Credit Card or Cash: Which To Use?

When using a credit card is better than paying with cash - and when it's not

Making purchases with credit cards is often more convenient than paying with cash. But in some situations, using cash has more advantages.

Learn how your financial situation and the type of credit card you are using can play a role in whether it's best to use cash or credit to make a purchase.

When to Avoid Using a Credit Card

While it may be easy to use a credit card, you may find that in some circumstances it's best to use cash to make a purchase instead. Here are a few examples of when cash is likely a better way to pay.

With a Transaction Fee

Using a credit card to pay expenses like your income taxes, mortgage, health insurance premium or another recurring bill may cost you, even if you earn reward points, miles, or cash back. Even if the servicer allows credit card payments, they may charge a convenience fee that may outweigh the value of any reward.

For example, the IRS allows credit cards for tax payments, but with a 1.87% to 1.98% processor fee (in addition to the interest rate on the credit card if you don't pay your bill in full).

In contrast, the IRS allows short-term payment extensions for no fee and installment plans for a fee of $31 to $225 (depending on the taxpayer's financial situation). Late payments are subject to a penalty (0.5% per month) and interest (the federal short-term rate plus 3%), but the total might be lower than the cost of using the credit card.

Without Negotiating

Whether you are facing large medical bills or another significant expense, contact the company's billing department before you charge a credit card and potentially start a debt cycle that can be difficult to escape.

You may find the company is willing to offer a payment plan with terms that more advantageous than your credit card's terms. They may even be willing to reduce the balance.

While Getting Mortgage

Mortgage underwriters are wary of changes in your creditworthiness between the time you apply for a loan and the time it closes. If your credit card utilization suddenly increases, your credit score could take a hit, and you may not qualify for the loan. If you're in the process of getting a mortgage, use your credit cards very sparingly or not at all.

When Buying Beyond Your Budget

If you cannot afford a purchase, whether it's a restaurant meal, a new outfit, or a vacation, avoid using a credit card. Without the cash flow to pay the credit card balance, you will face interest charges that can snowball your debt.

Credit card credit lines can feel like an extension of your income but remember they are a loan in which your debt can compound.

If you have credit card debt, you can't afford to use your cards. Instead, pay down the balance before you add any new charges to the mix, or you risk getting stuck in a cycle of debt. Making only minimum payments on your credit card could mean you are paying for purchases for years.

Reasons to Use a Credit Card

Using a credit card carries risk, but there are many situations when it makes sense to use a credit card over cash, such as for convenience, card benefits, security, or rewards.


Credit cards are often more convenient and secure than carrying cash. As long as you can pay your bill in full each month, using a credit card is typically more advantageous than using cash for in-person purchases. You need to use a credit card for online transactions as you can't pay in cash.

Warranty or Purchase Protection

A credit card can help you to protect a major purchase as card issuers may offer purchase protection and an extended warranty for items bought with the card. For example, Visa will double the manufacturer's warranty for warranties of less than one year, and it will extend the warranty by one year for warranties of one to three years.

Stronger Fraud Liability Limits

Credit and debit cards both limit cardholder liability in the event of fraud, but credit card protection is typically stronger.

A cardholder's liability for fraudulent use ranges from $0 (if the loss is reported before any fraudulent charges are made) to $50 (if the loss is reported after unauthorized use occurs). On a debit card, however, liability can be unlimited. It is $0 when the loss is reported before unauthorized charges are made, $50 if the fraud is reported within two business days, $500 if the fraud is reported more than 2 but less than 60 days after it occurs, and unlimited when the fraud is not reported until more than 60 days after it occurred.

Card Benefits

Co-branded credit cards typically offer exclusive benefits specific to the brand. For example, some airline credit cards offer free checked bags to people traveling on tickets purchased with the card.

Some hotel chains offer upgrades or special amenities to guests who pay with a branded card.

Earn Rewards

Many credit cards offer rewards programs that provide a range of benefits, from cash back to travel points. You can potentially earn hundreds, even thousands of dollars back each year with rewards returns, including on everyday household spending.

For example, the American Express Blue Cash Preferred card pays 6% cash back on grocery store spending up to $6,000 per year, for a potential rebate of $360. Cardholders earn a smaller percentage back for other categories of spending.

Security While Traveling

People who travel are more vulnerable to fraud because they are in unfamiliar territory, where they may not know the local language. Lost or stolen cash cannot be replaced, but you can report a credit card lost or stolen so it cannot be used and you can receive a replacement card.

How Do I Avoid Credit Card Debt?

To avoid credit card debt, make sure that you're only using your credit card for purchases you can afford to pay off at the end of the month. When you use your credit card as if it is an extension of your income, you may struggle to pay your debt. Paying off your credit card bills in full will help you avoid paying interest.

Is It Better to Use Cash or Credit When Traveling?

Cash and credit can be beneficial when traveling, but many travelers feel more secure using a credit card to travel. If anything happens to the card, issues can be resolved with a simple call to customer service. However, having cash while traveling is often a good idea incase you need to pay for something from a merchant that does not accept credit cards.

Is It Bad to Use a Credit Card?

When used responsibly, a credit card can be a convenient and rewarding. Only use a credit card on purchases you can afford. Don't let perks and rewards convince you to make purchases that will push you into debt. Using more credit than you can afford to repay can harm your financial health.

The Bottom Line

Both cash and credit cards offer advantages to making payments. Avoid using a credit card when you cannot afford the purchases, because your debt can snowball rapidly. Focus on using credit cards as tools to get added value from your planned spending through rewards and protections.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. IRS. "Pay Your Taxes by Debit or Credit Card."

  2. IRS. "Topic No. 653 IRS Notices and Bills, Penalties, and Interest Charges."

  3. IRS. "Additional Information on Payment Plans."

  4. Boeing Employees Credit Union. "Can I Get a Mortgage if I Have Credit Card Debt?"

  5. Experian. "The Simple Guide to Using Credit Cards."

  6. Visa. "Extended Warranty Protection."

  7. IRS. "Lost or Stolen Credit, ATM, and Debit Cards."

  8. American Express. "Credit Cards."

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