Credit vs. Debit Smackdown! general manager Robert Long joins the podcast to debate the merits of credit and debit cards. Plus, hosts Sandy Block and Ryan Ermey break down strategies for paying off student loans.

Ryan Ermey: Today on Your Money's Worth, a long-standing debate within the offices of Kiplinger comes to the air. general manager, Robert Long, joins the show to debate me on the merits of credit versus debit with Sandy moderating in our main segment. On today's show, Sandy and I discuss strategies for managing your student loans and reveal more of our most off-the-wall PR pitches. That's all ahead on this episode of Your Money's Worth. Stick around.

Ryan: Welcome to Your Money's Worth. I'm Kiplinger's associate editor, Ryan Ermey, joined as always by senior editor, Sandy Block. Sandy, how are you doing?

Sandy: Doing good.

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Ryan: Well, before we start, I'd like to welcome any and all listeners who have migrated because they've gotten their new subscription to Kiplinger's because we happen to be welcoming a number of former subscribers of Money magazine. If this is your first time listening, welcome. Please go back and listen to all of our hours of wonderful, wonderful content. And otherwise, we're going to get right to it.

Ryan: So, a number of politicians are proposing some form of student loan forgiveness, and we here at Kiplinger's try not to get involved in political issues but we should say that you probably shouldn't be like holding your breath for that.

Sandy: No. Pay those loans. Keep making your payments.

Ryan: Sandy, we've talked about this a little bit before, but what would you say is sort of the most important thing that people should know when it comes to managing student loans, which is a big financial issue for a lot of young people out there?

Sandy: It's a huge financial issue and oftentimes, it's the first big bill that you'll pay out of college. And right now, we're sort of in the summer, a lot of young people have graduated and they typically get a six months' grace period before they have to start making payments. It's really not too soon to start getting things in order and start figuring out how much you owe, what the interest rate is, who you owe and when you have to start making payments.

Sandy: Because when you hear these horror stories about these young people with a $100,000 or $200,000 in student loans, when you drill down often that was not the original balance. That's how much they owed after missing a bunch of payments. And as we talked about in this podcast before, it is almost impossible to get rid of student loans. The bankruptcy rules do not help you at all.

Sandy: The most important thing to do is understand who your lenders are and how much you, what your payments are going to be and get everything ready so you can start making those payments and stay on time.

Ryan: Now, we've talked a lot, not on the show, but certainly within the pages of Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine about consolidating your loans, and the rules are different when it comes to federal loans, right?

Sandy: Well, there's two ways you can consolidate. One is you can just ... If you have a numerous types of federal loans, you can consolidate them into one payment which makes sense in that you're not going to get lost or something like that. But that won't really save you any money. You can't lower your interest rates unless you extend payments which will lower your payments but isn't going to reduce the impact that it will increase the amount that you owe because you're paying a bit longer.

Sandy: So that's one thing. The other thing a lot of people have been talking about is consolidating into a private loan. Maybe you have some private and some federal and you roll them all into one private loan. Recently, we're hearing more about this is because interest rates have been going down and often times, borrowers are discovering that if they qualify, and that's a big if because you have to have pretty good credit. But if they qualify for a private loan, they may be able to lower the interest rate sometimes by quite a lot.

Ryan: That sort of dovetails into something that I wanted to talk about that I'm experiencing somewhat. I don't have, like some people have just like mountains and mountains like insurmountable amount of student loans that I don't, but I have a fair amount that I pay off every month and it's a good bite out of my paycheck every month. So I'm considering refinancing my loans. If you have good credit and a stable job and steady income, you'll generally benefit from refinancing your loans although it should be said that I'm someone with ... I mean, my credit score the last time I checked is over 800, which is ... Yeah, I know. I know.

Ryan: I'm a pretty big deal, okay? We'll talk about this in our next segment in terms of how I built that credit. But even with my good credit, the fact that I don't make very much money when I went to look at, and I've been shopping around, for where I might refinance my loans. The fact that I don't make a lot of money means that my offers aren't as good as they could be if I made more.

