Many of us use a debit card for nearly everything. It’s convenient, it’s simple. You pay for something, it comes out of your bank account, and you never have to think about it again.
But, to anyone looking to optimize and improve their personal financials this is my #1 piece of advice: You should never use a debit card. By using a debit card for every transaction, you are likely costing yourself $500 per year or more.
Simply replacing your debit card transactions with credit card transactions can put an extra $500-1,000 per year in your pocket, depending on your spending habits and offer you better fraud protection. Let’s take a closer look at both this advantages:
How a Credit Card Beats a Debit Card
#1 Better protection in case of fraud – If your debit card number is stolen and used by someone else, that money leaves your bank account. You almost certainly have fraud protection from the card issuer, so you won’t lose your money permanently. But, here’s the catch: it can take several days for the money to go back into your bank account after the fraud is reported.
And, worst case, if the fraud isn’t caught by your debit card company, you may not even know the money is missing until a debit charge is declined or a check is bounced due to insufficient funds. Compare to your worst case with a credit card: if you have a credit card declined due to hitting your credit limit, you can fallback to another card, or your debit card, or you can even pull cash out of your still safe bank account to use.
Contrast this with a credit card fraud case: you have additional charges appear on your credit card, you call the card issuer, they waive the charges, send you a new card, you’re done. If there is any controversy over a charge, you simply don’t pay that part of the bill. Your worst case with credit fraud is that you have to do without your credit card for 2 or 3 days. The money never leaves your account, your cash flow is never impacted.
If there is any situation where money could ever be tight for you, #1 is a very big deal.
#2 Using a credit card can give you a lot of cash back – My favorite credit card is the American Express Blue Cash Preferred card. You get a whopping 6% cash back at U.S. grocery stores, 3% cash back at the gas station, and 1% cash back on everything else. I usually earn about $600-800 cash back per year on this card alone.
But, it can be difficult to get through life with only an American Express card since some stores don’t take American Express. So, I pair the Amex with an Amazon Rewards Visa card. The Amazon card gets 3% cash back from Amazon purchases (which I use often), 2% cash back at restaurants and drugstores, and 1% back on everything else.
- Click here for more about the American Express Blue Cash Preferred Card
- Click here for more about the Amazon Rewards Visa Card
The strategy – I use the Visa at restaurants & drugstores (2% cash back, better than the Amex on these categories), on Amazon (3% cash back, better than the Amex on these categories), and anywhere that doesn’t take American Express. I use the American Express everywhere else. Simple.
You want to use your credit card everywhere possible to maximize your cashback. You typically can’t use your credit card to pay government fees, taxes, or mortgage payments. Also, many utility companies won’t take a credit card. Or, if some of these entities will let you use a card, you are forced to pay a “service fee” or “convenience fee” which would wipe out any cash back that you might earn. So, don’t use your card for any charge like this.
However, most insurance companies, cable companies, cellular phone companies, and other recurring fees will gladly take your credit card. Don’t use your bank’s bill pay or use an automatic bank draft to pay these bills. Go to the biller’s website and set recurring payments using your credit card.
Put everything on your credit card that you can to maximize your rewards. While 1% might not sound like a lot, if you look at everything you buy in the course of year, 1% can really accumulate into a good chunk of change.
Extra credit – If you really want to squeak out some extra cash, there a handful of cards out now which offer 1.5% on everything, like the Capital One Quicksilver card. You could add this to mix if you want the extra .5% on your “everything else” category, but, it adds a bit of complexity for not a lot of extra return.
There are also some cards like the Chase Freedom or the Discover It card that offer a great cashback amount of 5% on rotating categories that rotate very quarter. For example, a card issuer might offer 5% cash back at movie theaters in January thru March or at department stores in April thru June. But, for me, tracking the categories and being sure to have the right card onhand is a hassle. I also don’t like carrying too many different credit cards in my wallet as I like to carry a small wallet. For me, I feel that the American Express Blue Cash Preferred/Amazon Rewards Visa combo offers 85-90% of the optimal benefits for minimal effort.
However, if you are one of the few people who doesn’t shop with Amazon very much, then the Amazon Rewards card could be easily swapped for the Freedom, Discover, or Quicksilver. You can also play the rotating quarterly category game if you wish.
Cash Back vs. Points, Miles, etc. – There are tons of other reward programs out there – you can get points, you get miles, dollars to spend with certain companies. But, I like the simplicity of just getting cash back. I find that points and miles just lead to me searching for something to buy, and in many cases, what I end up getting isn’t something that I would have spent cold, hard cash on. Cash back means I don’t have to waste time, energy or brainpower on my rewards, I just take the cash.
You may be saying, “But I like that my debit card just comes right out of my bank account and I don’t have to worry about paying a bill” – Set AutoPay to pay the full new balance on your credit card’s website. Now you have all the advantages of the credit card and the simplicity of a debit card.
Again, be sure to set AutoPay on your credit cards that you are using to earn cash back. This is very important. We are using these like a debit card. Accidentally miss one payment and the penalties and interest can cost you most of the cashback you would earn in a year. You also don’t want to waste time and mental horsepower on remembering to pay multiple credit card bills monthly.
If you intend to carry a balance on a credit card, then use a separate card entirely for those charges that you don’t want to pay immediately. The point of these cash back cards are to earn you cash on your purchases that would have gone to a debit card previously. You don’t want to mix purchases that you might pay over time with these “run rate” purchases.
This is a good place to mention, however, that carrying a credit card balance is strongly not recommended. If you already have a credit card balance, consider using your new cashback rewards to help you pay off your balance faster. Also, consider moving your credit card balance to a new card that will give you 0% or very interest for 6 to 12 months. This will instantly save you interest cost and give you time to beat down the balance.
To further simplify things, use Mint.com or a service like it to aggregate all your credit cards and your bank accounts into one view. You can login to Mint and see, for example, that you owe $500 on one card, $200 on another, and you have $2,000 in your bank account. You can also review a list of all your transactions from all your cards and bank accounts and it has a nice mobile app. Login at least once per week to review charges and make sure everything looks as you expect. This will help you keep a handle on your finances and will help you spot any fraudulent transaction that your credit card company hasn’t caught already. If you are using my weekly review strategy for your email inbox, that would be a great time to review your financial transactions from the week as well.
Only keep a debit card on hand for ATM transactions – I’m not saying you shouldn’t carry a debit card or have one. Only that you shouldn’t use it to buy dinner or pay for groceries. Take the cash from the credit card company for those transactions, carry your debit card in case you need to pull cash out of the bank. Bonus debit card tip – get a debit card from a bank that offers to pay your ATM withdrawal fees. It’s often a pain to search for your particular bank’s ATMs to avoid withdrawal fees, but, many banks like PNC or Ally offer debit card programs in which they will refund ATM fees charged to you by other bank’s ATMs.
Other credit card extras – Many credit cards offer things like Purchase Protection in case of accidental damage or theft within 90 days of purchase, Return Protection if the merchant won’t let you return an item, Rental Car Insurance, and other benefits. I have never had occasion to use these, so, I don’t focus on them, but, it is another leg up the credit card has over the debit card. Parting piece of advice – if something bad happens with an item you bought on credit card, check into your credit card features to see if the credit card company has a policy in place that may be of help.
I hope that all this has been of help to you. A number of my friends have adopted this strategy and it has helped them tremendously. An extra few hundred dollars of income per year for doing next to nothing is a pretty great return. It turns out that reward is not always tied to risk after all.
Do you have a favorite credit card that I missed? Did this strategy help you save some cash? Comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.