Pick Your Plastic: Debit or Credit?

According to a Federal Reserve study, Americans use debit cards more often than credit cards, but the total value and the average value of credit card transactions are higher than those of debit card transactions (see chart).

This reflects fundamental differences. A debit card acts like a plastic check and draws directly from your checking account, whereas a credit card transaction is a loan that remains interest-free only if you pay your monthly bill on time. For this reason, people may use a debit card for regular expenses and a credit card for "extras." However, when deciding which card to use, you should be aware of other differences.

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Fraud protection. In general, you are liable for no more than $50 in fraudulent credit card charges. For debit cards, a $50 limit applies only if a lost card or PIN is reported within 48 hours. The limit is $500 if reported within 60 days, with unlimited liability after that. A credit card may be safer in higher-risk situations, such as when shopping online, when the card will leave your sight (as in a restaurant), or when you are concerned about a card reader. If you regularly use a debit card in these situations, you may want to maintain a lower checking balance and keep most of your funds in savings.

Merchant disputes. You can dispute a credit card charge before paying your bill and shouldn't have to pay it while the charge is under dispute. Disputing a debit card charge can be more difficult when the charge has been deducted from your account, and it may take some time before the funds are returned.

Rewards and extra benefits. Debit cards offer little or no additional benefits, while some credit cards offer cash-back rewards, and major cards typically include extra benefits such as travel insurance, extended warranties, and secondary collision and theft coverage for rental cars (up to policy limits). Of course, if you do not pay your credit card bill in full each month, the interest you pay can outweigh any financial rewards.

Credit history. Using a credit card can affect your credit score positively or negatively depending on how you use it. A debit card has no effect on your credit.

Considering the additional protections and benefits, a credit card may be a better choice in some situations — but only if you pay your monthly bill on time.

 
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