Ryan: One solution to this and I've talked to my parents about this is having a co-signer, which will get you a better rate. And they're sort of, I guess two schools of thought when it comes to refinancing. If you refinance to a lower rate but continue to make payments at the same level, you're going to be paid off much quicker and you'll pay a lot less in interest. Or this is sort of more where I'm coming from because I am paying a lot of money out of my paychecks at the moment and I'd like to pump my cash flow up a little bit, is I can pay over perhaps a longer period of time but at a much lower interest rate and at a much lower monthly payment, which will allow me to increase my cash flow a little bit.

Sandy: Well, there's a couple of risks there that you need to think about, and to back up, a story that our colleague, Kaitlin Pitsker did about financing to a private loan. She said that about 60% of people who apply for these loans are turned down, so don't feel bad.

Ryan: Okay.

Sandy: It's pretty common, but there are two risks. One is that the low rate is almost certainly going to be a variable. So say you decide to refinance to a lower rate, they accept you. It may not stay that way. Interest rates could go up and all of a sudden, those lower payments will go up, too. So, that's one problem which actually are you in favor of trying to pay it off as fast as you can because then you're protecting yourself.

Sandy: The other one that I think people really need to think about when they're thinking about refinancing is you give up a lot of protections that you get with federal student loans depending on the type of loan that you have. With federal student loans, you may qualify to have your payments deferred under certain economic circumstances which include losing your job or having a serious illness. And if you have a subsidized loan, interest rates may not accrue during that deferment period.

Sandy: Private lenders may, if you ask very nicely, they give you forbearance in an ... But they don't have to. And almost certainly, interest will accrue during that period. So that's something you really need to think about. Do you anticipate any hardships that might make it more ... If you think you're going to ever in your life have trouble paying your loans, I think you're probably better off having a federal loan than a private loan because they make the rules. There's no protections.

Ryan: Like I said, the other thing to think about is just think about the economics of the interest rate that you're going to pay and how long it's going to take to pay off. A lot of these sites, if you go, we like Student Loan Hero and we'll link their calculator in the show notes. But refinancing to a lower rate, it could very well be that you can pay less each month save over the life of the loan and not have to pay for very much longer. It's just a matter of what your interest rate is now, what you're allowed to refinance to.

Ryan: I feel like our advice is always shop around, consider your options, et cetera, but once again, we'd urge people to shop around, consider your options and consider the very real possibility that you could be losing some protections afforded by the federal government for having a loan service through them.

Ryan: Coming up, it's a credit versus debit showdown with Robert Long. Don't go anywhere.

Ryan: All right. We are back, we're here with general manager, Robert Long, who is notorious around these parts because he is among the only people on our staff who does all of his spending using a debit card. So we saw this as an opportunity for a little bit of debate. I only use credit so Robert and I are going to be going head to head.

Ryan: Robert, thank you so much for coming on.

Robert: Thank you very much. I'm happy to be here.

Ryan: And since Sandy uses both, she is going to sort of moderate the debate. So where should we start, Sandy?

Sandy: Well, I guess, as I said, we give Robert a hard time at his refusal to use credit cards. So I'd love to hear you make your case, Robert, as to why you've decided to pursue a life without credit.

Robert: I think for one thing, it is a matter of streamlining our finances, and Kiplinger writes about this all the time. Cover packages about simplifying your finances.

Sandy: That one coming up, yeah.

Robert: Life is complicated. Managing your money can be complicated. The fewer bills I need to pay every month, the better.

Sandy: Okay, now, Ryan, what's your reason for putting everything on a credit card including the coffee you buy down the street, I assumed?

Ryan: I used to be very much in Robert's camp of keeping things very, very simple. I was debit-only for a long time. Once I got a handle on sort of what my monthly spending looked like, I thought if I'm going to be doing this anyway and if I'm going to be laying out about the same amount of money anyway, why not get free stuff for it?

Ryan: And so that's what I do. I put all of my spending on ... I use a pretty straightforward rewards card, 2% cash back on everything via the wonderful Citi Double Cash card which we've recommended before. And so yeah, I'm getting rewarded for the same spending I was doing anyway.

