Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Credit Cards vs. Check and Debit Cards: An Easy Choice?

Author: Nick
Category: Money

i am a credit card, love me

The good-and-bad debate over credit cards seems to be the topic of the week on some personal finance websites I read. Mapgirl pointed me to the discussion at Get Rich Slowly in which J.D. confesses to carrying zero credit cards. Fortunately J.D. also points out that carrying a couple of rewards cards that you pay off monthly is okay.

Then I scrolled down and read some of the comments to J.D.’s advice and found someone who favors a “check card” over credit cards. The commenter seems to have had a bit of credit card debt history and recommends using a check card that draws from one’s personal checking account to prevent such an event from taking place.

This commenter has a good point: check and debit cards provide a way to carry plastic while avoiding the temptation of overspending. If you aren’t a very financially responsible person, and you’re not going to take steps to change that, then you probably shouldn’t be carrying credit cards. But if you’re a smart consumer who realizes that credit isn’t Latin for “free money,” are check cards really a better option than credit cards to help you stay financially secure? Absolutely, positively not!

It’s worth emphasizing this point in its own paragraph, so here it is: when you use credit cards, you are the only one who can financially destroy you; when you use check or debit cards, someone else can financially destroy you.

Such a bold statement, Nick! (I know–that’s what <b> HTML tags are for.) Allow me to explain what I mean by it.

If you’re a credit card user, you control its usage. You can choose to either use it responsibly–paying it off every month in full–or carelessly–letting balances grow endlessly and debt accumulate until there’s no turning back. Certainly someone else can use your card if they take it (or your card number) from you, but the law protects you from more than $50 in liability in those cases. If someone steals your credit card, it is a relatively simple matter for a smart card user like yourself to correct.

If you’re a check or debit card user, your checking account balance controls your card’s usage. Unless you want to incur severe overdraft fees, you’re not going to purchase more with your card than you have money in your checking account to cover. Sounds like a good alternative to a credit card… until you factor in “someone else.” If someone else takes your check card and gets ahold of your secret PIN number, they now have access to every penny in your checking account. With a single trip to an ATM machine, you can have all of your money (not a credit card company’s money) stolen in seconds. While most banks will refund your money in such an event, you may still encounter overdraft fees from purchases you make. Even worse, if you have checks written against this account, and those checks come in and see an empty checking account, they’re going to bounce. Then your creditors will take their red pens to your credit reports like it’s a failing history exam. Sure you may get your checking account money back, but those bad marks on your credit report won’t be going anywhere! So if someone steals your check card, you can have your checking account drained and credit ruined without a single mistake on your part.

There are many other reasons why I feel credit cards are a better choice than check cards, but the one I just demonstrated was the one that convinced me to ditch check cards a couple of years ago. While I never went through such an experience myself, I know someone else who did–an otherwise intelligent person whose check card theft still haunts her credit report to this very day.

So trade in that check card for a credit card that you’ll use responsibly; and when a card thief comes along, the only money he’ll be stealing from you will be the credit card company’s money.

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