If you ask a young consumer about the contents of his wallet, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll tell you he has a debit card in it, if a recent survey is any indication. The prevalence of ecommerce and mobile banking practically makes it a necessity to have a payment card of some kind if you want to engage in the modern economy, but among the youngest adult generation, debit cards are the favorite.
Millennials — people define the group differently, but it’s generally people ages 18 to 30 or 35 — favor debit cards not because they don’t want to build credit or can’t qualify for credit cards, rather they tend to have an aversion to the idea of debt. Millennials started their adult lives during or in the wake of the financial crisis, in which debt emerged as a devastating villain to be avoided at all costs in the future.
A survey from Bankrate and informal interviews with young consumers support that idea: Many young consumers have been convinced by economic conditions that credit cards are bad.
Millennials Don’t See the Need for Credit
Well over half (63%) of consumers ages 18 to 29 do not have credit cards, a survey commissioned by Bankrate found. The data is based on an August survey conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates, which interviewed 1,003 adults living in the continental U.S. The data has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. In comparison, only 35% of those surveyed older than 30 were without credit cards.
In interviews with millennials, the topic of using debit cards to avoid debt surfaced again and again.
Elliott Everson, 20, said he’s thought about getting a credit card, but he isn’t really motivated to make it happen. He’s used a debit card since graduating high school.
“I think I’ll get too used to swiping and not thinking about it,” Everson said about using a credit card. “They say credit cards are bad.”
Even though he’s wary of falling into debt, Everson said his stepfather suggested he open a card for small expenses so he can build credit (he has no credit history, he said). Still, he’s happy sticking with his debit card.
Twenty-six-year-old Vinita Rana doesn’t like the idea of potentially spending more than she should, either. She recently moved from India to the United States last year, and she has only ever used a debit card in either country.
“Sometimes, we spend more than we want to,” she said. “With a debit card, you can’t spend what you don’t have.” She thinks she’d like a credit card in the future, though, perhaps for convenience or for financing a large purchase.
Credit & Debt Aren’t the Same, But It Sometimes Seems That Way
Aaron Dicker, 26, had a credit card when he was in college, but the issuer closed it due to inactivity. He used it to buy something once, paid off the balance immediately and never used it after that point.
“I always just had a debit account, and I don’t overdraft,” Dicker said. “I spend in my own limits, and I don’t need credit.”
It hasn’t been an issue for him. He’s established a credit history through paying student loans and an auto loan, so for him, there’s no need to get a credit card when a debit card adequately serves his needs.
At the same time, just because you use a credit card doesn’t mean it needs to be a source of debt. If you pay off the balance each month (like Dicker did with that first credit card), the purchases have no different effect on your bottom line. It’s only when balances carry over that they accrue interest and sometimes perpetuate a habit of spending beyond your means.
Plenty of people learned that the hard way.
Ann Badertcher, 32, doesn’t use her credit card anymore, because she racked up a lot of debt using it after college.
“I thought it was free money,” she said, voicing an unfortunately common misunderstanding among credit card users. She doesn’t have credit card debt now, and she uses a debit card because it keeps her on budget. She keeps the card open to build her credit.
Gina Selent, 29, made a similar credit-to-debit switch. She’s been using only her debit card for two months now, because she’s trying to pay down credit card debt and improve her credit standing.
“I had gotten a little carried away,” she said. She said she tended to buy “silly things” with her credit cards, so she committed to paying them off. She knows she should keep using them to maintain her credit history, but it’s not that simple, she said.
“People say you want to use it often to build credit, but I just go overboard,” Selent said. “With a debit card, if you don’t have money on there, you can’t just say ‘Oh, hey’ and swipe.”
Finding Ways to Use Credit Responsibly
In a collection of interviews, Millennials stood by the strategy of using a debit card to control spending. It’s certainly a good way to keep track of your money, and there are no bills to worry about paying (and the fees and interest that come when you’re late with a credit card payment).
Still, credit cards can be very helpful tools, particularly for consumers trying to build credit from scratch. There’s no need to carry a balance on your credit card — actually, that can hurt your credit scores — and you can do as little as set up a small automatic payment with your credit card to establish a solid payment and credit-use history. For example, pay your Netflix account with a credit card, and set up your bill payment to automatically debit your checking account every billing cycle.
Credit cards may not be for everyone, but avoiding credit cards out of fear isn’t necessarily a winning strategy for Millennials, either.
No matter what your approach to building credit (even if you have no credit history, or think you don’t have one), it’s still very important to pay attention to your credit reports and scores. Pulling your credit reports is a good way to find any mistakes or issues that you need to address, and always, the sooner the better. Your credit scores are also an excellent barometer to what’s going on in your credit reports, too, so if you see a problem with your credit scores, look to your reports. Consumers are entitled to their free credit report every year through AnnualCreditReport.com, and Credit.com lets you see two of your credit scores for free, updated monthly.
More on Credit Cards:
- How to Lower Your Credit Card Interest Rates
- How Secured Cards Can Help Build Credit
- Tips for Paying Off Credit Card Debt
Image: Brand X Pictures