Isn’t it amazing how many credit card offers we get these days, both the old-fashioned kind (through the mail), and the digital kind (through email or Social Media platforms)? Ever tried to read through the legal terms and conditions of these offers? That’s what I thought. Very few people do read through all this incomprehensible legalese the card company lawyers ginned up for us. So how do you decide which card offer to accept? Or should you avoid credit cards altogether?
My suggestion is to view credit cards as tools of convenience. Yes, you could carry around hundreds or thousands of dollars in cash to pay for your groceries, gasoline, dinners out, and visits to the doctor’s office. But in today’s world, that’s not very practical, or convenient. It’s much faster and easier to whip out your plastic and swipe, or insert, the card into the merchant’s card reader. But be careful. Just because it’s convenient doesn’t mean you should go crazy and buy everything you like at your favorite department store, meat market, jewelry store, furniture outlet, or Apple store. A good rule to live by is, if you can’t afford to pay for something, don’t buy it, period. It doesn’t matter that credit cards allow you to carry a revolving balance. You generally pay a very high interest rate for that short-term loan, and the total interest you’re paying can quickly escalate if you’re not careful.
What I’m saying is, think of your credit card as a form of delayed payment. It allows you to simplify your daily life, and makes it much easier to keep track of your expenses. But it’s not a money tree, so if you won’t be able to pay off a purchase at the end of the month when your credit card bill arrives, don’t make the purchase in the first place. Really, don’t do it. Does that mean credit cards are bad, and should be avoided altogether? Generally speaking, no, I think credit cards are a wonderful tool for most of us, as long as we use them correctly. For those unable to control their spending, then yes, credit cards are bad. It’s like supplying vodka to an alcoholic – not a good idea.
For those able to properly use credit cards, there are literally hundreds if not thousands of choices, assuming your credit score is reasonable. To decide which card or cards is right for you, it takes a little effort. You need to determine how and where you’ll use the card, and factor in a multitude of reward offers against the terms and conditions of the card. American Express cards, for example, sometimes provide generous cash-back or travel points for their use, but many merchants don’t accept AmEx cards because the merchant’s cost is higher. Discover cards also typically provide rich rewards benefits to the cardholder, but a few merchants don’t accept Discover (though Discover is more widely accepted than AmEx). MasterCard and Visa are accepted virtually anywhere credit cards are accepted, both in the US and abroad. The point is, if you want to carry an American Express card, you might be wise to carry a MasterCard or Visa card as a backup.
Which brings up another issue. Should you maintain a bundle of credit cards, say 10-20 cards? In my opinion, no. You really only need one or two credit cards, maybe three at the most. Keeping a dozen or more cards opens you up to a greater chance of credit card fraud, and makes it a little more difficult to keep track of your spending. I know some people like the expansion of their credit limit associated with carrying multiple cards. But again, if you can’t afford something, don’t buy it. Credit cards are one of the worst forms of debt you can have, because the interest rates are so high.
If you want to check out different credit card offers, I suggest taking advantage of the work websites like nerdwallet and Bankrate.com have done for you. They regularly survey and summarize the various card offers, making it easier for you to quickly evaluate 3 or 4 top offers instead of hundreds. And the card offers are sorted by category, so if you’re looking for cards with the best cash back or travel offers, you can review those cards nerdwallet or Bankrate.com list as the best in that category. Or if you’re more interested in cards with low interest rates or good balance transfer features, these websites have you covered. For business owners, both websites rank their favorite business credit cards also.
My parting advice on credit cards – be careful, and do your homework. Credit cards can be a wonderful convenience and provide rewards for paying for things we would have bought anyway. But they do have a dark side. Know your limits, and proceed with caution. Happy swiping!
Scott McClatchey is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, CFP® with WWM Financial in Carlsbad, California. Scott can be reached at 760-692-5190 or Scott@WWMFinancial.com.