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I have recently had confusion on how to correctly express the term "to charge/debit somebody's account/credit card" in German. I have always known "belasten" as the correct term for this, but then I was told the sentence

Das Restaurant hatte meine Kreditkarte zu hoch belastet.

does not sound natural as a translation of

The restaurant charged by credit card too much.

Instead, I was told that "abbuchen" sounds more natural in this case, so that

Das Restaurant hatte zu viel von meiner Karte abgebucht.

is a better translation of "charge" in this context. This leads me to the following questions:

When does one use "belasten" and when does one use "abbuchen"?

Is it possible that belasten = debit/charge and abbuchen = debit/charge from?

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    Sounds perfectly fine for my ears. Does not sound natural? Sometimes people think, poor word choice is natural. 🤔 – Olafant Mar 27 at 21:26
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I'm afraid, you received debatable information. Belasten is correct without reasonable doubt (see, e.g. DWDS, meaning 2) and this does not restrict to cards but covers all types of accounts as well; it has however an accountant flavour and may be misinterpreted or not fully understood by any "insert non-financial non-expert group of choice".

Only accounts can be subjected to Abbuchungen, but due to the strict coupling one can argue, that the term equally applies to debit cards, where each payment directly maps to one Abbuchung.

I would not hesistate to keep using belasten.

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  • Thank you. So, if I ask the waitress, "Entschuldung, ich glaube, du hast meine Karte zu hoch belastet" she will not laugh at me and will understand? – Mark Mar 26 at 14:17
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    Not sure, depends on the waitress; I would prefer to say something less technical like Entschuldigung, ich glaube, der Betrag stimmt nicht in colloquial context. – guidot Mar 26 at 14:25
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    @Mark: Depends on context/the type of the restaurant, but mostly, "Sie haben" would be more appropriate toward a random waitress than "du hast". – O. R. Mapper Mar 26 at 14:42
  • @O.R.Mapper thank you, yes, of course, my mistake. But "belasten" in this context sounds perfectly fine to you? – Mark Mar 26 at 14:51
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    @Mark: Oh, I agree with guidot in that it sounds rather very formal for spoken language. – O. R. Mapper Mar 26 at 15:04
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@guidot is certainly right about the 'correct' term, but I would like to focus on colloquial speech, 'beyond good and evil', so to speak.

Colloquially, abbuchen and Abbuchung are arguably the most common way to talk about every kind of cashless payment in German when the specifics of the processing don't really matter in a conversation. Personally, I don't use other terms very often. The advantage is that it is universally understood.

Technically, however, an Abbuchung corresponds to a direct debit or a debit card payment. This requires a balance which is obviously different from how a credit card works. If this distinction is important to you, you probably should stay with belasten. If not, it would probably be appropriate when talking to your bank, for instance.

In everyday life, however, there is a reason why the debit terminology prevails: direct debit and debit card payment are by far the most popular cashless payment methods in Germany (while good old cash is still the most popular one – maybe because it eliminates the risk of the credit card being overcharged?). This is reflected by the fact that 95 % of the population own a Girocard, while only about 35 % have a credit card. The reasons for this might be that (1) the Girocard comes usually for free with the checking account and (2) it is needed to obtain the most popular payment method (i.e. cash) anyways.

Case study: Overcharge in the restaurant

Das Restaurant hatte hat zu viel von meiner Karte abgebucht.

sounds extremely fine in my ears if you want to tell someone about, in fact a lot smoother than hat meine Kreditkarte zu hoch belastet. Talking about standard wording: note that the standard past tense (Perfekt) would be hat abgebucht ('charged'), while hatte abgebucht is past perfect ('had charged').

You would say that "Entschuldi[gu]ng, ich glaube, [S]ie haben zu viel von meiner Karte abgebucht" would be an appropriate translation for "Excuse me, I believe you have charged my card too much"?

Definitely not inappropriate as a translation. If it is socially appropriate in the situation, of course, depends on some other factors like which kind of restaurant it is, how friendly the staff was etc. I see no problem with the wording itself, the rest depends:

  • If you get the bill and you immediately notice the overcharge, of course you can point it out to the staff like that, or choose one of several other equally appropriate phrases. It's not offensive at all and gets the information across.
  • But if you noticed it later and go to the restaurant separately, I would start with something along the lines of Entschuldigung, dürfte ich Sie was zu der Rechnung von gestern Abend fragen? Ich glaube, … ('Excuse me, may I ask you something about last night's bill? I believe...')

Is it possible that belasten = debit/charge and abbuchen = debit/charge FROM?

No, actually belasten=charge and abbuchen=debit. But the problem when translating this terminology is that charging a bank account is different from charging a credit card. When charging a credit card, you get a credit that is due with the credit-card statement. When charging a bank account, the balance immediately drops. Hence, to debit is a special case of a to charge a bank account, but not the same as charging a credit card.

But what you got right is the syntax: It's ein KontoACC belasten ('charge a bank account' – accusative object), but von einem KontoPREPOBJ abbuchen ('debit from a bank account' – prepositional object).

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    "This requires a balance which is obviously different from how a credit card works." - except that for some credit cards, customer communication talks about one's "Kontostand" and lists "Buchungen", which further blurs the line. – O. R. Mapper Mar 26 at 14:46
  • Thank you. i am now once again a bit confused. So, you would say that, "Entschulding, ich glaube, sie haben zu viel von meiner Karte abgebucht" would be an appropriate translation for, "Excuse me, I believe you have charged my card too much"? – Mark Mar 26 at 14:59
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    @O.R.Mapper Yes, I think it's also possible to transfer money to the credit-card 'account' to raise the credit line. – amadeusamadeus Mar 26 at 15:05
  • @Mark I'll include that in my answer. – amadeusamadeus Mar 26 at 15:06
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    Was sollen denn die geschweiften Klammern in "Entschuldi{gu}ng, ich glaube, {S}ie haben zu viel …" bedeuten - dass die optional sind, nicht gesprochen werden? – user unknown Mar 26 at 17:27
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There is a gap between colloquial speech and legal terminology. Colloquially it does not make much difference to say

Das Restaurant hat meine Kreditkarte zu hoch belastet

or

Das Restaurant hat zu viel von meiner Karte abgebucht.

However, in Germany the juridical interpretation of the word "abbuchen" is this: You must formally authorize another party to charge your account via a SEPA-Lastschriftmandat. This is an official document and certainly has nothing to do with paying a bill in a restaurant or a shop. If you pay a bill via credit or debit card, then you confirm a single transaction by your signature or a PIN-code. That is, if your account is charged too much, then you were careless in the payment procedure. At least the PIN-code procedure makes sure that that your account is charged with the amount of money you confirmed. I am not an expert, but I could imagine that payment via credit card and signature is vulnerable to fraud.

My conclusion: The better variant is

Das Restaurant hat meine Kreditkarte zu hoch belastet.

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