The Debit Card Debate

Armen Hareyan's picture
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Debit Card Payment

A card that offers speed and convenience also has many consumers unsure about costs and safety. Here are answers to common questions.

The bottom line? "Since a debit card payment is just like writing a check, you should always keep track of how much money you have left in your account to avoid overdrawing the account and incurring fees," said Joni Creamean, an FDIC Senior Consumer Affairs Specialist.

"And how would you like to pay for that?" More and more, consumers are answering that question, "By debit card." But even though debit cards are becoming more common and more popular, many consumers are still unsure about how debit cards work, their pros and cons, and how to use them safely. To help you understand the basics, FDIC Consumer News posed some questions and got some answers.

What is a debit card?

A debit card looks like a credit card but works like an electronic check. Why? Because the payment is deducted directly from a checking or savings account. If you use a debit card at a retail store, you or the cashier can run your card through a scanner that enables your financial institution to verify electronically that the funds are available and approve the transaction. Most debit cards also can be used to withdraw cash at ATMs (automated teller machines).

Why do people use debit cards?

For many people, it is more convenient to carry a small, plastic card instead of a bulky checkbook or a large amount of cash. Using a debit card is also easier and faster than writing a check. It's a good way to pay for purchases without having to pay interest, as you would if using a credit card with an outstanding balance. You can even use your debit card to get cash when you make purchases at a store.

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What kinds of costs are associated with debit cards?

There may be fees for using your debit card. Examples: Some banks charge a fee if you enter a PIN (Personal Identification Number) to conduct a transaction instead of signing your name. You may trigger a fee if you overdraw your account using your debit card, just as you would if you "bounced" a check. Or, there could be a charge if you use your debit card as an ATM card at a machine that is not operated by your financial institution. As with other bank products, your financial institution must provide disclosures explaining the possible fees associated with a debit card. Be sure to read the disclosures to avoid an unexpected fee.

Some debit cards come with "rewards" or other incentives for using them. How can I know which one is a good deal?

As with similar financial products, rewards-linked debit cards are designed to encourage people to use a certain bank and its services. Before opening a new account or changing banks just to get a different perk, study the fine print. Start by reading the disclosures that explain the account terms and fees to understand the potential benefits as well as the costs.

How can I overdraw my account if my bank or bank network must approve a debit card transaction?

First, because the payments are electronic, they are deducted from accounts more quickly than when using a paper check. Often, a debit card purchase is posted within 24 hours instead of days, as may be the case with a paper check. That means there would be little time to make a deposit to cover a purchase, if necessary. In addition, even though a transaction was approved, you may overdraw your account because the bank won't know what other withdrawals you have made that day until it settles all transactions later that day.

Or, suppose you don't realize you have only $100 in your bank account and you want to use your debit card to buy a $200 item. Depending on the terms of your account or the rules of the card network, the bank might approve the $200 purchase as a convenience, but it also might assess an overdraft fee for that transaction and subsequent ones until you make a sufficient deposit.

If I use a debit card to make a purchase can the merchant put a temporary "block" or "hold" on other funds in my account?

Yes, in certain circumstances, merchants can take these steps as protection against fraud, errors or other losses. One common situation involves a hotel putting a hold on a certain amount when you use a debit card (or credit card) to reserve a room. Another example is when you use your debit card at the gas pump. Typically, the gas station will create two transactions

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