We live in a decidedly credit-centric culture. Whip out cash to pay for $200 in groceries and watch the funny looks from the other customers and the disgust from the clerk. It’s almost like they are upset they have to know how to count to run a cash register.
If someone doesn’t have a credit card, everyone wonders what’s wrong, and assumes they have terrible credit. That’s a lousy assumption to make, but it happens. For most of the last two years, I shunned credit cards as much as possible, preferring cash for my daily spending. Spending two years changing my spending habits has made me comfortable enough to use my cards again, both for the convenience and the rewards.
Having a decent card brings some advantages.
Credit cards legally provide fraud protection to consumers. Under U.S. federal law, you are not responsible for more than $50 of fraudulent charges. many card issuers have extended this to $0 liability, meaning you don’t pay a cent if your card is stolen. Trying getting that protection with a wallet full of cash.
The fraud protection makes it easier to shop online, which more people are doing every day. At this point, there is no product you can buy in person that you can’t get online, often cheaper. How would you order something without a credit card? Even the prepaid cards you can buy and fill at a store will often fail during an online transaction because there is no actual person or account associated with the card. The “name as it appears on the card” is a protective feature for the credit card processors and they dislike accepting cards without it.
If you’re going to use a credit card, you need to make a good choice on which credit card to get. There are a few things to check before you apply for a card.
Annual fee. Generally, I am opposed to getting any card with an annual fee, but sometimes, it’s worth it. If, for example, a card provides travel discounts and roadside assistance with its $65 annual fee, you can cancel AAA and save $75 per year. A good rewards plan can balance out the fee, too. I’m using a travel rewards card that has a 2% rewards plan. That’s 2% on every dollar spent, plus discounts on some travel purchases. In a few months, I’ve accumulated $500 of travel rewards for the $65 fee that was waived for the first year. The math works. A card that charges an annual fee without providing services worth several times that fee isn’t worth getting.
Interest rate. This should be a non-issue. You should be paying off you card completely every month. In a perfect world. In the real world, sometimes things come up. In my case, I was surprised with a medical bill for my son that was 4 times larger than my emergency fund. It went on the card. So far, I’ve only had to pay one month’s interest, and I don’t see the balance surviving another month, but it’s nice that I’m not paying a 20% interest rate. Unfortunately, as a response the CARD Act, the days of fixed rate 9.9% cards seems to be over.
Grace period. This is the amount of time you have when the credit card company isn’t charging you interest. Most cards offer a 20-25 day grace period, but still bill monthly. That means that you’ll be paying interest, even if you pay your bill on time. To be safe, you’ll need to either find a card that has a 30 day grace period, or pay your balance off every 15-20 days. Some of the horrible cards don’t offer a grace period of any length. Avoid those.
Activation fees. Avoid these. Always. There’s no card that charges an activation fee that’s worth getting. An activation fee is an early warning sign that you’ll be paying a $200 annual fee and 30% interest in addition to the $150 activation fee.
Other fees. What else does the card charge for? International transactions? ATM fees? Know what you’ll be paying.
Service. Some cards provide some stellar services, include concierge service, roadside assistance, and free travel services. Some of that can more than balance out the fees they charge. My card adds a year to the warranty of any electronics I buy with it, which is great.
Credit cards aren’t always evil, if you use them responsibly. Just be sure you know what you’re paying and what you’re getting.
What’s in your wallet?