Debit Card Minimums: Merchant Rules and Rights

Are Minimum-Purchase Requirements Illegal?

Owner giving credit card reader to customer at store
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Whenever you pay with a credit or debit card, merchants have to pay fees to process your payment. As a result, some retailers set minimum-purchase requirements. For example, they might require that customers spend at least $10 to pay with plastic.

Minimum-purchase requirements are technically not illegal, but they are certainly an annoyance to customers. What’s more, merchants may be breaking the terms of their agreements with payment-processing providers when they impose minimums.

Confusion About Illegal Practices

Some consumers believe that debit card minimum-purchase requirements are illegal. The confusion comes from several laws that went into effect in 2013 governing how merchants deal with customers who pay with plastic. Two major changes took place, but neither one outlawed minimum-purchase requirements with debit cards.

Minimum-purchase requirements for credit cards are allowed, up to $10. Merchants can set minimums for credit card purchases, as a result of a lawsuit merchants won against credit card companies and banks.

Adding surcharges to credit card payments is also allowed. Again, this applies to credit cards only. Because merchants pay fees every time you pay with plastic, they’re allowed to pass some, or all, of that fee to you. But some states outlaw the practice—even for credit cards—so it depends where you are.

Credit Cards vs. Debit Cards

For whatever reason, the law does not address debit card transactions from a consumer perspective. The laws did limit how much retailers have to pay when you pay with a debit card, and the costs for accepting debit cards are typically lower than the costs for accepting a credit card, even if you use a debit card but choose a “credit” transaction at checkout.

Presumably, lawmakers assumed merchants would have no reason to restrict inexpensive debit card payments. But some debit cards are more expensive to process than others, such as debit cards issued by small institutions.

Having said that, a merchant's agreement with card processing networks prohibits them from setting a minimum purchase amount for debit card transactions, although some retailers may not realize there's a difference between credit and debit cards, while others just choose not to follow the rules. For example, Visa guidance to retailers includes the following statement:

Minimum purchase amounts cannot be applied to transactions that are processed with a debit card.

That same document provides instructions on training staff to spot the differences between debit cards and credit cards.

Reporting Debit Card Minimum-Purchase Violations

For merchants who break the rules, it’s best to let them know that you think they’re doing something wrong, especially when it comes to a small business—the business owner might not be up to speed on all the laws.

Accepting plastic is almost a necessity, but it’s expensive. Although the fees for accepting a debit card are generally far lower than credit card swipe fees, there’s still a cost. Keep that in mind as you make purchases, and pay with cash or check if you can. It may help your favorite business stay afloat, and help keep prices down for everybody.

If you believe that a business is blatantly ignoring the rules, you can report Visa or MasterCard to the card processing networks.

But since the merchant isn’t breaking any laws by setting minimum-purchase amounts for debit cards, there’s no reason to report the business to your state’s Attorney General or the Federal Trade Commission. Merchants can set whatever policies they want, as long as they do not break federal or local laws.