Debit Cards Poised To Overtake Credit Cards

According to Business Week, money spent by means of debit cards could surpass credit card transactions this year as consumers seek to avoid the fees and costs of credit, not to mention the increased difficulty of getting credit in the first place. This has banks scrambling to figure out how to profit from cards that don’t pay interest and generally have lower fees.

On the plus side, debit cards don’t pose a threat to the banks’ books like credit-card accounts; losses are mounting as borrowers fall behind on their payments. But the profits on debit cards aren’t as plump since banks don’t collect interest on them. Issuers largely make money from fees, which pale next to those on credit cards. Retailers, for instance, fork over 1.6% of credit purchases to banks, three times the amount on debit transactions.

But don’t shed a tear for the banks just yet. Time and again they’ve shown an uncanny ability to adapt to a new profit landscape, and the debit-card business appears no different. Consider the evolution of overdraft fees. It used to be that banks denied debit purchases when consumers didn’t have enough money in their accounts. Now 14 of the 15 largest banks approve transactions but hit customers with a fee if they exceed the funds. It’s not unlike getting charged for bouncing a check. A recent study by Web site found that overdraft fees now approach $29, up 3% in the past year.

Not that they don’t want the business. In fact, they’re actively promoting debit cards to both ends of the income spectrum:

Among the groups that offer the biggest potential for banks: people who earn more than $75,000 a year. According to MasterCard, they’re the least active debit users, usually turning instead to credit cards that offer frequent-flier miles and other rewards.

To attract that crowd, financial firms are ramping up their loyalty programs. MasterCard’s Savings program, launched in October, offers debit users discounts on luxury brands like Armani and 7 For All Mankind as well as at retailers such as Home Depot and Target. San Antonio’s Frost Bank recently released its Momentum card, which is connected to customers’ checking or savings accounts. The bank pays customers a higher interest rate on the accounts — up to 3.5% — when they make more debit purchases.

There’s also a land grab for the so-called underbanked, the roughly 80 million people who don’t have a bank or credit-card account. Dallas’ Comerica Bank won the right this year to issue debit cards to the estimated 4 million Social Security recipients who don’t have bank accounts. The government deposits the money onto a prepaid card. (Comerica doesn’t charge overdraft fees on them.) Visa and MasterCard offer prepaid debit cards that companies use to pay employees.

It stands to reason that debit cards become more popular in the current environment. That the banks will find ways to squeeze more out of them is equally inevitable.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Environment, , ,
Dodd Harris
About Dodd Harris
Dodd, who used to run a blog named ipse dixit, is an attorney, a veteran of the United States Navy, and a fairly good poker player. He contributed over 650 pieces to OTB between May 2007 and September 2013. Follow him on Twitter @Amuk3.


  1. You can get free credit cards that cost you nothing in interest payments or fees if you pay off the balance each month. Since a debit card requires you to have the cash already on hand, why is this so hard for people to deal with?

  2. Anderson says:

    Now 14 of the 15 largest banks approve transactions but hit customers with a fee if they exceed the funds.

    Right — effective, short-term loans at relatively high interest rates, verging upon usury.

    The banks are likely making huge profits here.

    OTOH, if we “cracked down” on the practice, they would simply cease the “loans.”

  3. just me says:

    We have a credit card for emergency use only. We pay cash or with a debit card for all other things. Using debit only does require that you be very diligent about keeping up with expenses, but I see no reason to have a wallet full of credit cards either.

  4. John425 says:

    At my credit union they are PAYING 4.5% on my checking account (max of $40K) provided I use on-line banking AND use my debit card 12 times a month. Since I converted over, I am only using about 3-4 checks a month for routine things. A 4.5% rate is wonderful in a > 1% T-bill world.

  5. John425 says:

    Ooops! should have said < 1% in a T-bill world!

  6. BigJohn says:

    I know this article is true, because everybody I know is purchasing a prepaid debit card everyday. I have purchase one from Tom Thumb for 4.95