Credit Card Etiquette: What to Do If You See Your Friends Using a Debit Card or Cash

Mar 28, 2019

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As you hopefully know by now, the only way to truly maximize all your spending is to put all of your expenses on your credit cards and only use cash when absolutely necessary. After all, cash doesn’t give you the opportunity to apply for a difference in price when an item you bought goes on sale, get a refund when your Apple Watch breaks or, most importantly, earn any points. So, seeing a friend pay with cash or a debit card naturally makes many of us in the points and miles hobby cringe.

Friends aren’t supposed to let friends pay with cash or debit cards. However, there’s certain etiquette that needs to be followed when you see a friend paying for their purchases with something other than a rewards-earning credit card.

To find out what the polite way to credit card shame is, we posed the question to readers in the TPG Lounge, as well as Daniel Post Senning — great-great-grandson of famed etiquette writer Emily Post, and author of the 19th edition of “Emily Post’s Etiquette.”

Debit cards are meant for the ATM, not to make large payments. (Photo by Nick Pampoukidis)
Debit cards are meant for the ATM, not necessarily for making large purchases. (Photo by Nick Pampoukidis)

Don’t Do It

The safest option is to do nothing, say nothing. Credit cards are an aspect of people’s finances, and finances, along with politics and religion, are personal and potentially sensitive topics that should typically be avoided. Whether it be because of previous debt, fear of overspending or something else, there’s likely a reason why the person isn’t using a credit card. Remember our advice: Only leverage credit cards if you’re paying your bill off in full.

Here’s what some TPG Lounge members had to say. (Comments have been lightly edited for clarity.)

“Their life, not mine. We don’t know what their financial situation is. I don’t want to start an awkward conversation.” — Gino

“It’s a financial matter that is entirely subjective to each individual, and often quite personal. We have no clue why they are using cash or debit. Perhaps they do not trust themselves with credit cards, and have gotten buried in CC debt in the past, and using cash/debit is a matter of self control. Perhaps they feel that, were they to use a card, they would ultimately end up purchasing more, thus negating the value of any points earned. I love points and miles, but I am the first to admit that there are many smart reasons for certain people to stick with cash.” — David K.

“Say nothing. Every non-user is a reason for Chase to up their bonuses.” — Jamie P.

Etiquette expert Daniel Post suggests that you shouldn’t respond to situations like someone using a debit card rather than a credit card to correct others. For instance, when there’s a baby crying on a plane, you don’t scold the parents.

Proceed With Caution

Although avoiding the conversation altogether is the safest options, Post told TPG that there are instances when it’s appropriate to have it. The key is to read the situation. For instance, if it’s a close friend or relative, you may already feel comfortable speaking about more personal subjects like finances with them. That being said, you don’t want to direct what someone does unless they ask for advise.

“My friends know I’m a miles and travel guru. When they want my advice, they ask.” — James C.

Rather than cutting straight to the chase, start by explaining the points and miles hobby. Tell your friend or relative about your most recent trip and how you booked it using points. Then, you can segue into credit cards by explaining how you earned those points. If at any point you notice any social cues that suggest they’re losing interest in the conversation, don’t force it. Post says that you must be willing to listen to any counter-arguments they may have and show that there might be validity to some of their concerns — that’s the price you pay to have the conversation.

(Photo by Stil/Unsplash)
Explain that paying for travel with a debit card instead of a credit card gets you nothing in return. (Photo by Stil/Unsplash)

Pick Up Their Tab

It’s totally acceptable to offer to pick up the tab and then have the other person either give you cash on the spot or send it via an online service like PayPal or Venmo. Just be candid and explain why you’re offering to do this.

“Pay for them and have them Venmo you back!” — Jróm S.

Proper etiquette is to accept whatever answer they give you, so if they say no, just leave it at that. If they do agree to Venmo you, your best bet is to send the request right away. Otherwise, it could be awkward for them to receive it later on. Also, as with splitting a bill using cash, you should round to the nearest dollar when sending the request.

Refer Them to a Card

If the person seems interested in picking up a travel rewards card, feel free to share a referral link with them. (Note: It is TPG policy that referral links are not allowed in the comments section.) There are many cards that let you refer your friends and family members and earn miles, points or cash for your accounts at the same time. Amex is especially generous with this as it allows you to refer friends and family to nearly any of the issuer’s cards — even if you don’t hold that specific card.

While you might have a dozen credit cards in your wallet, you’ll want to be mindful that they’re new to the world of points and miles and only recommend starter cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. These cards offer sub-$100 annual fees, along with large sign-up bonuses and lucrative earning opportunities.

Send Them to TPG

If nothing else, send them to ThePointsGuy.com. We have countless credit card guides and FAQ pages to help your friends and family get started earning and burning points and miles. The TPG Lounge is another great resource for beginners — every Tuesday, group members have the opportunity to ask beginner-level questions.

“Shaming followed by instilling in them the TPG commandments is the civilized thing to do.” — James F.

Bottom Line

As hard as it is, in most cases, you’ll want to restrain yourself from saying something when you see someone paying with cash or a debit card. But if you do decide to speak up, never force anything upon them. Be completely transparent about minimum spend requirements for welcome bonuses, as well as the importance of making payments on time.

Hopefully this post has given you some food for thought. Let us know how you would handle this type of situation in the comments below. If you’ve successfully convinced someone to wean off paying with cash or their debit cards, email your success story to info@thepointsguy.com for a chance to be featured on the site.

Featured image by Alexander Mils/Unsplash.

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