Debit card or credit card? Here are the pros and cons

ByABC News
August 28, 2009, 11:33 AM

— -- Last year, debit card use surpassed credit card use for the first time in history: Americans made 28.4 billion debit purchases compared with 21 billion credit card purchases, according to payment systems newsletter The Nilson Report.

It happened, industry watchers say, because of tighter credit, recession-weary and strapped consumers, wider acceptance of debit cards for small purchases, and a burgeoning youth market that prefers paying with debit cards.

The typical American household carries four credit or debit cards. Which should be in your wallet, and for what should each card be used?

Brian Riley, research director for the TowerGroup, says consumers should pick the card that's the best fit for their specific needs: convenience, low interest, fraud protection, rewards or even as a help in taming your inner spendthrift.

First step, though: Consider cash for the purchase. Cash is the simplest transaction and comes with no strings, fees or delayed costs.

But if you need to use a card, know what costs you might face. Read the fine print in the notices you receive in the mail, and pay attention to statements and accounts.

Debit card pros and cons

Some considerations when using a debit card:

Make sure the funds are there. A $6 sandwich can wind up costing $46 if you don't realize your checking account is flat-lining. Most merchants no longer reject a card if you have an inadequate balance; instead, you incur a hefty overdraft fee.

For example, Bank of America charges $35 for each overdraft above $5. Spokeswoman Anne Pace says fees will be capped after a consumer makes 10 overdrafts in a single day; overdrafts totaling less than $5 carry a smaller fee of $10. Wachovia charges $22 for the first overdraft in a 12-month period, then $35 for each subsequent one, says spokeswoman Richele Messick.

Messick suggests debit customers can avoid fees if they keep track of expenditures and link checking accounts to savings accounts, credit cards or lines of credit.