A debit card is a linked card that sources its funds from your everyday transaction account. Because you're using your own money, these accounts are quite easy to open and to use. You don't need to worry about credit checks, interest repayments and interest free days.
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Compare transaction accountsRates last updated July 6th, 2015
No fee transaction accounts and bank accounts
You may have an everyday transaction account and a savings account with the same bank, but your debit card is just linked to your transaction account. You can set your debit card to access your everyday transaction account by pressing the 'savings' or 'credit' option at an ATM or EFTPOS facility. Pressing 'credit' adds a level of security to your purchase, if your financial institution supports this feature.
Prepaid debit cards work in exactly the same way as a regular debit card in terms of making payment; however, the difference is that a prepaid card doesn’t access your bank accounts. Instead, you need to load cash into the account before you can make any payments. Any money you spend comes out of the funds you deposited, and not out of your regular bank account.
A prepaid debit card can be ideal for those intending to travel and who want an extra level of security for their bank accounts. The money you spend while on holiday is limited to the amount you deposited. If your card is lost or stolen, no one can access the cash you have remaining in your bank account – only the amount you’ve loaded into your card.
Debit cards vs credit cards in Australia
There are some strong debates about whether a debit card is better than a credit card for consumers within Australia. Using a debit card is a great way to avoid building up expensive credit card debt, as you’re only able to use your own money to pay for the things you need.
However, once you run out of cash you’re left short until next payday, unless you have an overdraft agreement in place with your card provider. This can be financially limiting for some people, especially if an unexpected bill or expense arrives and you really need the cash right now.
Paying for things on a credit card is the same as borrowing money at very high interest rates. If you’re not able to repay the amounts you spend, chances are you’ll end up paying a lot of interest every month, which increases your costs and makes it harder to pay off. For many, this can lead to a growing debt spiral that can be hard to regain control of.
Since debit cards were released in Australia, the Reserve Bank has reported an increase in the percentage of transactions being made using these accounts. At the same time, the percentage of transactions being made using credit card accounts is slowly declining.
This is a good indication that more Australians are actively trying to pay for their purchases using their own cash rather than relying on credit card debt.
For anyone who wants to stick to a budget and not build up credit card debt, using a debit card is a great option. You still have the flexibility of using your card to pay for transactions at ATMs, via EFTPOS transactions and you can use it to make remote payments as well, such as over the internet or the phone. If you’re actively trying to ensure that you never spend more than you earn, a debit card certainly helps you stay on track as you can only ever spend what’s in the account.
However, those who are financially disciplined can take advantage of paying for purchases using a credit card and pay no interest as long as they repay their balances in full before the due date. These types of customers can benefit by earning rewards points on the money they spend. They also know they won’t pay interest on money they borrowed from the bank, which allows them to keep their income and savings working harder for them during that time.
There may also be a benefit for some customers in using a credit card to purchase flights or to pay for travel expenses. Some credit cards offer generous travel insurance and purchase protection insurance policies as part of the account.
In more recent times there are some debit cards available that also offer these types of complimentary policies and some even offer the ability to earn rewards points too, so this advantage is less pronounced.
Pros and cons
While there are some significant benefits to using a debit card, there are also some disadvantages to take into account. Here is a quick look at the pros and cons of using a debit card.
- Flexibility: you’re able to use a debit card to withdraw cash, pay for EFTPOS transactions or make remote payments over the internet or telephone
- No interest charges: you won’t pay huge interest charges on the money you spend on a debit card
- No debt: you only access your own cash with this type of account, so you’re not accumulating debt
- ATM access: you’re able to withdraw cash from an ATM without fees.
- Increased security for your cash: if your debit card is ever stolen or lost, you know that only the amount of money in your account is at risk.
- Improved budgeting skills: if you’re trying to stick to a budget, a debit card is a great solution as you’re only able to spend the amount of money you have in your account. This is a good motivator for spending wisely.
- Limited to your own funds: some people may find it terribly inconvenient to be limited to spending only the amount of money they have in their account, especially if unexpected bills arrive and the account is empty.
- Overdrawn account fees: if you’re not careful about monitoring the amounts you spend, it can be quite easy to overdraw your account. The fees charged on overdrawn accounts can become expensive.
- Overdraft fees: if you regularly find that you spend all the money you earn and end up using your overdraft to pay for other items, the fees and charges on your overdraft can get expensive.
Even though there are some downsides to using a debit card, for most people they are much safer than using a credit card. As you’re only accessing your own cash, you have no risk of building up debt. You also don’t have to worry about the cost of high interest charges being added to your account on any money you can’t afford to repay, as you would with a credit card.