Sandy: Well, and Robert, I guess the question I always raised with people who are anti-credit or use a debit card is how do you rent a car?

Robert: I've got a simple answer to that. I rent with Alamo. I've had great success with them over the years. They are very easy with debit card holders. I actually, prior to our podcasts, went and looked at the policies for the other major car rental companies. Some of them are somewhat flexible with debit cards, but in most cases you're having to bring multiple forms of additional identifications.

Robert: You may even have to put down a security deposit. I don't mean to give too much for a free plug to Alamo, but it is simply pay with your debit card just as you would with a credit card, no questions asked.

Sandy: And you don't feel like you're leaving money on the table because you're not getting all these rewards that we write about all the time for using credit cards?

Robert: Let me challenge Ryan and that philosophy in general that you're getting 2% back. I think that 2% cash back is a trap.

Sandy: You're entrapped, Ryan.

Robert: You're getting 2% cash back but what if you were spending 10% more every year, 15% more, 20% more, maybe even much more than that because you have a credit card. There are so many studies out there that show spending in general among credit card users is, and you can find all sorts of numbers, but let's call it 15% higher in general with credit card users.

Robert: You look more specifically, I think McDonald's once did a study that showed the average credit card payer has a $7 bill, the person paying in cash has a $4.50 bill.

Sandy: The seamlessness.

Robert: I saw a study out there that shows people with credit cards are better tippers, and by that I mean better for the wait staff, not better for their own wallet. We just, in fact, got an email this morning [about] a survey from a bank rate showing that folks with credit card debt are more likely to spend more on a variety of different discretionary spending categories.

Ryan: Yes.

Robert: We don't need to be [a] psychologist here to understand that it is much easier to fork over your money when it's a piece of plastic than it is to hand over hard-earned, cold, hard cash.

Sandy: But you are using plastic, Robert. It's just a debit card.

Robert: Correct, correct.

Ryan: But it's coming straight out of his bank account, I get that point.

Robert: The difference there is I'm able to literally see the decline of my bank account as I spend where you're not doing that with a credit card.

Sandy: Which is basically why in my house, we use a debit card for groceries and gas, and I use my credit card for like shoes and handbags and trips, and stuff. But Ryan, how do you avoid this temptation to spend money that you don't have since when you have a credit card, you don't have to pay it right away?

Ryan: Yeah. And Robert really makes an excellent point. It's about having discipline. It's like you could make the argument that you shouldn't get a dog because you might be too irresponsible to take care of it. You might not take it out for walks and feed it and do all of the thing. It might get lonely and you leave [it] in your house all day. But before I bought my dog and in this case, before I got my credit card, I made sure that I was going to stick to my monthly budget.

Ryan: Now, the excellent point is that credit cards ... People can be encouraged to think that it's kind of like funny money. You have to be really disciplined about maintaining a budget. In my case, it's pretty easy because I don't have a lot of discretionary money to play with. And I pay my credit card bill off in full every month. But the obvious drawback of credit cards is interest rates if you can't pay it off every month can be really deleterious to your financial picture.

Sandy: But now, Robert, one other issue I have with your strategy is that what about your credit score? We've often recommended even to young people that they get a credit card, buy a small amount every month and pay it off because this is often the only way that you can build a good credit score. Have you done it in other ways or you just not care?

Robert: I should probably point out, in addition to wanting to streamline my finances, really the bigger reason I don't have credit cards is a broader commitment to a debt-free lifestyle. An answer [to] your question, hopefully, I'm not applying for credit going forward. I'm also infamous for being the guy that when I buy a new car, I'm paying cash. I'm saving up for that, pay in cash.

Robert: Right now the only debt that my wife and I have is our mortgage which we are aggressively paying down. To some extent, yes, I don't care.

Sandy: Did you have any trouble getting that mortgage since you didn't have a credit history?

Robert: Now, in fairness, I've had credit cards in my early 20s and probably did build up some, I can't recall exactly what my credit score was when I got my mortgage 15 years ago. I have not checked it since then for the reasons I've laid out here. What is important for people to know is that not having credit cards does not hurt your credit score. It does not enable use as you've talked about to build a payment history with those credit cards to build your credit score. But it's not a penalty.

