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Some consumers still prefer using debit cards, especially for smaller purchases


Market Watch By Marai Lamagna

Credit cards have been making headlines recently for their tempting sign-up cash bonuses and flashy travel perks. In the meantime, another payment method has been the go-to source for many when making purchases: debit cards.

In terms of frequency, debit card payments are actually outpacing the number of transactions made by credit card, according to the recently released Federal Reserve “Payments Study 2016.” Americans made 69.5 billion debit card payments in 2015, including payments with prepaid and non-prepaid cards, compared to 33.8 billion credit card transactions. (The Federal Reserve analyzed transactions using data from financial institutions and payment companies, including card networks and processors.)

Previous studies have shown that debit cards were gaining on cash as the go-to payment for small purchases, even those less than $5. The percentage of cardholders who use debit cards for small purchases hit 27% in 2016, an increase of five percentage points since 2014, according to a survey released earlier this year of about 600 people with major credit cards from

For the first time, consumers spent more on their debit and credit cards worldwide in 2016 than they did in cash, according to separate research firm Euromonitor International.

In terms of dollar amounts, however, Americans are still using their credit cards for large purchases. Consumers spent a total of nearly $3.16 trillion on credit cards in 2015, compared to almost $2.56 trillion on debit cards. The amount consumers spent on debit card and credit card payments grew at about 7% annually between 2012 and 2015.

Enthusiasm for debit cards may be a good thing for those who find credit cards lead to the temptation to take on consumer debt. In fact, many Americans are struggling to pay off their credit card debt; the average American household owes $16,061 in credit card debt, up 10% from 10 years ago.

Some younger Americans are particularly reluctant to use credit cards. U.S. President Barack Obama signed the Credit CARD Act in 2009, which made it harder for consumers under 21 to sign up for credit cards. About 65% of millennials have at least one credit card, compared to 78% of those in generation X and 83% of baby boomers, according to a poll of about 3,000 adults from the research firm Gallup in 2015.

But credit cards offer some benefits debit cards don’t, including cash back or travel rewards for spending, and they often have more robust fraud protection. Some even have other perks, including price-matching protection when consumers find an item they previously purchased for a lower price. Unlike debit cards, credit cards also allow consumers to build their credit histories and improve their credit scores (when they pay their balances in full); higher credit scores mean people will likely pay less interest on home and auto loans.

Of course, those benefits can be outweighed by mounting debt. Consumers should be concerned with paying their bills on time and in full and should aim to be taking advantage of less than 30% of the total credit available to them at any given time, Ethan Dornhelm, the senior director of scores and analytics at credit risk company Fair Isaac Corporation (FICO), previously told MarketWatch. Case in point: This couple racked up $89,000 in debt on 11 credit cards.