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Poll: Most Americans are still using cash or debit cards to pay for small purchases

Contactless cards, mobile payments and rewards credit cards all take a back seat


Yes, Americans are still pulling out their greenbacks and debit cards to pay for purchases less than $10. Why aren’t they using rewards credit cards, mobile payments or contactless cards? Find out now.

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Consumers prefer to use cash for purchases of less than $10, despite other more convenient options, according to a new poll.

In fact, 49 percent of U.S. adults usually pay with cash, 35 percent with debit cards and 16 percent with credit cards.

And the same pattern held with only those who owned rewards credit cards: 43 percent said they preferred cash, 31 percent debit and 26 percent credit.

Although using a contactless card or mobile payment for a small purchase is quick, easy and secure, U.S. consumers evidently aren’t ready to change.

“Contactless cards are very popular abroad but still in their infancy in the U.S,” said Ted Rossman, industry analyst at “I think they’ll catch on here because most retailers can now accept them and most card issuers are delivering contactless cards to their customers.”

Rossman noted that transit systems in major cities such as New York and Chicago now accept contactless cards – a step toward getting consumers to embrace tap-and-go payments.

“Once people see how easy it is to pay with a tap, I think they’ll do the same at grocery stores, fast food restaurants, pharmacies and other places people like to get in and out quickly,” he said.

See previous small purchase surveys:  2018, 2017, 2016, 2014

Other notable findings from our 2019 small purchase poll

  • Contactless cards and mobile payments aren’t commonplace. Despite the fact that contactless cards and mobile payments offer consumers a fast, secure way to pay, only 39 percent of respondents with rewards credit cards have used mobile payments, and just 14 percent have used a contactless card.
  • And many don’t even own a contactless card. Another 10 percent of rewards card holders reported that they have at least one contactless card, but 53 percent said they don’t own one. And 22 percent weren’t even sure if they had one or not.
  • Bigger earners use credit cards more frequently than others. For all U.S. adults surveyed (not just those with rewards cards), the more they earned, the more they used credit cards instead of cash. The highest earners (with annual salaries of $80,000 or more) still use cash the most (42 percent) for small purchases, but they’re more likely than all other income groups to use credit cards (24 percent).
  • Gender factors in. Among all U.S. adults surveyed, women were more likely than men to use debit cards to pay for small purchases (39 percent to 32 percent). Fifty-one percent of men said they typically use cash to pay for purchases less than $10, compared to 46 percent of women.
  • Men might be more willing than women to try something new. Men with rewards credit cards were more than twice as inclined to use contactless cards than women (20 percent versus 9 percent). And men also tended to use mobile payments more (44 percent versus 34 percent).
  • Millennials are leading the way with mobile payments. Out of those with rewards cards, 61 percent of millennials have used a mobile payments service, which is significantly more than both Gen Xers and baby boomers (44 percent and 24 percent, respectively).

The survey of 2,544 U.S. adults was conducted online between July 17-19, 2019. See survey methodology

Respondents said they use cash or debit because it’s faster and easier

Survey participants gave several reasons why they would use cash or debit instead of a rewards-earning credit card to pay for small purchases.

Among those who are rewards credit card holders, 40 percent said they like to use cash or a debit card for small purchases because it’s easier or quicker to use other payment methods.

But if you’ve ever had your hands full and gotten change back from a cash purchase and had to fumble with it, you know that’s not quicker or easier.

Only 24 percent of respondents who hold rewards credit cards said it was due to concerns about credit card debt. And 14 percent gave the reason that “stores have credit card minimums or fees for small purchases.” Finally, 11 percent said they had no incentive to use a rewards card.

See Related: Debit vs Credit cards: What’s the difference?

People use cash or debit to reel in their credit card spending

Sadly, debt is a problem for many people, said Chane Steiner, CEO of Crediful.

If this pertains to you, one way to reel in your spending is to use cash or debit for your everyday spending.  This way you know exactly how much money you have to spend and you don’t have to worry about not being able to afford your credit card payment at the end of the month, Steiner said.

Credit card rewards can help you save on everyday spending or rack up points for a vacation or a large purchase. But Steiner said the threat of late payment fees and interest charges often can outweigh the potential rewards benefits for some consumers who don’t use their cards to make small purchases.

For many people, a debit card or cash just feels safer — and they will continue to use it unless they are convinced otherwise.

And Ken Rupert, founder of the Financial Black Belt Academy, pointed out that a number of people with bad credit can’t qualify for rewards-earning credit cards, so they would be more likely to use cash or debit to pay for small purchases than with a card for which they’re not even earning rewards.

See related:  0% intro APR credit cards

Discomfort with technology may explain underuse of mobile or contactless payments

Steiner said many adults feel more comfortable paying in cash or with a debit card rather than using the latest technology — such as mobile or contactless payments — they aren’t comfortable with.

He also said that because consumers don’t feel paying this way is significantly more convenient than swiping a credit or debit card or using cash, there definitely needs to be a greater incentive to get them to start.

“And don’t forget that many consumers might have reservations about mobile payment security — and fears about losing or breaking their devices,” Steiner noted.

See related:  Contactless cards: how they work

Another obstacle for mobile and contactless: Force of habit

Ruper said he thinks using cash or debit instead of mobile or contactless card payments for small purchases is a result of mindset and learned behavior.

He agreed with Steiner that for a large part of the population, using mobile payments means having to learn a new technology.

But, Ruper said, as the older generations become less of a driver of the economy, there will be a shift to mobile payments.

It basically comes down to a paradigm shift, according to Rupert.

Humans are creatures of habit, he said, and unless there is a compelling reason to change the way we are currently doing something, it simply won’t happen.

Making a case for contactless and mobile payments

Rossman said using contactless and mobile payments is a fantastic way to speed up the payment process without sacrificing security.

“Mobile payments are typically even more secure than chip-enabled credit cards because they usually require biometric authentication — a fingerprint, face or iris scan, for example,” Rossman said.

So, using this type of payment instead of cash or debit is a solid option.

See related:  Contactless cards: ‘Whoa, it’s the future!’

Rethink using a credit card for even small purchases

There are a few reasons to use a credit card for small purchases, particularly if it’s a rewards card.

Perhaps the best reason is peace of mind.

Credit cards provide the most protection if anything goes wrong with your purchase.

If you pay in cash and something goes wrong, you have to depend on the merchant to refund you.

If you pay with a debit card and a scammer gets your card number, you could end up with a drained bank account and a huge headache.

Use a credit card and you’ll not only get fraud protection, but you’ll also have a credit card company backing you if a business doesn’t come through with what it promised.

And don’t forget that if you use a rewards card, every purchase can put money back in your pocket.

Next time you spend on something small, don’t reach for greenbacks or a debit card just because it’s what you’re used to.

Rewards credit cards, whether in plastic, mobile or contactless form, can offer convenience and help you save on everyday purchases — including small ones.

But if you’re concerned about credit card debt, interest charges or fees, by all means stick with cash or debit — whichever you prefer.

See related: How to report and protect yourself from credit card fraud and identity theft

Survey methodology commissioned YouGov Plc to conduct interviews with 2,544 adults. The survey was conducted online July 17-19, 2019. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all U.S. adults (aged 18 and over).

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The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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