Robert: So if there are other ways you can build your credit, paying your other bills on time, you're going to be able to build a satisfactory credit score.

Sandy: I guess, the point we'd like to make is just what you did often times for a young person. That is the only credit that you can get. So I think, often for a young person, they do need a credit card because you're not going to buy a house right out of college and sometimes, students loans, you get credit for them and sometimes you don't. And not everybody has student loans.

Sandy: It seems like it's a useful tool but I think it's really interesting that often times I think we've assumed that you have to have credit card. So I think it's interesting that you've been able to do just fine without one.

Robert: One of the things I wanted to stress here, I hope we all might agree that few people, if any people, actually need a credit card to the point you just made, Sandy. There are benefits to them and you may want to get one, but I'm not sure that people really need one. Ryan makes a very good point. If you can use it responsibly, yes, it can do a lot of good to your bottom line.

Robert: The problem, much as we like to believe people will use it responsibly, the problem is most people don't. And again, there's lots of numbers out there but 50% to 60% of people actually carry a credit card balance. The average debt among those people is over $6,000. And on that $6,000 on typical interest rate of 16% or so, you're paying over $1,100 a year in interest.

Ryan: Like I said, if you can't use a credit card responsibly, and I recommend doing what I did was just I didn't get a credit card until I was 26 or 27. That's not 100% sure. I think I was an authorized user on some of my parent's credit cards growing up which is how I was able to build some credit by the time I got my credit card and all of the bills for my houses which I had various roommates have always been in my name, so I've been able to build some credit that way.

Ryan: The other huge benefit of credit cards if you can use them responsibly is that they have much better protections than debit card purchases in the case of fraud. In the case of fraud or theft, you're protected in a case of fraudulent purchases. Companies will wipe out subsequent charges if someone, say, takes your card number. You have absolutely no liability.

Ryan: The Fair Credit Billing Act allows you to dispute charges with your card issuer, and if they're legit, they'll wipe them out. Whereas if you're on the debit card and you enter into a sort of fraudulent situation, the protections aren't nearly as strong.

Sandy: I think the thing, and Robert, I'd like you to get to respond to this. I think most of the debit cards now that are issued by Visa or Master have pretty good protection. So I don't think ... The thing that always worried me about having my debit card stolen is they will make you hold, but you're out of that money until they do.

Sandy: And in a credit card, you can just say, "I'm not going to pay for that, you know, boom box somebody [else purchased]," yes, whereas if somebody cleans out your debit card, you have to fight to get that money back. In the meantime, your bank account is empty. Is that a concern?

Robert: You guys are absolutely right on that. On paper, Ryan is certainly correct. The protections are much better for credit cards. I think as you're getting at, Sandy, in reality, in practice, banks are going to give you those same protections. I have had a couple of instances like I think everybody has where I'm looking at my bank statement and there's three $500 charges from the middle of Ohio where I haven't been in years, if ever. And call up your bank, they recognize pretty quickly that's not your regular spending pattern, fill out whatever paperwork.

Robert: But you're right. For a couple of days, there may be a hold on those funds until they are able to process that and put the money back into your account.

Sandy: And I guess it's what always worried me is while you're fighting over these charges somebody went to Cancun on your debit card or something, while you're fighting to get that money back, you could be bouncing checks.

Robert: Potentially, yes. One of the things I think the banks are pretty smart about these days is recognizing unauthorized usage and I think the idea that your bank account is going to get drained completely is probably not going to happen. In fact, just this past weekend, I got a fraud alert. I think I had gone out and hit the ATM, and hit like three or four things very quickly. To me, they were ordinary expenses but something triggered my bank to say, "Is this you?" And if I hadn't, they would have cut off usage of the card pretty quickly and prevented it from being drained.

Ryan: I remember one time I was working as a cater waiter and I had like this late night gig out in Towson, Maryland, and me and a bunch of other people had to get back to DC. And it was like a whole ... I mean, the company that bused us out there, just left us out there like, "Oh, go ahead and get a cab." And none of the people I was with had any sort of means to pay the cabbie. This was before Uber and before cabs were taking credit cards as a amendatory practice. And so I had them drive me to an ATM at two in the morning in Towson, Maryland and the bank declined my cash withdrawal.

