Cash or debit vs. credit: What’s the best way to pay?

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When do you use a credit card, and when do you use a debit card? Believe it or not, many people don’t think very carefully about debit vs. credit—they use whichever card is “easiest,” which usually means whichever card is closest at hand.

When people do consider debit vs. credit cards, they occasionally come to the wrong conclusions. Some people mistakenly assume debit is safer than credit, even though it’s often the other way around. Other people don’t realize that making purchases on debit won’t help them build the kind of credit score needed to take out a car loan or apply for a mortgage.

That’s why we’ve put together a complete guide to debit vs. credit, including which cards are safer to use, which cards are best for online shopping and which cards are best for buying gas. Is credit always the better choice, or are there times when it’s better to use a debit card? We’ll give you the pros and cons—and our best financial advice.

How do credit cards work?

Credit cards allow you to make purchases now and pay them off later. Most credit cards offer revolving lines of credit, so you can either pay off your balance in full every month or carry a balance from month to month and pay it off over time. If you do not pay off your balance in full before your credit card grace period expires, interest may be charged on your unpaid balance.

Credit cards come with a unique 16-digit number that lets you quickly and easily make purchases in person or online. As long as you haven’t exceeded your credit card limit, your purchase should go through — which is why it is effortless for some people to spend more than they realize and end up in credit card debt.

How do debit cards work?

Debit cards, like credit cards, come with a unique number that allows you to make purchases in person or online quickly. The big difference between debit vs. credit is that debit cards withdraw money from a linked checking account. Instead of making a purchase now and paying it off later, a debit card immediately pays for the entire amount. As long as there’s enough money in your checking account, your debit card purchase should go through—and since you’re using the money you already have, you don’t have to worry about going into debt from the purchase.

Are debit cards the same as cash?

Sometimes people hear “cash vs. credit” and assume it means “credit cards vs. paper money.” The truth is that debit cards are the same as cash — these days, “cash” refers to any money already in your possession, such as the money in a checking or savings account. (When you use money that you already own to pay for something, you’re using cash; when you use money that you’re going to pay back later, you’re using credit.) Since a debit card draws funds from a linked checking account, debit is the same as cash.

Debit vs. credit: Which is safer?

Both debit cards and credit cards come with safeguards to prevent fraud. When you use a debit card at a grocery store or gas station, for example, you are often required to provide a unique PIN; when you shop with credit online, you’re often required to enter your credit card’s three-digit security code. Banks and credit card companies are also constantly on the lookout for any transactions that could be potentially fraudulent. In most cases, they will send mobile alerts as soon as they notice suspicious charges or unusual activity on your account.

That said, credit cards offer a few fraud protection benefits that debit cards don’t. Nearly all of today’s top credit cards offer zero fraud liability on unauthorized charges, which means that you won’t owe a penny on any charge that is determined to be fraudulent. Debit cards also limit your fraud liability but require you to report your lost or stolen card within two business days to limit your liability to $50. If you report after two business days but before 60, your liability goes up to $500. If just your debit card number is stolen and not the card itself, you are not liable for unauthorized charges as long as you report them within 60 days of receiving your statement.

When it comes down to debit vs. credit cards, you might decide that credit cards offer better fraud protection. If someone skims your credit card information, for example, you have time to dispute the charge before you’re liable for the payment, and the pending charge may never even post to your account. If you use a debit card, though, the funds can be removed from your bank account directly and quickly, making the process of disputing and getting your money back much more time-consuming.

Debit vs. credit: Which is best for online shopping?

Want to know how to shop online safely? Start by choosing reputable retailers like Amazon, Walmart, and Target. Then, try to use credit cards for as many purchases as possible. Since credit cards offer fraud liability protections that debit cards do not, making online purchases with credit comes with fewer risks. So if you’re debating debit vs. credit for online shopping, pick credit for a safer shopping experience.

Want to reduce your online shopping fraud risk even further? Add your credit cards to a virtual wallet. While storing your credit information on a digital wallet may sound like a fast track to getting hacked, many people don’t realize that virtual wallets make transactions safer. Today’s digital wallets use multiple forms of security to ensure that your credit card number remains hidden during every online shopping transaction. By creating a unique token every time you shop, for example, digital wallets make it very difficult for thieves to steal your credit card information.

Debit vs. credit: Which is best at the gas pump?

Gas station fuel pumps are among the riskiest places to pay since many gas stations haven’t yet implemented EMV chip readers, and credit card skimmers can quickly swipe your information when you pay at the pump. It can be dangerous to use your debit card, which is tied directly to your bank account, over a credit card, especially when the card reader at the pump prompts you to swipe your card instead of inserting the EMV chip.

Even though it’s safer to use credit cards at the gas pump, many people still use debit. According to a 2019 survey by GasBuddy, more than half (51 percent) of consumers prefer to pay with their debit cards at gas stations. “It’s easy to use” was the most commonly cited reason for choosing debit over credit—but if you’re taking debit vs. credit seriously, you might want to consider the security of credit over the ease of debit.

Debit vs. credit: Which is best for your credit score?

If you want to build your credit score, you’ll need to use credit cards—and if you’re trying to establish good credit, you’re going to want to use those credit cards responsibly by making on-time payments and keeping your balances as low as possible. A 750 or 800 credit score doesn’t happen overnight, but practicing good habits with your credit cards and showing discipline to potential lenders can lead to success with loan qualification and lower interest rates down the road.

Yes, it is possible to sign up for one of those alternate credit reporting services that take checking account balances and bill payment history into account when determining your credit score. However, when it comes to debit vs. credit and building your FICO credit score with the three credit bureaus, credit wins—hands down.

Debit vs. credit: Which is best for earning rewards?

If you want to earn cash back, points or miles on every purchase—not to mention additional perks like complimentary airport lounge access—you’ll want a top rewards credit card. Although a few debit cards offer cash back on purchases, you aren’t going to get as many rewards with debit as you will with credit. The best cash back debit cards only offer 1 percent cash back, and the best cash back credit cards offer at least 1.5 percent on general purchases and as much as 6 percent cash back on popular spending categories.

Debit vs. credit: Which is best for staying out of debt?

When you’re comparing credit cards vs. debit cards, here’s where debit could come out ahead. If you want to avoid credit card debt altogether, you have two options—either pay off your credit card bill in full every month or make every payment in cash.

Making every payment with a debit card to avoid credit card debt can be a smart financial move. If you are trying to stick to a budget, for example, a debit card can keep you from spending more than you can afford. Likewise, many people working to pay off old credit card debt decide that they’ll only use debit cards until they’ve paid their debt in full—in fact, a couple who paid off $27,000 of debt in 17 months used this strategy.

The bottom line

When you’re considering debit vs. credit, which should you choose? It depends. If you use your credit card responsibly and avoid making purchases you can’t pay off over time, the benefits of using credit cards—from increased rewards to enhanced fraud protection—often outweigh the potential costs. On the other hand, there are circumstances in which paying with a debit card can help you save money, whether you’re trying to stick to a budget or avoid credit card debt and interest charges.

If you want the best of both worlds—the security of credit and the cost-effectiveness of debit—you might want to consider using your credit card like a debit card. If you’re going to charge a purchase to your credit card, make sure you can pay it off with the money that’s already in your checking account. As long as you pay your credit card bill in full every month, you’ll be using your credit card “like cash,” avoiding interest charges and staying out of debt—which means that when it comes down to credit cards vs. debit cards, you’ll be making the best possible choice.