Credit Card Survival Guide

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I’ve heard it said there are two types of people that use credit cards, those that benefit from the service without paying for it and those who foolishly provide all the corporate profits.  Regular use of credit cards could be compared to swimming in shark infested water.  If you know what you’re doing and understand the situation around you, you’ll likely come out with all your limbs intact.  However, if you don’t understand the risks or your surroundings, things might not end on a high note.  Whether swimming with sharks or using credit cards, it’s crucial that we all know when to get out of the water.

History

At their core, credit cards share a similar history to cash.  Long ago, people would barter with each other by exchanging the goods they owned for the ones they wanted.  That wasn’t always an easy process, so money was created to give us a common unit of value.  Since money was accepted by everyone, it simplified business.

Retail credit started with merchants allowing some of their preferred customers to build a tab and then settle their accounts at the end of the month.  As time went on, banks capitalized on the opportunity to provide a service so individuals could consolidate their store credit accounts into one single account that was widely accepted.  Just like cash, credit cards simplified and facilitated business.

Here is a brief video from Visual Capitalist providing a visual history of credit cards:

It’s important to remember that credit cards, like money, are simply tools that we can use wisely to serve us or that we can use foolishly to our own detriment.  Before using any tool, we need to understand the benefits and the risks associated with it.

Benefits of Credit Cards

Despite all the negative aspects of credit cards, there are some benefits they offer.

1.  Convenience – We enjoy freedom and flexibility and it’s not always easy to have enough cash in our wallet or be up to date on our checking account balance.  So, it’s nice to know that if you find yourself in an unexpected situation, you have almost universally accepted funds at your disposal.

2.  Protection – Credit cards offer some protections that debit cards don’t.  For example, if you discover an unauthorized charge, credit cards allow you to dispute the charge before paying it.  Debit cards will deduct the amount from your account first, which could wreak havoc and potentially cause you to be overdrawn while you work to get your money back.  You also have a longer period of time to contest credit card charges and potentially less personal liability.

3.  Rewards – Some cards offer cash back for purchases, while others offer points or miles that can be exchanged for cash, airline tickets, etc.  While it may seem like these benefits are free, I have to mention that merchants are paying a fee every time you swipe your card and then adding that anticipated cost into their prices.  However, with credit card usage being so prevalent, short of a cash revival, retailers are going to charge those higher prices anyway, so you could argue your decision doesn’t really affect prices.

Risks of Credit Cards

If not handled with extreme caution, credit cards can have a devastating effect on the financial life of the user.  Here are a couple of risks to keep in mind as you navigate these potentially dangerous waters.

1.  Increased Spending – Research has shown that when we swipe a piece of plastic (debit or credit), we don’t mentally process our spending the same way we do when we pay cash.  We lose the connection to what we’re giving up that was originally very real in a barter economy.  Due to cash’s universal value, it still registers in our minds as giving up something of value.  Our mind doesn’t equate swiping a card (debit or credit) to giving something up, so now we only get the emotion of gaining what we want when we go shopping.  This disconnect causes the average person to spend more money when they use a card.  Statistics can vary, but one report calculated the average credit card user will spend 26% more than the person using cash.  So beware, even if you never carry a balance, you are potentially still hurting your budget by spending money you wouldn’t have spent otherwise.

2.  High Interest Rates – Interest is a huge profit center for credit card companies and an enormous burden to the individual carrying a balance.  According to Bankrate.com, variable rate credit cards are currently charging around 16% interest on outstanding balances with that rate being much higher if it goes into default.  Credit cards are not a good source of borrowed money.

Steps to Wisely Manage Credit Cards

Some people shouldn’t even consider using credit cards.  Please know your weaknesses and your spending patterns and only use cash or debit cards if credit cards are a stumbling block for you.  If you still decide to swim with the credit card sharks, here are some fundamentals I would highly recommend:

1.  Keep your credit limit reasonable – Credit card companies like to raise credit limits.  When they do, give them a call and request a lower limit.  You should have a good idea of how much you need available at any point in time and there’s no reason to have a $40,000 limit if you only need $5,000.  Some will argue that it’s good for your credit score to have large amounts of available credit, but I would argue that if you’re doing everything else right, that benefit isn’t worth the danger.

2.  Beware of fees – If all things are equal, pick a credit card with no annual fees.  There can be exceptions, so evaluate whether the benefit is worth the cost and close any account that is no longer worth the fee.

3.  Never buy things not in your budget – Since we spend more money when we use plastic, commit to only buying what’s in your budget and avoid justifying purchases because it’s on sale.  I commonly see people carrying balances on store cards because they offered discounts if you used it.  The stores want you to spend beyond your budget and then you’re at risk of not paying off the balance at the end of the month.  By the time you pay the interest, that sale price wasn’t such a great deal.

4.  Pay off your balance every month – If you’re going to use credit cards, this is a non-negotiable rule.  You absolutely must pay off your entire balance at the end of every month.  If you ever can’t pay it off in full, you need to instantly chop up the card and stop using it.  Following this single rule will prevent you from ever having a problem with credit card debt.

Credit cards have gotten a bad reputation and they probably deserve it.  The odds are stacked against us when we play with credit cards and the consequences of being on the losing side can be severe.  As we read in 1 Corinthians 10:23, “‘Everything is permissible,’ but not everything is helpful”.  However, for the informed and disciplined few, they can be a tool with benefits that outweigh the costs.

