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Is the new Duo Card a good deal?

Written by Geoff Williams
Posted On: September 15, 2011

It's a credit card. No, it's a debit card. Or perhaps the more accurate way to put it is that it's a form of payment with a split personality.

You'd think that someone would have developed this a decade or two ago, but, nope, the Duo MasterCard, from Fifth Third Bank, is America's first actual debit and credit card. In other words, it's one solitary piece of plastic that can operate both as a full-fledged credit card (think: an APR, rewards program, etc) as well as a typical debit card (meaning: the money comes right out of your bank account)...depending on what you say and do when you make a purchase.

Who can get the Duo Card

As of now, the Duo Card is only available to customers of Fifth Third Bank, which is headquartered in Cincinnati and makes its home in about a dozen states, and so if you're reading this, there's a solid chance that you're not in the market for this card, or that it isn't practical, geographically speaking, for you to try and get one. But certainly if this goes over well, you have to assume that other banks will undoubtedly start offering similar products. So I thought I'd take a look at what I see as the pros and cons of the Duo Card, and the whole concept behind having a debit card and credit card in one piece of plastic.

Details of the Duo Card

But first, a few details are in order. As credit cards go, the Duo MasterCard looks pretty formidable. The interest rate ranges from the friendly 12.99 percent to the not-so-friendly 23.99 percent APR. There is no annual fee, and there are rewards. According to Fifth Third Bank's website, you can earn two reward points for every dollar you spend in gas, grocery and discount store purchases--and one point for every dollar spent on all other "credit" purchases.

As for the checking account, if you have a checking account at Fifth Third, and you're a new customer, you'll pay between $7.50 and $15 a month, depending on the services you select. But the fee can be waived if you meet certain conditions.

OK, about those pros and cons

Pro: Less clutter in the wallet. One obvious advantage of having a credit card account and a debit account accessed by one card is that you can fumble for fewer cards.

Pro: Simplicity, sort of. You're dealing with one financial institution, with Fifth Third handling both your credit card and debit card, and while I haven't tried this card out, I have to imagine that the navigating the two accounts at the website, and paying off your credit card, is probably quite streamlined and convenient.

And… that's about it for the positives. But as noted, the credit card appears to be a good one, especially if you can nab a lower interest rate, so if you like less clutter in your wallet and some simplicity, and if you like Fifth Third Bank, it sounds you'll probably like the Duo MasterCard. Still, there are some negatives that anyone should mull over before rushing out and applying for the card.

Con: If your card is stolen or lost, you could double your headaches. Why? A thief could theoretically not just run up your credit card to its max, he or she could clean out your bank account (presuming they knew your PIN number, a big if). Is that a big enough con to keep you away from the card? Not really. I mean, I wouldn't let that deter me if I were salivating over this card. When a credit card is stolen, you're never liable for more than $50. Fifth Third limits your liability on a debit card to no more than $50 as well (provided you report the loss within two business days). And one could argue that if your wallet was stolen with your Duo card in it, you only have to frantically call one customer service number, versus two if you had separate cards on separate accounts.

Con: No choice but to charge. There are likely going to be a few instances in which you'll have to pay something as credit instead of debit. As Fifth Third (and kudos for them on being so transparent) points out on their website, if you go somewhere where there is no chance to put a PIN number in, like when you give your card to a waitress, the charge will go through on credit. That seems like a mild con, but I'm sure that would annoy some consumers. Especially if you're near maxing out on your card.

Con: All of this simplicity could nonetheless make things really confusing. Your brain would have to be on auto-pilot, but I can certainly imagine me doing this scenario during, say, a holiday shopping rush: if you kept typing in your PIN at a card reader when you meant to ask for credit, and a charge came out of your bank account instead of being charged to your credit card, and if you didn't have the funds in the bank to cover the charge, you could get hit with a slew of overdraft fees. That would be my big fear.

But the biggest drawback to me is this next one, although I'd like to stress that this not a negative for the Duo MasterCard. It's a drawback that I can envision if other banks jump on this bandwagon.

Possible con: The combination debit and credit card has the potential to cost you more money in fees than a traditional debit card. Generally with such a debit card, you can use it in the same way you do a credit card--you sign for the purchase rather than giving your PIN--but ultimately, often instantly, the money comes out of your checking account.

But if you do give your PIN--at least with some debit cards--you not only instantly pay for the item out of your checking account, you're charged a small fee in addition to the purchase price. With my debit card, for instance, if I give out my PIN, I also pay 25 cents (and thus, unless I go to a store that requires debit cards to be used as debit cards, I always use the debit card as a credit card). And so I do wonder if some banks will start offering these hybrid cards as a way to charge their customers for their checking account.

No transaction fees

On the other hand, if a bank does nickel and dime their customers too much, as bank executives well know, customers won't use the card, and so maybe this worry is unfounded. In any case, I checked with Stephanie Honan, a spokeswoman for Fifth Third Bank, and she said in an email that the "Fifth Third Bank debit cards, including the Duo Card, do not carry a per transaction fee."

So all in all, the Duo Card sounds like an interesting development in credit card products, and who knows? Maybe a few years from now, we'll all be waving around credit cards that are also debit cards… or debit cards that are also credit cards.

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