Many people's first experience paying with plastic instead of cash is their debit card, which gives consumers direct access to the money in their checking account.
But while debit cards have certain advantages over credit — they don't let consumers easily rack up debt the same way that credit cards do, for example — they shouldn't be the main vehicle for the average person's spending.
For most people, it's typically best to use credit cards for the bulk of your purchases, Matt Schulz, a credit card expert at LendingTree, tells CNBC Make It. Though the security gap between credit cards and debit cards has shrunk over the past few years, credit cards still have an edge over the competition.
"If somebody gets hold of your debit card information and uses it fraudulently, they're stealing real money out of a real account," he explains. "Chances are you'll get that money back, but it may take a little while, and if you have bills that come due before you get that money back, you can be in a really tough spot."
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When someone steals your credit card information, on the other hand, that money isn't being taken directly out of your account. Instead, it appears as a charge on your account, which your credit card issuer can investigate and waive when they find it didn't come from you. While this is going on, your money is still safe in your bank account.
People who have both credit and debit cards should be aware of their surroundings when deciding which to use, Schulz says. He gives gas stations as an example of a place where he would advise people to pay with credit if possible, because scammers like to install devices called skimmers in credit card slots, which are able to steal your information when you pay at the pump.
"Because a lot of gas stations don't necessarily have their credit card readers as updated as some other businesses do, you may be setting yourself up a little more for risk of fraud," he explains.
Ultimately, Schulz says, consumers should trust their instincts when deciding how to pay. If a place "seems a little sketchy" or otherwise gives off a bad vibe, it's better to not take any chances with your money, he says.
"If you don't feel comfortable, you should just trust your gut and use that credit card instead of a debit card," Schulz says. "When in doubt, it's definitely safer and less risky to use credit in most cases."
Credit cards have other advantages, such as helping consumers build their credit scores. This can be accomplished by paying off your balance in full each month — something that debit cards can't offer.
Still, Schulz stresses that despite the advantages of credit cards, a person who prefers debit isn't wrong. Personal comfort is the most important factor when choosing how to spend your money, he says. Anyone who isn't comfortable having a credit card because they are unsure if they will manage it well or think it will create financial stress for them shouldn't feel bad for sticking with debit.
One perk of using debit? It may help you save money at some stores.
"It's becoming more and more common for surcharges [on credit cards] to be legal in various states around the country," Schulz says. "If there is a place where retailers are going to charge you a little bit extra for using a credit card, it may be worth it to pay with debit."
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