. It is all too easy to shift the blame for lack of personal responsibility over to the credit card issuers. I am not trying to claim that the issuers are not partially at fault, but the number of people that aren’t willing or able to be rational with their finances is astounding.

  • By Adam, September 9, 2009 @ 5:20 pm

    My credit union offers a higher interest rate if I make a certain number of debit card transactions each month. That’s why I use the debit for small purchases, to make sure I get the minimum, and the credit card for larger ones to get cash back.

  • By Mike B, September 9, 2009 @ 6:37 pm

    I use credit cards for the big purchases and online stuff, of course. But, for the smaller day to day stuff, if I have the money sitting there in my account, I much prefer to use my debit card because I’m paying for it NOW as opposed to letting several transactions build up until the end of the month to pay off. I find that annoying because then it is a bigger bill to take care of. Of course, sometimes the bills and the paychecks don’t always align and I have to use my credit card and use the float until the bill comes. So, the debit card lets me get the transaction behind me instead of still in front of me and I don’t have to use up whatever cash I have on me.

  • By JSH, September 9, 2009 @ 7:17 pm

    Why do I use a debit card instead of a credit card? Convenience. With a debit card the money I spend comes directly out of my account. There is no need to wait for a bill, write a check, and then mail that payment. There are no fees associated with using my debit card as long as I don’t overdraft which has never been a problem.

    The benefits of rewards are a bit overblown. I used to have a airline mile card when I travelled frequently on business. With the amount of business travel expenses I charged an the card, paying a $75 fee to have the card made sense. Now with my normal level of personal spending the annual fee offsets any rewards. I do have a rewards VISA from my local credit union that gives a 1% cash-back reward with no annual fee. But again, the hassle of paying the bill isn’t worth the “reward” of a couple of bucks a month.

  • By Janet, September 9, 2009 @ 8:19 pm

    I use my debit card when I want to use the store as an “ATM” machine and get cash back from the purchase. If I have a stop that only takes cash and the bank ATM machine is inconvenient, this is a much quicker way to get some cash. It’s infrequent, but can be a helpful time saver.

  • By C. Ross Jam, September 9, 2009 @ 9:24 pm

    Don’t know if it’s rational, but I broadly categorize purchases into two categories. One is small, for some value of small, requires little to no planning, and can be handled out of a “petty cash” fund. That’s the debit card. The other class of purchases is large, for some value of large, enough that their implications and impact need to be carefully considered or delayed. That’s what the credit card is for.

    The win in cognitive costs outweighs the marginal benefit of rewards bonuses, the float, or buyer protection.

  • By C. Ross Jam, September 9, 2009 @ 9:30 pm

    Also, it would be interesting to see the dollar share of purchases of debit versus credit cards. I would speculate that credit cards still have a larger share of the actual dollars changing hands. My lunch debit purchases for the month won’t quite equal that plane ticket for my Labor Day trip that I had to charge.

  • By Holly, September 9, 2009 @ 9:52 pm

    There are lots of reasons to use my debit card just as all of those mentioned before me. I also get a nice percentage back on gas purchases and my bank sets up a credit card on file to handle any possible overdraftes–free of charge! It’s also very easy to see what $ is left at the end of a pay period by just logging into the site and looking at the checking account. Still use the cc from time to time as others have mentioned for the expensive items (for cash back), for online purchases (for purchase protection) or for items for which I might need to access the cc’s benefits (i.e. electronics since the cc provides an extra year warranty on whatever you purchase and also theft protection). “Consumables” and everyday things like groceries, gas, haircuts, pharmacy…these all go on the debit card.

  • By Andrew Choi, September 9, 2009 @ 10:56 pm

    I’ve tried to switching to debit b/c i do spend more freely w/ a CC where as with debit, i have to keep checking my balance. it’s psychological more than anything.

    BUT, i haven’t been able to do so after getting the schwab 2% invest first card that you undoubtedly wrote about!

