The difference between cash discounting and surcharge
Much like everything in life, credit card processing fees continue to rise. With tight budgets and stiff competition, businesses are ever vigilant in looking for strategies to lower the fees. The need to accept credit cards comes with the heavy burden of various brand fees, aka the swipe fees. These fees range from 1-4% and can significantly impact the bottom line over time.
Giving businesses the opportunity to accept non-cash payments at significantly reduced fees is a gaping hole of opportunity that entrepreneurs are aggressively seeking solutions for. One solution to this opportunity is the cash discount program, which was federally authorized in all 50 states in 2011. The confusion with this opportunity lies with the wide interpretation of what cash discounting is and how it differs from surcharging.
To educate you on what is acceptable and legal we need to understand the differences between a surcharge and a cash discount program. Only after you understand the differences will you be able to make an educated choice on what you should consider when evaluating a cash discount solution.
Surcharging is the process in which a business owner adds a fee to a transaction to cover the cost of credit card processing for the business. As an example, the pizza shop sells a pizza for $10. When the customer pays for the pizza with their credit card, the bill is wrung up as $11.50. ($10 for the pizza and $1.50 for the surcharge) Currently there are 40 states that allow surcharging to customers that pay with credit card. The states that prohibit surcharging are Texas, Oklahoma, New York, Massachusetts, main, Kansas, Florida, Connecticut, Colorado and California. The surcharge is a fixed percentage of the overall price before taxes are assessed. Surcharging is not allowed on debit cards.
When the merchant offers a lower price for the use of cash, this is a cash discount. Cash discounts differ from the credit card surcharge as it is not an additional fee added to the credit card transaction.
The Durbin Amendment (as part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act) gives the most succinct definition of cash discounting. It states that businesses are permitted to offer a discount to the consumer as an incentive/encouragement for customers to pay by an alternate method other than credit/debit cards. Alternative methods include cash, checks and gift cards that are applied to the transaction at the time of sale.
The cash discount works by applying a customer service fee, in the form of a fixed amount or percentage, on all customer transactions. This fee is removed if the customer pays with cash, check or gift card. Technology that automatically determines the service fee or discount amounts by payment type are mandatory. For a cash discount program to be legal it must present a clear receipt detailing the service fee or cash discount amount.
The technology provider collects/escrows the service fees and then pays off the credit card charges on behalf of the merchant, essentially removing the need for any back-end accounting or complex statements. The statements from the technology provider show a dramatic reduction in credit card fees along with a modest monthly fee to pay at the end of the month.
State laws vary widely with respect to surcharge programs. At the time of this article, there has yet to be any direct language prohibiting a merchant implementing a cash discount program as long as consumers are notified prior to purchase.