Debit Or Credit? Which One Should You Choose At The Checkout?
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It’s a question I’m asked at least a few times a day when I use my check card, usually by one of those little card-reading machines (although sometimes, an actual living person asks, too). Being someone who hates the word “credit” I have always opted for “debit” and proceeded to enter my PIN number. But have I been doing it all wrong?
Most of us carry a check card these days. More convenient than checks, and safer than cash, the check card allows a vendor to take money from your checking account and deposit it in their own. And it’s quick. Often, you’ll see transactions appear on your online bank statement minutes after you have swiped the card.
Now, when you’re at the checkout of any store, you’ll be posed a question — debit or credit? And although the outcome seems the same (a deduction from your checking account), it’s a different process with different consequences, and it uses two different networks. (See also: 4 Ways to Beat Debit Card Fees)
So, let’s say you have a Visa check card. Choose credit and you’ll be asked to sign for you purchase. All signature transactions go through the Visa network, and come with the additional security offered by credit card companies. That includes fraudulent use protection and Visa’s Zero Liability Policy.
But stores really don’t like this option, which is why they ask you the “debit or credit” question. And the reason? Banks get a much larger percentage fee from the merchant or vendor when you sign for your goods, and it is an enormous source of non-traditional revenue. That’s why banks offer reward points and incentives to check card holders who choose the credit option.
On the other hand, when you choose debit, you’ll be asked for a 4-digit PIN number. This purchase is then processed through an EFT (Electronic Funds Transfer) system like STAR or NYCE. These networks don’t provide the additional liability protection offered by Visa. However, the store won’t incur the same hefty fee that they will have to pay if you choose credit, so stores like this option. A reader also asked a question about cash back. Only the debit/PIN# option allows this transaction, and as doing it this way avoids ATM fees, it's a good choice when you do need some cash. And it’s possible that more people choosing the debit option will equate to lower prices in stores. I say “possible” because there’s really no way to predict what stores would do with any extra savings…most likely, they’ll get passed on to the shareholders.
But whether you choose debit or credit, either method is safer than using cash or writing checks. Lose a check card and you’re covered for almost everything you lose (usually there’s a $50 out-of-pocket cost) and it’s easy to cancel cards and order new ones. When you lose cash, you’ll probably never see it again. Checks can be easily altered and they’re also time-consuming (just think back to how you felt the last time someone paid by check for a candy bar or bottle of soda).
Back to the big question. Debit or credit?
Me, I’m going with the credit option from now on (unless I want cash back). Not only will I enjoy the added protection of something like the Visa Zero Liability Policy, but I can also take advantage of my bank’s reward programs and incentive policies. Now, it may not be as good for the store, but that’s something merchants and vendors need to negotiate.
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any bank, card issuer, airline or hotel chain.