  • By Andrew Choi, September 9, 2009 @ 10:58 pm

    oh wait, you didn’t write about the schwab card oops ^_^

  • By Jason, September 9, 2009 @ 11:55 pm

    I’d actually like to know what you see as the reason to use a credit card? I mean if I have enough cash in my account to cover my spending and I don’t have the time or inclination to receive and pay another bill every month, not to mention there are downsides just for missing that payment which have nothing to do with an overdraft. If it is cheaper for merchants to process debit cards, isn’t in my best interest to use my debit card and thus reduce overall merchants fees which I am essentially paying anyway? And I also do not spend one minute paying that credit card bill and hassling over what the rewards program is and isn’t and if/when it expires etc etc.. I’ll take my debit and spend my money when and how I want and my time the same. I just don’t want to deal with another entire transaction process in order to use a credit card for dubious benefit.

  • By Holly, September 10, 2009 @ 9:11 am

    Jason (above)–Using a Citicard cash-back cc is free money. Once you have $50 or more cash-back listed on your statement you just call the 1-800 # on the statement and they mail you the check in a week. You don’t even need to speak w/a live person. I think it’s great to get money back. I simply write each purchase amount in the checkbook just as if I used the debit card, that way I know that the money’s essentially GONE. And believe me, the cc has saved me a lot of headaches (i.e.-since the 1-yr. warranty had expr’d, I just used the Citicard extended warranty benefit to have my kids’ 2 year-old Wii fixed; savings of $90.00; I have also used the purchase protection to get my money back from a merchant who, upon my first purchase, unscrupulously signed me up for an expensive “automatic” monthly subscription, even though I had no knowledge of it!). And as far as an extra bill to worry about, I have my card on “AUTOPAY” and I don’t even look at the site but once a month to check for fraudulent activity. Plus good credit score w/using a cc responsibly. And trust me, I don’t work for Citibank (or any other bank).

  • By Larry, September 10, 2009 @ 9:21 am

    I use my debit card all the time for in-person small purchases, i.e. under $100. I use it at the grocery store, the liquor store, the bookstore, etc. The money comes right out of checking which means I don’t have to carry a lot of cash; and as stated, if I use it at grocery or drug stores, I can get additional cash back which saves me a trip to the ATM. I know I’m drawing on cash at hand and I incur no risk of charging too much on a credit card and not being able to pay my entire balance (point 3 I suppose). My bank has never charged me a fee to use my debit card. I like also that when I do online banking, the charge is immediately posted. In effect, debit cards have completely replaced the paper checks I used to write for similar purchases.

  • By ryan, September 10, 2009 @ 10:06 am

    Your first paragraph described my thinking to a tee. I agree with everything else in the post. I can’t believe so many people in this country, and posting on this board, have so little self control over their own lives and actions.

    “I have a debit card. I think. It’s the ATM card my bank gave me. It’s got the MasterCard symbol on it, so I think that means I can use it to buy stuff. Of course, this is just a theory. In the ten years it’s been in my wallet I’ve never thought to test it out. Why would I?”

  • By Heather B, September 10, 2009 @ 1:13 pm

    @ryan: As to the self-control issue, sometimes I prefer to spend my self-control on areas other than personal finance (e.g., eating healthfully, building an exercise habit). I find that self-control/willpower is a limited resource, and I can totally understand why some people don’t want to spend theirs on the various aspects of managing credit card use.

    @calLadyQED: As to rewards with debit cards, my bank also only gives rewards when I make non-PIN transactions. As I understand it, the banks make more money in merchant fees from credit than from debit transactions (% of purchase vs. small flat fee, I think), so banks prefer us to make credit transactions and merchants prefer debit ones.

  • By Larry, September 10, 2009 @ 3:29 pm

    Ryan: “I can’t believe so many people in this country, and posting on this board, have so little self control over their own lives and actions.”

    On the contrary, I see using a debit card as an instrument of self-control. Whenever I use it, I know exactly how much money I have available in my account and thus can budget myself accordingly. It is simply a tool – as is for that matter a credit card. I simply like knowing that if a transaction is paid using a debit card, it’s over and done with, unlike a credit card where an amount is floated for N number of days and I have to budget myself to make the payment in the future when the CC bill is due. I see no reason for your moralizing reaction.

  • By dawn, September 10, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

    i would add that using a credit card affords the borrower protection and limits liability to $50 as per federal law should your credit cards be stolen and abused by an identity thief.

  • By Heather B, September 10, 2009 @ 4:32 pm

    Wrt the folks saying that you have *no* federal protection if your debit card is lost/stolen, I found this page on ftc.gov: http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/credit/cre04.shtm

    Certainly the protection is less than that for credit cards, but not anywhere near as low as “your whole bank account could be cleaned out” so long as you report it missing within 60 days.