 

Brad Graber, CFP® has been working with clients on personal financial planning and investment issues since 1996.  He invests his time mentoring and educating individuals on ways to be better stewards of the resources God has entrusted to them.

Brad is a specialist in personal financial planning issues including retirement planning, investment management and charitable giving optimization.

8 Comments

  1. Sapphire on March 14, 2017 at 9:59 pm

    1 Corinthians 10:23, “‘Everything is permissible,’ but not everything is helpful”.
    I love this verse because it speaks to so many things in life! What a great way to apply it to credit cards! I think this correlates well with, “if you’re doing everything else right, that benefit isn’t worth the danger.”
    If someone follows the command in 1 Corinthians, you are doing everything else right. It is not worth walking on enemy grounds to be tempted and swayed by things that are not helpful and eventually suck you in with the sharks.

    Another trick that many have suggested in my life in regards to credit card usage, was using it for two things: groceries and gas. As soon as you purchase one of these, you pay it off immediately. Or some have some sort of system that pulls that money automatically out of an account to pay off the credit card. My husband and I have yet to use credit cards (being newlyweds), but its more scary for me than exciting for others knowing the dangers.

    So informative, and great video!

  2. Chris on March 29, 2017 at 11:45 pm

    Sharks are my favorite animal, swimming with sharks would be a dream. I totally get your point though. The video was helpful. The average household credit card debt is shocking and sad! We must learn how to use tools before we use them. Thanks, Brad.

  3. […] We discussed how to wisely manage credit cards in this broadcast.  The following recording is from “Mornings with Kelli and Linda” on Moody Radio Indiana (97.9 FM).  You can read the corresponding article here. […]

  4. Russel Lopez on March 24, 2018 at 7:52 pm

    I do not have a debt card. Years ago, I got a phone call from my credit card company asking me if I bought $3,500 worth of wall paper and had it express shipped to Romania. I told them no, I did not. They cancelled my card immediately and issued a new one. If that had been a debt card, either the sale would not have been completed or it would have put me in a financial bind while working on recovery of funds.

    My parents were awful at managing money and never had a discussion with me about debt and credit cards in particular. My sister followed in their footsteps and paid a high price for it, while I did not follow their example.

    After reading and looking at the course materials for the last month, I see no down side to having a budget and sticking to it, and there are a great many benefits to following a program of financial discipline.

  5. Lin on March 24, 2018 at 8:45 pm

    I have a credit card originally issued in 1988. Its current APR is 19.49%. I believe that once, about 10 years ago, I paid in full but late. A few years ago I called and asked why I could not drop my interest rate. (I pay in full every month) They asked me why I cared because I don’t owe anything. I mentioned that it seemed everybody else is getting a lower interest rate, and they told me to call them when I owe them money. I have had this account for 30 years. They won’t even talk about changing terms, although monthly there are sterner and sterner warnings about if one ever pays late. Like penalty APR 29.99% and a $38 fee applies if you make a payment late. I suppose that, not being a profitable customer, I am not worth the clerk’s time. One would think reading the warnings on the monthly statement would scare a person into not using the card. They are very clear how much it will cost if you drag out your payments. These warnings are on the statements to ward off the bane of spending beyond our means. But I sense they don’t exactly love the folks who always pay in full either.

    I need a card to travel. Hotel reservations require a credit card to hold the room. I am not even sure you can pay for an air travel ticket with anything but a card. Travel and internet purchases are safer with a credit card than with a checking account, even with the risk of getting the card hacked. Cash transactions over a certain amount are prohibited, and regular high-amount cash transactions can get your accounts frozen on suspicion of money-laundering.

    Our economy is not cash-based, so the credit card or some similar device has become a necessary evil. So we need to manage the necessity while not ignoring the evil part.

  6. Josh Smith on April 2, 2018 at 11:26 pm

    Even in my short lifetime, I still remember paying cash for almost everything but now I can’t imagine it. To Lin’s point, it is far easier to swipe and not carry bulk paper or coins but we have to be informed and full of wisdom to Brad’s point. Stick to your budget, always pay in full each month and reap the ‘free’ cash back.

  7. Lydia DeHaven on April 4, 2018 at 1:08 am

    I have heard from many friends around my age that credit cards are dangerous and you should avoid them, I could not understand why they thought this way until I realized we viewed credit cards differently. Their standard use of credit cards had been to buy what they needed/wanted and pay the minimal amount due, thus incurring debt. I had been taught to use a credit card as if it were a debit card and ALL purchases were due at the end of each month. looking back I am so very grateful my parents held this view. I see in my own heart a entitlement and a foolishness that would have caused debt trouble for me with credit cards if I had not been taught by someone how to use them wisely. The knowledge that biblical teaching can affect and change the way we not only use but view our finances is a hope filled realization.

  8. Russel Lopez on April 4, 2018 at 8:51 pm

    RE: paying credit cards in full each month

    Do not feel guilty for maintaining a zero balance on your credit card. Paying your credit cards off in full does not cost the credit card company money. They just don’t make as much profit as they could if you didn’t pay off the balance each month. Merchants pay both a transaction fee and a percentage fee for each credit card transaction. It’s built into the price of the items you buy along with rent, utilities, etc. I’m certain that these fees more than cover the expense of data processing. Not many banks go out of business as a result of under charging their customers.

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