Debit cards vs credit cards
Plastic cards are all the same, right? Wrong! Debit and credit cards go head-to-head over ten rounds -- and a winner emerges!
How do debit and credit cards compare? Naturally, there will be occasions when it is better to use one rather than the other. So here's our detailed guide to which plastic is more fantastic!
Almost all plastic cards belong to one of six major payment-card systems, which are operated by American Express, Diners Club, JCB International, Maestro, MasterCard and Visa. These operators process transactions and transmit money through their card networks.
However, credit cards have been around a lot longer than debit cards have. The first major credit card, Barclaycard, was introduced forty years ago in June 1966. However, the UK's first debit card, the Visa Delta card, using the brand name Connect, was launched by Barclays in 1987.
One point to credit cards
2. Ease of use
Debit and credit cards have fairly similar formats and appearances; for example, they all measure about 86mm by 54mm, and have a 16-digit number across the middle.
They work in pretty much identical ways, too. When you present your plastic card for payment, the retailer sends data to the bank which processes card transactions on its behalf, known as the merchant acquirer.
This data then passes to the card scheme (such as MasterCard or Visa), which then electronically contacts your card issuer to gain approval for the transaction. The relevant information will then be squirted back down the line, and your card issuer will debit your bank account or credit-card account and pass it down the chain. All this communication takes just a few seconds. Job done!
Most organisations which take debit cards also take credit cards, so we'll call this round a draw.
½ point to both cards
3. Additional charges
This is where things get interesting! On some occasions, paying with a credit card can incur additional handling fees and interest, which gives debit cards the edge in these circumstances.
For example, some travel agents and other outlets which process large transactions will add a surcharge of, say, 2% if you pay by credit card. On a £2,500 family holiday, this adds £50 to the bill, so paying by debit card would be the better option. Furthermore, when you buy foreign currency on your credit card, some issuers apply the same charges and sky-high interest rates that they levy on cash withdrawals. The same goes for online gambling and other cash-like transactions, so beware!
You can read more about these charges in Airlines to include debit card charges in headline prices.
One point to debit cards
4. Withdrawing cash
In the first quarter of 2012 alone, we used our plastic cards to make £46 billion worth of cash withdrawals from automated teller machines (also known as ATMs, cash machines, holes in the wall, etc.). Read why cash and credit cards don't mix for more.
Credit cards, on the other hand, should NEVER be used for cash withdrawals! Why not? Simply because credit-card issuers charge withdrawal fees, typically 3% of the amount withdrawn, minimum £3 -- and these fees are creeping up. In addition, most credit cards don't provide any interest-free period for cash transactions, so you start paying interest at ultra-high cash rates (usually 20% APR or more) from day one.
Credit cards and cash machines don't mix, so don't let them meet!
Another point to debit cards
5. Fraud and legal protection
If money is fraudulently taken from your current account or credit-card account, and you haven't been negligent with your card and PIN, you are only liable for the first £50 of any theft and often the bank won’t even apply this excess.
However, if you've carelessly revealed your PIN (perhaps by writing it down on a document kept with your card), then you will foot the entire bill -- and learn a valuable lesson about information security! On this count, credit cards and debit cards offer a similar level of consumer protection.
However, credit cards have the edge when it comes to paying for goods costing £100 or more, thanks to the valuable legal rights afforded by Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act. If you order goods or services costing between £100 and £30,000, in the UK or overseas, and pay even a £1 deposit with your credit card, your card issuer stands in the shoes of the supplier if the goods fail to arrive, are damaged or faulty, or are otherwise unfit for their intended purpose.
Hence, if you don't want to lose your money if a supplier goes bust, stick to paying with your credit card for goods costing £100+!
Another point to credit cards
6. Interest-free periods and interest rates
If you always pay off your credit card in full every month, you can enjoy an interest-free period which typically lasts between 45 and 59 days. However, if you don't, you can expect to pay annual rates of interest which average around 16% a year, but can exceed 30% APR! (To avoid this problem, you can use a 0% on purchases credit card, which offers an introductory interest-free period lasting over a year.)
On the other hand, when you make a purchase using a debit card, the money is debited from your bank account within a day or two, so there's no effective interest-free period.
What's more, you won't pay any interest while your current account is in credit -- and you could earn 4% a year on your in-credit balances in a best buy current account. However, if your spending takes you overdrawn or you exceed any approved overdraft limit, you'll face a frightening assortment of charges and mega-high interest rates, so stay out of the red if you don't have prior permission!
Another point to debit cards
7. Cashback, loyalty and rewards schemes
There are dozens of cashback and rewards credit cards to choose from, the best of which pay up to 6% cashback for an introductory period. Personally, I do all of my shopping on my cashback card, as I pay off my entire bill each month by direct debit. You can easily earn hundreds of pounds a year doing this. Result!
One point to credit cards
8. Credit limits
Finally, we come to the tricky subject of credit limits. With a current account, you can freely spend as much as you have in your account, plus the value of any approved overdraft. With a £2,000 credit balance and a £1,000 authorised overdraft, you could spend up to £3,000 before penalty charges kick in.
On the other hand, credit cards encourage millions of people to spend money that they don't have. Indeed, many people see a £10,000 credit limit as a target, and assume that they have been given an extra £10,000 to go mad with in the shops.
With banks sending out credit-card offers in their millions every week, easy credit could easily become tough debt when times get hard. So I'm awarding the final round to debit cards, not debt cards!
Final point to debit cards
After eight rounds, here is the judge's decision: credit (debt) cards have a respectable 3 ½ points, but debit cards win the contest with 4 ½ points.
This decision is mine and it's final, but if you disagree with my ruling, then please share your thoughts using the comments box below!
This is a lovemoney.com classic article which is regularly updated.
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