Credit cards have dramatically changed consumers’ saving and spending habits. It would not be an exaggeration to say that credit cards have impacted personal finance as much as cell phones have impacted personal communication. Whether you are pro or anti-credit card, the impact of credit cards is indisputable, but it is important to understand common myths, as well as the pros and cons of credit cards so they don’t derail your financial goals.
We won’t go through the history of credit cards, but as a financial product, it’s relatively young. Credit cards as we know them today are a little more than 50 years old. That means Gen Xer’s grew up with them as they became prominent, and Millennials have never known a world without them. Let’s use this as an opportunity to quickly debunk some myths about credit cards:
I have to have a credit card as some places won’t accept a debit card or cash
Credit cards are not a necessity! If we stop and think about that thought process, that’s basically saying that we cannot survive without borrowing from Visa, AMEX or MasterCard. Insanity. Despite popular belief, cash is still king and debit cards are accepted everywhere credit cards are. To be fair, there are some caveats on debit cards for places like hotels and rental car companies that may put a hold on your debit card for the full amount until the transaction is complete (though you shouldn’t be using a debit card if there are insufficient funds in your bank account).I have to have a credit card in order to build my credit
I have to have a credit card in order to build my credit
Credit cards are not the only way to develop your credit or to improve your credit score. A college student came in for a financial counseling session. She was considering getting a credit card before she graduated. She wanted to build her credit to get a car loan and an apartment in the future after she graduated and got a job. We pulled her credit report and it turns out she had an 800+ credit score. (Credit scores range from 300-850, the higher the better. Anything over 720 is considered to be excellent credit). Upon review of her credit report, it showed she had a credit card account in good standing since 2006. Now since she was born in 1995, I was pretty sure that she didn’t open a credit card when she was 11. I simply told her to call her parents, make sure it wasn’t a fraudulent account and then thank them for giving her the gift of great credit. Also, she shouldn’t even think about getting a credit card until she had a full-time job for at least one year.
Her parents made her an authorized user on one of their credit cards as a child. They never told her, obviously didn’t give her a card, and most importantly they keep the card in good standing. As a 20-year-old college student, she had 9 years of positive credit history never having used a credit card before. Much like using your parents’ Netflix or cable password, you can (legally) piggyback on someone else’s credit by becoming an authorized user on their account. Make sure it’s someone you trust and the account remains in good standing (paid on-time and in full).
Another way to build credit without a credit card is by paying installment loans (loans with a regular payment for a fixed period) such as car loans, student loans, mortgages. Paying the required payments on time will count towards your credit history and improve your credit score.
Finally, fixing errors on your credit report is also a way to improve your credit without getting a credit card. Errors are prevalent in credit reports and you shouldn’t be punished because of an erroneous entry on your credit report. Review your reports from the three major credit bureaus quarterly to ensure accuracy.
Carrying a credit card balance improves my credit score
I’m not sure how this one got out into the ether, but having a credit balance in no way improves your score. Credit bureaus measure utilization rates meaning what percentage of your available credit are you using. Your credit score will begin to go down if you are using more than 30% of your available credit, but you are not penalized for paying off your cards in full each month.
While we are at it, the number of cards you have is also not a factor. The average length of time you have a card is a factor, so you may see a slight decline after signing up for a new card, but the pure number of cards is not a factor.
So we’ve debunked some common credit card myths, let’s get into the pros and cons of credit cards:
- Ease of transactions
- Grace period to pay for charges
- Easy to track spending
- Protection for fraudulent transactions and ID Theft
- Rewards points/Cash back/Airline Miles
- Can be used to build credit score[/col-md-6][col-md-6]
- Significantly reduces the ‘pain’ of transactions, increasing spending
- Masks overspending with grace period
- Charge cards are designed to pay interest
- Interest rates are high (average 15%+)
- Credit cards rewards incentivize additional spending not saving
- Late payments and high utilization rates can significantly reduce your credit score
It is not an exhaustive list, but we captured some key aspects of how credit cards can be positive and negative. Personally, we are not a fan of credit cards because they incentivize spending and reduce saving. A cash back reward or miles is an incentive to spend, whereas a 401k match, for example, is an incentive to save.
‘The more you spend, the more you save’ does not pass the smell test.
IN FACT IT SMELLS A LOT LIKE BULL.
Also, there is a real difference between pulling $50 cash out of your pocket and swiping a card. Pulling the $50 cash involves a bit of psychological pain. It forces you to observe how you are reducing the total amount of cash in your pocket instantaneously and may cause you to make a different decision. Have you ever been hungry and ate way too much? Well, it takes about 20 minutes for your brain to register that your stomach is full. That delay can cause us to overeat. When you use credit cards, that delay can be 30 days! You may not realize you overspent until the statement comes in a month later. Pain is actually a sensation that gives us an indication that there may be something wrong. Removing the pain of financial transactions is not all positive. Keep that in mind as we further reduce the pain by moving from credit cards to electronic payments such as PayPal, ApplePay, and Android Pay.
Our purpose is not to say credit cards are evil and should be banned entirely. However, the average US household had just under $16,000 in credit card debt in 2015. That means thousands of dollars in interest payments each year paid to MasterCard and VISA and not to savings or investments. Giving your hard-earned money to credit card companies is not the way to financial independence.
Personal finance is just that, it’s personal. You need to know what’s best for your own situation. In our opinion, the benefits of credit cards do not outweigh the costs. Spend less than you earn with cash and build an emergency fund, and if there is an emergency; borrow from yourself, not VISA.