Swiping your credit card to pay at a variety of small businesses — from gas stations to diners to dentists — could cost you more this year. And, no, inflation isn’t to blame this time.
Small businesses are increasingly asking customers to foot the bill for the hefty fees charged by credit card companies. Following a class action lawsuit in 2013, Visa and MasterCard lifted a ban on credit card surcharges. Now, it’s legal for businesses in most states to charge credit card customers an extra fee to cover these costs, which typically range from 1.5% to 3.5% of the transaction amount.
Surcharging is “definitely” at an inflection point, particularly as credit card companies are slated to increase merchant fees in April, according to Jonathan Razi, founder and chief executive officer of CardX, which provides surcharge-calculating software to 6,400-plus businesses. CardX was recently acquired by fintech company Stax, and the surcharge software will be offered to Stax’s 22,000-plus customers — which means you may encounter more credit card fees in the not-so-distant future. “One of the reasons you’re seeing more and more surcharging is a result of these price increases affecting businesses,” he says.
If the prospect of paying more at checkout has you contemplating hitting up the ATM more frequently, there could be another good reason to pad your wallet with cash: Some businesses offer a discount to customers who pay with greenbacks. When offered a cash discount, a customer who otherwise would have preferred a different payment method is 19% more likely to pay with cold, hard cash, according to a study published in the Journal of Banking & Finance.
Even if the amount of a discount or fee is pretty minimal, these options can subtly influence how you pay, and whether you leave feeling like you got a deal or short-changed. “The language used does matter, framing matters,” says Sarah Newcomb, a behavioral economist at Morningstar.
“Sometimes you’ll see the discount language when the business wants to incentivize people toward something” she says, referencing cash discounts. “If you want to disincentivize something, you may frame it as a fee — such as an extra fee for the credit card payment.”
Such incentives will speak to people in different ways, depending on what motivates them, notes Jeff Kreisler, the head of behavioral science for JPMorgan Private Bank. Faced with the choice of receiving a cash discount or paying a surcharge for a credit card swipe, some people will feel emboldened by the active choice to save money versus paying a penalty. Meanwhile, other people respond more to loss aversion — or the idea of trying harder to avoid losing money than pursuing an equivalent gain.
Complicating matters further? Checkout tends to have an element of time pressure, so people must make a decision when they’re not thinking so clearly, says Kreisler. “We tend to think emotionally, so when we don’t know what the right choice is, we do what feels good.”
Here’s how to think through that cash-or-credit question next time you’re faced with a discount or extra fee at checkout.
Understand the amount of money at stake
Either a cash discount or a credit card fee is likely to be framed in terms of a percentage, which may or may not add up to a substantial amount depending on the size of the transaction. “As humans, we don’t like doing calculations, we like to go by our gut, so we see a percentage and think that’s a good thing,” Kreisler says.
Compare the different dollar amounts you’ll pay with different payment methods, Kreisler advises. And if you’re trying to be more mindful of your spending, paying with cash is better because it’s “the most painful” payment method — meaning you’re more aware of how much you’re spending and how much an item costs, he adds.
Businesses also use a variety of tactics to obscure the true cost of an item, says Newcomb, who offered up the following examples. When shopping for cars or airline tickets, you may encounter drip pricing — when a business offers a low base cost and tacks on additional fees for other features or options. Some stores or websites make use of decoy pricing — or purposely adding cheap and very expensive options that make the mid-range options seem most affordable by comparison. Finally, periodic pricing models, such as for subscriptions, can wind up costing customers a lot more money over time versus the up-front cost.
Take time to make thoughtful spending decisions
More time can yield more thoughtful spending decisions, Kreisler says. If you know in advance that a business offers a cash discount or charges a credit card surcharge — and provided you care enough about the money at stake — then “you can make a plan and make a certain choice,” he says. For example, you may choose to show up with enough cash for the purchase or decide which credit card will offer the best reward for the transaction.
“Take the time to think about it a little more and more rationally, because deciding in the moment is all emotional,” Kreisler says.
And if the emotion that a credit card surcharge elicits is annoyance, Razi says he “totally” understands. But if businesses don’t pass along the credit card fees to customers who pay with credit cards, they may instead opt to raise prices across the board — meaning that cash-paying customers bear a disproportionate burden, he adds.
What’s more, the cash-or-credit question is one of several you field at checkout, Newcomb cautions. Retailers may ask whether you’d like to sign up for an extended warranty or opt for a buy now, pay later option to spread out your purchase over time. As much as possible, it’s important to do your research in advance to avoid making big decisions on the fly, she advises.
“You can always leave the cart and walk away, and that’s true online and in the store,” Newcomb says. “If you find yourself emotionally charged, then definitely walk away. You want to buy things with a cool head because buyer’s remorse is not fun.”