  • By Hibryd, September 10, 2009 @ 5:39 pm

    Since no one has covered this portion of the post…

    How credit & debit & ATM cards work:

    So, originally, you had credit cards and ATM cards. Visas or MasterCards were a big bank (like Citi) offering to loan you money on a monthly basis. Visa and MasterCard don’t pony up a dime: they just built the system that allows the transaction to take place. Visa and MasterCard take a cut out of every transaction (paid by the merchant) to cover their contribution, but Citi loans the money and charges interest.

    Discover and Amex put their own money up AND built their own systems. They also charge the merchant more per transaction (which is why several stores don’t accept those cards) but pass that along to their customers in the form of higher rewards. But that’s another story.

    Anyway, on the side you had ATM cards. Originally made just so you can get money out of your bank, they spread to stores that had special ATM keypads for your PIN. This is a plus for the stores because they don’t pay per transaction, but they have to keep a separate piece of equipment to receive everyone’s PINs, and they possibly pay extra to their CC merchant account to enable ATM transactions (depending on their merchant account).

    So, at some point Visa and MasterCard decided to bridge the gap. They said to local banks, hey, we already have this entire credit card infrastructure set up, if you partner with us you can issue ATM cards that ALSO work like credit cards. The customers swipe the card like a Visa/MC, sign for it, the transaction travels along our system, but the money comes directly out their accounts instead of being loaned.

    Visa and MasterCard still get their generous cut, the customer can buy something without having to enter their PIN, and it allows merchants to basically take ATM cards (not everyone wants to pay with credit) even if they only have access to the Visa/MC system with their merchant account.

    So, the reason you have a Visa/MC logo on your ATM card is that the transaction can run along the Credit Card Highway or ATM Road. The money comes out of your account just the same; the difference is just what route it takes.

  • By kitty, September 11, 2009 @ 9:35 pm

    @JSH “Why do I use a debit card instead of a credit card? Convenience. With a debit card the money I spend comes directly out of my account. There is no need to wait for a bill, write a check, and then mail that payment.”

    There is this wonderful new invention called “automatic payment” with the option to choose it for the full balance. This way the money you spend still come directly from your account, but you a) have an option to verify all transactions before the money are actually taken and deny a transaction if say an item you buy hasn’t been delivered or if you haven’ bought it in the first place b) all of the money are taken right before the due date so your money can still earn interest in the meantime.

  • By In NJ, September 22, 2009 @ 6:51 pm

    I’m all for the Dave Ramsey principal. I’ve gotten rid of all my credit cards and only use my debit card and/or cash. The catch is you have to stop living like everyone did for the past 20 years and get back to basics. Setup a monthly budget so that you know what amount of money you have to spend on things. Period… I dont think it can be any simpler than that.

  • By Old School, February 9, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

    This article infuriates me. Is it too much to hope that one would have an idea of the amount in his/her account before making purchases with said debit card? In this way, a debit card works as a more modern version of the old school check book. Simple!

  • By Cotton, February 16, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

    Quote: “This article infuriates me. Is it too much to hope that one would have an idea of the amount in his/her account before making purchases with said debit card? In this way, a debit card works as a more modern version of the old school check book. Simple!”

    Old School, its NOT simple when you’re dealing with someone who’s fiscally irresponsible…I went through this with my spouse years ago, who had run up a credit card (without my knowing) into the 10K plus amount; switching to checking alone didn’t work since she wouldn’t right in checks she had written so was overdrafted sometimes as much as 300$ a month in fees alone! I had the “brilliant” idea to switch her to a debit card (they were new then) not realizing that it was essentially a checking account. That was a disaster! For some folks, cash only or tracking their spending daily is the only option. Debit cards have the added burden of not being able to “see” what you’ve subtracted like a checkbook does (assuming you write in what you spend) LOL! I’m not saying credit cards are alot better, but debit cards are ALOT more risky than the average person realizes.

  • By mickey, March 31, 2010 @ 10:42 am

    As one or two posters have mentioned, I receive a pretty nice return (4.01%) on my checking account with my credit union up to $25K IF I use my debit card for a minimum of 10 transactions per month. For me, it’s worth it. I make much more per month on my checking account versus the $50 check Citi sends me when I hit their magic number.

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