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How to Treat a Credit Card Like a Debit Card

One way to make more strategic spending decisions.

A woman is holding a credit card payment terminal behind a counter for an unidentified woman making a purchase with her credit card.
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credit card can help you finance a large purchase, build credit and earn rewards -- but it can also torpedo your finances if you routinely miss making payments, regularly carry a balance or dig yourself into debt. Spending money with a debit card, on the other hand, does not involve paying interest, because you withdraw money from your own checking account each time you swipe. But if you're looking to mitigate the risks of using a credit card while taking advantage of the benefits, using your credit card like a debit card is one way to do it. 

Can I use a credit card like a debit card?

When you swipe your debit card to pay for a transaction, the funds are withdrawn from your checking account. Essentially, you've paid for the product or service in real time, so there's nothing to "pay off" later. The purchase will be approved, as long as there's enough money in your account to cover it. 

When you use credit to make a purchase, the credit card issuer pays for the transaction and you pay it back later. You won't have to pay any interest if you pay off your balance in full before your credit card grace period ends. But if you don't, and end up carrying a balance, you'll accumulate interest charges, which can be quite high. 

If you intend to use a credit card like a debit card, you'll make purchases with your credit card only when you have enough money in your checking account to cover them. If you're disciplined, you won't spend beyond your budget and you will still benefit from all of your card's perks and rewards. 

Reasons you might want to use a credit card like a debit card

Credit cards allow you to build credit and earn rewards, and they typically provide an additional layer of security that you won't get from a debit card. If you approach spending with a credit card like you would with a debit card, you're less likely to overspend. Here are a few reasons to use a credit card with a debit card mentality:

Avoid overspending 

Debit cards require that you spend only what you have in your checking account; if you haven't opted in to overdraft protection, you'll incur an overdraft fee if you spend more than you have. You can apply the same logic to your credit card by swiping only when you have sufficient funds available. 

Avoid interest charges and fees

With both credit and debit cards, you must remain conscientious to steer clear of fees. Most debit card fees -- including ATM fees, overdraft fees and nonsufficient funds fees -- are easily avoidable. But because of the lag between swiping a credit card and paying your monthly statement, it's not hard to overspend. As such, you'll need to pay closer attention to what you spend on a credit card to avoid interest charges. 

Maximize your rewards

A credit card has a clear advantage over a debit card when it comes to earning rewards. A good rewards credit card lets you earn points, miles or cash back whenever you make a purchase. In general, a debit card doesn't, though a few offer modest amounts of cash back on spending. 

Build credit

Spending on a debit card has no impact on your credit score. If you're looking to build or establish credit, using a credit card responsibly is one of the best ways to do it. But there are pitfalls: Overspending, having too high a credit utilization ratio or routinely missing payments will actually depress your credit score. 

Fraud protection

Credit cards offer greater fraud liability protection than debit cards. Major credit card networks like Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Discover offer protection to victims of fraud, so you won't be held liable for any purchases you didn't make. Debit cards do provide some degree of fraud liability protection, however. You're not liable for unauthorized transactions charged to your account as long as you reported your card as lost or stolen beforehand. If you report your card lost or stolen within two days of an unauthorized charge to your account, your liability is limited to $50. If you report your card lost or stolen within 60 days, your liability increases to $500. And if you wait for more than 60 days to report your card as lost or stolen, you'll be on the hook for all transactions, authorized or not.

Tips for using a credit card like a debit card

  • Don't spend more than you can afford. 
  • Don't make a purchase if you don't have sufficient funds in your bank account to pay for it.
  • Always pay your bill on time.
  • Always pay your full statement balance. 
  • Understand your credit card APR and card-associated fees
  • Use a credit card for online purchases to take advantage of stronger fraud protection.

The bottom line

Using your credit card like it's a debit card will make it easier to stay within your budget. And using your credit card responsibly adds valuable benefits such as rewards, a higher credit score and enhanced fraud protection. 

The editorial content on this page is based solely on objective, independent assessments by our writers and is not influenced by advertising or partnerships. It has not been provided or commissioned by any third party. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products or services offered by our partners. 

Correction, 7:30 a.m. PT Jan. 25: An earlier version of this article provided an incomplete picture of debit card fraud protection provisions. The article has been updated to clarify that checking account holders are not liable for unauthorized transactions charged to their account as long as they report their debit card lost or stolen before the transactions are made. If the card is reported lost or stolen within two days of an unauthorized charge, that liability increases to $50. If the card is reported lost or stolen within 60 days, the liability increases to $500. After 60 days, the account holder is liable for all transactions, authorized or not.