Credit versus Debit: What’s the Difference?

On the surface, debit cards and credit cards look very much alike. In either case, the user typically slides a wallet-sized piece of plastic through a card reader, and then signs a receipt or enters a Personal Identification Number (PIN), authorizing his or her transaction. Looking more closely at these forms of payment, you will notice a few fundamental differences. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Source of Funds

The most basic difference between credit and debit cards lies in the source of the funds used to conduct a purchase transaction. A debit card uses the money that you have previously deposited into a bank account, while a credit card essentially gives you a series of short-term loans that must be paid by the end of the month. With a debit card, it’s necessary to have the cash up front. With a credit card, you can make purchases even if you have not yet earned the money.

Protection from Debt

For this reason, debit cards can act as an excellent insulation against credit card debt. Credit card debt is the scourge that has enslaved so many people to an endless cycle of payments to credit card companies. The interest on their balances is so high, that a large portion of monthly earnings goes straight to paying for the interest.

With a debit card, it is still possible to overdraw your account, resulting in fees. Typically, a fee of around $30 is assessed on your bank account when this occurs. New laws in place require banks to alert you and only allow an overdraft with your prior permission. This makes it impossible to go deeply into debt with a debit card.

Purchase Protection

One advantage that credit cards have over some bank debit cards is purchase protection. If an unscrupulous person attempts to defraud you or fails to deliver on promised goods or services, then you can contact your credit card company to have the charge removed. This protection is mandated by law on all credit cards. You can still get this protection with a debit card, as long as your card carries the Visa or MasterCard logo. If your debit card is issued by a small local bank, then you shouldn’t assume that you are automatically protected; you should check with them on their specific policy and be sure there is a Visa or MasterCard logo on the card.

When Credit is Better

One of the greatest benefits of using a credit card instead of a debit card is taking advantage of rewards programs. You can get 1% or 2% cash back on all your purchases at the end of the year. Sometimes you can accumulate airline miles that you can exchange for airplane flights or for hotel or rental cars. There are also many credit cards with specific tie-ins with some of the major corporations. The GM credit card, for example, will allow you to accumulate credits that you can use to obtain a discounted price on your next GM vehicle. If you are responsible and can pay your bill on time, then these rewards are a great reason to choose a credit card instead of a debit card. If you don’t regularly make your payments on time, then these rewards end up costing you more than they give you.