Robert: Because you've never been in Towson?

Ryan: Because I've never been in Towson, Maryland.

Sandy: It was two o'clock in the morning.

Ryan: But I will say in the case ... Because sometimes things go awry even with a debit card. Things go awry with a card reader or whatever and if that's the only card you have in your pocket, that can be tough, too, if it's locked or whatever. So it's even good to just be able to know that I have least more than one card at my disposal these days in case something goes awry.

Sandy: Well, the other thing to your point about fraudulent charges, and I think this applies to both types of cards is I've interviewed ID theft experts before. And they checked their online accounts every day. And I think for credit card holders, that's a good idea because that reminds you of what you're spending and maybe reduces the possibility for running up a bill that you can't pay. And I think for anybody, debit or credit card, it does alert you early to fraud.

Ryan: Well, we're running long on this segment here. I think it's been a healthy debate. And I think generally speaking, the message has been tread carefully. If you're opening a credit account, make sure that you're budgeting responsibly for it. But obviously, there are humongous benefits to reducing debt in your life as much as possible.

Ryan: Robert, plug your stuff. I mean I will just say go to, but what's of the people would be on the lookout for?

Sandy: All the time.

Robert: We have lots of great material on including as you mentioned the specific card that you use is part of Kiplinger's best rewards card of 2019 package. That would be a nice piece of content for people to look into. And I think you're hitting on the right point here which is I don't mean to suggest credit cards are bad for everybody or that the debt-free lifestyle is great for everybody. Find what is right for you, whether it's credit or debit. And if it's credit, find the right card that is right for you and suits your spending habits.

Ryan: All right, check it all out in the show notes, folks. And Robert, thank you again for coming on.

Robert: Thank you very much.

Ryan: After the break, it's teething toys and passion-based investing in a new edition of Wild Pitches.

Ryan: We're back and before we go, Sandy and I wanted to do one of our very, very favorite recurring segments, Wild Pitches, in which we talk about some of our PR pitches that we receive in your inbox that are just a bit outside. So, Sandy, what is yours?

Sandy: I think I mentioned in previous podcast I've been going to a lot or have been invited to a lot of baby showers recently. And we got a pitch recently for some Eco-Chic baby toys and teethers. We were debating before this how long teething lasts, but I don't think it lasts very long.

Ryan: Yeah, I think, I mean a couple of years.

Sandy: Basically, teething toy is something your kid is going to chew on, right?

Ryan: Yeah.

Sandy: So this particular Eco-Chic organic product is BPA free. It's made in the USA. It's non-allergenic, naturally antibacterial. Each piece is made from the finest maple wood in New York City. I didn't realize they're cutting down trees in New York City but I guess they are. Prices start at $26.

Sandy: That's what really stopped me and it reminded me of ... I don't know if they still have Baby Gaps but my view about Baby Gaps was the only people who actually buy those clothes are like aunts and godmothers. Real parents don't buy that stuff because they need to save their money for preschool, and nannies, and diapers, and stuff like that.

Sandy: I think these types of products are really pitched at people like me who are looking for a baby gift, but my advice is if you really want to help out parents, contribute to the child's 529 plan. $26 could go a long way toward college in 18 years, and it'll still be worthwhile once the kid's teeth come in. So that's my advice. Stay away from expensive baby toys even if they're Eco-Chic and help pay for college. What do you got?

Ryan: Well, I mean mine ... Well you've gotten a preview. And I'm not not going to say who pitched it but we're going to go through this really quickly. If you're fresh out of college and starting your first job, you've probably recently got a form from your employer to set up your 401(k). Everyone knows these investments are important, but knowing how much to invest and where can be an overwhelming process, all true so far.

Ryan: While many platforms usually guide you toward pre-chosen numbers and mechanical investing models, there's one common mistake with this option. Your investment should speak to who you are including your passions. Here's why, which uh-oh. The truth is that if you buy stocks in companies you know, think beyond me, not big pharma, you already know something about how the company does business. So, let's hit the brakes-

Sandy: Right now.

