The temptation to reach into her pocket to spend cash convinced Teresa Onofre to choose a debit card to manage her purchases. Almost one-third of consumers...

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The temptation to reach into her pocket to spend cash convinced Teresa Onofre to choose a debit card to manage her purchases.


Almost one-third of consumers prefer the plastic alternative, according to the American Bankers Association.


“If I don’t carry cash I won’t be as tempted to spend it,” said the 39-year-old Houston resident.


She also uses her debit card, backed by the money in her checking account, to make two $50 purchases a week at the grocery store.


The banking association’s survey of 1,003 consumers said 31 percent prefer debit cards; 37 percent favor cash; 18 percent charge on credit cards; and 14 percent wrote checks. The plastic cards tied to checking accounts accounted for 21 percent of store payments in 1999, according to Dove Consulting, a Boston-based consulting firm.


Consumer groups are concerned that as debit cards become more popular, banks are willing to allow cardholders to overdraw their accounts. Users risk paying overdraft fees that may be more than 30 times the cost of the goods.


Bank of America reported its debit-card purchase volume rose to more than $35 billion in the second quarter, a 27 percent increase from the same period a year ago, according to a July 18 regulatory filing.


“Folks are now getting used to living on plastic and aren’t writing these transactions in their check register,” said Jean Ann Fox, director of consumer protection at Consumer Federation of America. “They can very easily overdraw their accounts. So you use your debit card to buy a can of pop and get charged $30.”


Women were more likely to use debit cards than men, according to the survey. At the same time, twice as many women as men used paper checks.


Debit cards were easier to use than checks, said 46 percent of those surveyed. They also allowed users to avoid adding up credit-card debt, 38 percent of consumers said.


The popularity of debit transactions has spurred retailers to embrace electronic payments even for small purchases.


“Over the past several years we’ve seen an increase in the use of debit cards for purchases in our stores,” said Anne Roman, a spokeswoman for Borders Group, a bookstore chain.


In some cases consumers are forced to use debit cards because they can’t get credit cards.