Overall, choosing to use a debit card can be the ideal way to develop some responsible financial habits. It is also an excellent way to motivate many people into learning how to stick to their budget.
How do debit cards work for businesses?
Many business owners take advantage of the interest free days available on their credit cards to improve business cash flow. Paying creditors at the beginning of the month keeps accounts in good standing order and gives the business owner a few weeks to repay those amounts. As long as the amounts spent are repaid in full before the statement due date, that business credit card account shouldn’t accrue any interest charges.
Aside from this, having access to funds on a business credit card can improve the purchasing power of some businesses. They’re able to pay for stock right now without having to wait for customers to pay money into the business.
However, if that business can’t repay the entire amount owing it will accrue interest charges that eat into the overall profitability of that enterprise. Likewise, if that credit card debt starts to spiral out of control during quiet seasons or slow cash flow periods, it can be difficult to find excess cash flow to start paying down that balance again.
Once that credit limit is maxed out, the business owner is forced to rely on cash flow coming into the business to keep operating – or apply for more credit, which is a risky alternative.
This is where business debit cards may offer some advantages to business owners. Any money used to pay for purchases or expenses comes out of the business transaction account. There is no debt accumulating and no interest charges eating into the business’s profits. You also still get the benefit of being able to make payments globally on your debit card, as Visa or MasterCard will process your payment in exactly the same way they would with a credit card payment, only the funds come out of your business transaction account instead.
Almost all businesses will need access to additional funds from time to time, but setting up an overdraft on a debit card can help with this factor. It’s still possible to pay for additional expenses that regular cash flow can’t cover, but the account will be put back into the black as soon as any payments are received into the business account.
Using a business debit card responsibly can greatly reduce the risk for business owners. Learning to operate the business accounts within only the amount of cash it earns keeps the business out of debt. Likewise, it forces business owners to consider purchases and expenses very carefully.
With all that in mind, there are some businesses that may not want a debit card due to the lack of flexibility it provides.
Businesses often spend more than a regular consumer. This allows them to take advantage of rewards programs attached to many cards. It also allows them to issue individual cards to employees, which can be the ideal way to track and monitor spending.
Banks are very aware of their business customers’ needs when it comes to credit and reporting. For this reason, many banks will issue credit card statements that make bookkeeping and records simpler and more streamlined for that business. Most allow you to import statements directly into your bookkeeping software to further streamline the reporting process. This can save an enormous amount of time and effort when reconciling accounts and adding up and accounting for business expenditure.
There is also the factor of building up a good credit relationship with a bank. Any business planning to borrow money in the future as part of a planned expansion may benefit by being able to show responsible conduct with a business credit card. This can lead to the bank issuing further lines of credit or increasing business overdraft facilities over time. With a business debit card, the issuing bank doesn’t actually have any knowledge of whether that business is able to responsibly repay a larger loan amount over a period of time.
Things to watch out for when using a debit card
While debit cards are a convenient way to pay for things you want, there are still some things you need to watch out for.
You have the benefit of not building up any credit card debt. However, if there is no money left in your account, you’ll be unable to make any more purchases until you next get paid. For many, this can be the ideal motivator to avoid impulse spending. It also offers plenty of incentive to stick to your budget and avoid spending more than you earn.
If you’re not careful about monitoring your account balances, it can be easy to overdraw your account. If you don’t have an overdraft in place, the overdrawn fees can be costly. Likewise, if you often find that you’re spending your overdraft this should be a clear sign it’s time to cut back the spending a bit.
Some banks may also issue a ‘dual purpose’ card. This is a debit card that can also be used as a credit card. You’re given an approved credit limit that is called an overdraft that you can spend if you happen to run out of your own money. For those who are tempted to impulse shop, this type of dual account can make it very easy to start building up credit card debt all over again. Aside from this, the fees and interest charges on an overdraft are often higher than you would pay on a regular credit card.
Another thing to watch for with debit cards is how careful you are when shopping online or buying things overseas. Banks don’t offer the same level of fraud liability coverage for debit cards as they do for credit cards. This means if your account has fraudulent transactions and activity showing on it, you may find it can take a bit of time to prove these things to the bank and get your money back.
Using your debit card online or overseas
Using a debit card to pay for purchases when you’re overseas can be a great way to avoid carrying foreign currency with you. However, far too many people underestimate the actual cost of converting the Aussie dollars you have in your account right now over to the local currency of wherever you’re travelling.
Fees can be charged in either a percentage amount, a dollar amount or a combination of the two.
