Goals, How To

Plastic Wars: Credit vs Debit

Leo Reynolds

Credit or debit? – an important question for those trying to come out ahead in recessionary times. The answer can be a little complicated. It depends on a few things, namely, your spending habits, your ability to pay your bills on time, and the total dollar amount that you pay with debit and credit. These are the variables that you can control. Unfortunately, they’re not the only ones.

What remains to be seen are the clever tricks credit card providers will play in light of the major reform that was recently signed into law by President Obama that will go into effect in 2010. About the best you can do is take advantage of the existing rules and set yourself up for future financial success.

An Easy Choice for Some

For starters, those whom the credit card companies have feasted on can be packaged into one of the following categories.

Group #1 – Buys a little or a lot, carries a balance, pays on time.
Group #2 – Buys a little or a lot, carries a balance, doesn’t pay on time.

If you’re in one of these two groups, the answer is simple. You have been targeted. Cut up your credit cards now. If you’re using credit to pay for things you can’t afford, you are digging yourself a big hole. Even with the new regulations that will go into effect next year, credit card companies will still be able to charge late fees and whatever fee they desire. Don’t let them. Switch to paying with debit. The “I need a credit card to survive” argument is a pretty weak one, regardless of circumstance.

A New Target?

Where it gets more interesting is when you consider those who have used cards responsibly. They fall into one of the following two groups:

Group #3 – Buys a lot, no balance, pays on time, uses credit to get rewards.
Group #4 – Buys a little, no balance, pays on time, uses credit to get rewards.

The question of credit or debit is not quite as simple for these responsible bill payers that have used credit cards as a means to reap financial reward. Creditors have long offered rewards to target these consumers. In theory, it should be safe to assume that those who have credit cards for their rewards are responsible bill payers – if you’re paying 15% interest on 2% rewards, you have some things to sort out.

With the industry set to take a financial hit on regulations aimed to protect those who are typically hit with fees and high interest, there has been mention of industry backlash against the users who have been responsible and not contributed as much to the credit card companies bottom lines. It won’t be long before the industry responds with new or old ways to make up for lost revenue. If annual fees are re-instated or rewards are cut back, those who have a choice of credit or debit and may have to make some decisions regarding which they option they choose.

Debit Card Rewards – A Game Changer?

To make matters more interesting, many debit cards have begun offering rewards in the last few years. Debit card rewards tend to be a little less enticing than credit card rewards, however. Banks generally offer one point for every $2 spent with a debit card, compared with one point for every $1 spent with a credit card.

It’s worth noting that many debit card rewards programs require you to use the “signature” option of your card, which means the card is swiped, you sign for the purchase and the transaction is run through the merchant’s processing system, versus punching in a PIN code. This is because the bank collects an interchange fee for that transaction from the merchant, which would be less if you paid with the debit option using your PIN. The bank then uses those fees to offset the cost of the rewards program.

Additionally, many debit rewards cards are charging annual fees. Those that don’t tend to offer highly scaled back rewards. Less rewards, annual fees, and the possibility of getting dinged on fees for going below your checking account minimum balance? This model has a little work to do.

Seeking Optimal Return at the Lowest Expense

Regardless of how the industry changes the fees and rewards for responsible card users, the goal here should be to get the highest total return. If you spend a lot (group #3) and benefit from hundreds or thousands of dollars of rewards each year, it may make sense to eat the expense of an annual fee and use a credit cards, both of which should point towards bigger rewards.If you don’t spend much (group #4) you may want to opt for a debit card or credit card with no annual fee, even if the rewards are small. Whichever way you choose, it is important to pay your bills on time, not carry over a balance, and stay above your minimum in your checking account.

For more of GE Miller’s writing, visit personal finance blog 20somethingfinance.com.