Ryan:... pretty hard. First of all, most 401(k)s don't offer individual stocks.

Sandy: No, the vast majority go right into target date funds where you don't even choose the funds.

Ryan: Or even mutual funds. But let's say for the sake of argument that this person is talking about maybe investing in IRA or some sort of other retirement account. This idea that you should buy what you know is this often sort of misconstrued idea from a long time Fidelity Magellan manager and all around investment guru, Peter Lynch.

Sandy: Right. They think, oh, there's a long line at the grocery store. I should invest in them.

Ryan: Yeah, and it's crazy. And the idea that this applies to this sort of ethicalness of a company or values of a company, what if you really loved Blue Apron right when it came out? You want to talk about another IPO that was based around food obvious ... Beyond Meat just went public, like there really isn't very much-

Sandy: They'll be putting it in your 401(k)-

Ryan: ... public data about it. It's done really well. But if you at a few years ago going, "Oh, my god, I'm obsessed with Blue Apron. I think that their model is amazing. It's going to be the next big thing," well guess what? That stock is not worth what it was. Go ahead and take a look at that chart.

Sandy: Eat the food, don't buy the stock.

Ryan: What Peter Lynch was talking about is that if you had deep expertise in a company or an industry that allowed you to drill down into it on a fundamental level to assess the stock, that's when it's worth buying it, not buy McDonald's because you like Big Macs. So, back to the pitch, if you believe in their values, you'll hold the stock for longer and that's always the best approach to investing. And so generally, buying and holding yes is the best approach to investing. But not because ...

Ryan: You can ride a company that you believe in all the way to the basement, you should hold it because you think it's a good stock. And then we say financial markets are created by humans, for humans, and there are plenty of panic attacks and overexcitement with stocks jumping up and down irrationally, very true. You don't want to think like a robot when everyone else is going with their gut. Yes, you do. Yes, you do. We can't stress this enough. You absolutely want to think like a robot when everyone else is going with their gut.

Ryan: It's Warren Buffett's old saying, "Be greedy when others are fearful, and be fearful when others are greedy." Really what we've recommended over and over and over is to have a diversified portfolio with an asset mix that is in line with your tolerance for risk and have a plan for when the market goes down. Make sure that you have a portfolio that when you imagine in your head that stocks plummet by 30%, 40%, whatever, that you're not going to be awake at night because your portfolio has gone down.

Sandy: That's right. And it's interesting because I'm working on a story about this now. One of the reasons that target date funds are working so well for so many people in 401(k) is not because they necessarily beat the market but they prevent you from being stupid. You put your money in a target date fund and then you just go about your life and you don't react emotionally to a big downturn in the market because it almost always gets people in trouble.

Ryan: Yeah. One more thing from the pitch and the person that this PR professional is trying to hook me up with is the CEO of an app. And we have a sentence here, a knowledgeable market expert, this guy lost his shirt in the dot-com bubble. Don't tell me you lost the shirt, I mean come on.

Ryan: So, look folks, don't lose your shirt and the way that you don't lose your shirt is own a diversified portfolio. Own a portfolio that's in line with your tolerance for risk. Don't invest in individual stocks just because you like them or because they're in line with your values. We've talked about this ad nauseam. We've written about this ad nauseam. I'll put stuff in the show notes, but my goodness, be careful out there.

Ryan: And that will wrap things up for this episode of Your Money's Worth. For show notes and more great Kiplinger content on the topics we discussed on today's show, visit You can stay connected with us on Twitter, Facebook or by emailing us at And if you like the show, please remember to rate, review and subscribe to Your Money's Worth, wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.

Sandra Block
Senior Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Block joined Kiplinger in June 2012 from USA Today, where she was a reporter and personal finance columnist for more than 15 years. Prior to that, she worked for the Akron Beacon-Journal and Dow Jones Newswires. In 1993, she was a Knight-Bagehot fellow in economics and business journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has a BA in communications from Bethany College in Bethany, W.Va.