It is possible to obtain debit cards that won’t charge you a foreign transaction fee on the money you spend. However, you should also keep in mind that if you use your debit card to withdraw cash from an ATM overseas, the bank that owns the ATM may charge fees at their end anyway.
When it comes to shopping online, you can use your debit card in the same way as you would use a regular credit card. This lets you pay for items from international websites and get them shipped to Australia for you. Once again, most banks will charge you a foreign transaction fee for converting your Australian dollars over to another currency to pay for your purchase.
Always check your own bank’s fees and charges to confirm exactly how much you could be paying in international and foreign transaction fees on your debit card.
How to make sure your debit card is protected
Most people will find that the best way to protect their debit card is to keep it safe and make sure you always keep it in sight when using it at ATMs or when paying for things with merchants.
However, even the most vigilant cardholders can still fall victim to fraud and theft. To help you keep your debit card protected, here are some things you should consider:
Banking alerts: most banks will offer you the ability to receive a text message or an email alert any time your card is used to make a purchase. This might seem annoying if you make a lot of purchases on your card. However, it can also be excellent if you start noticing amounts you didn’t authorise being spent. Ask your bank if they can place a qualifying limit amount on your notifications. For example, you might only want to be alerted for any transaction over $50.
ATM skimming devices: criminals are notoriously clever about getting your card information even without you knowing it. In fact, there are numerous reports about skimming devices being fitted to ATMs around the country. These are sometimes very difficult to spot, but once you put your card into the machine, your information is being ‘skimmed’. While these skimming devices aren’t always easy to identify, keep your eyes open for any ATM that looks a bit odd or broken or unusual in any way.
Carry bank contact info: keep your bank’s contact information in your wallet or somewhere handy. If you ever find that your card has been lost or stolen, it’s important you contact the bank immediately to help protect your account.
Update your contact info: if you move or change your contact details, it’s important to inform your bank of those changes as quickly as you can. If they happen to notice fraudulent or suspicious activity on your account, they need to be able to contact you right away. As an example, many banks will immediately suspend an account if they notice that overseas transactions are being made on it and they haven’t been informed that you’re going away. They’ll just assume your card details have fallen into the wrong hands and they’ll do what they think is right to protect your account.
Other things you need to know about debit cards
- No PIN and no signature debit cards. Some merchants have payment facilities that don’t need you to enter a PIN or sign a receipt in order to authorise your transaction. In most cases, these are limited to low value transactions of usually around $35 and under.
- Chargebacks. If you find that you’ve paid for an item with your debit card and you don’t receive the goods, you may be able to request a chargeback from your bank. This means the bank will attempt to get your money back from that merchant for you.
- You may also be able to request a chargeback if you find that you were charged twice for the same item. Keep in mind that you may not be able to ask your bank to arrange a chargeback if you paid for an item using BPAY.
- Cash withdrawal. When you pay for goods using your debit card, some merchants may allow you to take cash out as part of the same transaction. For example, you might pay $72 for groceries and request that the transaction total comes to $100. This means the merchant will take $72 to cover the cost of your purchase and give you $28 in cash back. Your transaction figure on your statement will show $100.
- Fees and charges. You should find that you’re able to make a number of free electronic transactions on your account each month. If you use your card more than this and you exceed your allowed transaction limit, you may be charged excess transaction fees.
Keep in mind that different fees may apply for different types of transactions. For example, transactions for ATMs and EFTPOS facilities may differ from online or phone banking transactions. Any transactions you make through the branch or over the counter may be charged at slightly higher fees.
Always check what fees and charges may apply to your own account, as these can vary wildly between banks.
Another fee that most people don’t take into account is the fee charged by another bank’s ATM. For example, if you have your debit card with Commonwealth Bank and you access a Westpac ATM, you may be charged a fee through your CBA account for accessing someone else’s machine, while the owner of the machine may also charge you a fee for using someone else’s card in their ATM. The best way to avoid being charged this type of fee is to find an ATM owned by your own bank.
In some instances, you may find that banks have affiliations with other banks. This can extend the number of ATMs you can access without being charged foreign ATM fees. For example, if you have a Westpac debit card you’ll be able to access their ATMs, but also any St.George and BankSA ATMs around the country without incurring fees.
Debit card extras
Some banks are beginning to offer some of the same perks and benefits available on credit cards. If you shop around, it’s possible to find debit cards that let you earn rewards for each dollar you spend using your card. It’s always a nice idea to be rewarded for spending your own money.
Other cards are starting to include some of the complimentary insurance policies that are usually reserved for premium credit card accounts. These can include overseas travel insurance and purchase protection insurance.
It is always important to compare the options that will apply to your new debit card. Start a comparison today to find the best debit card for you.