Credit cards are only detrimental when they’re not used properly

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

In a perfect world, everyone would carry about four or five credit cards yet no one would have a balance at the end of the month.

And now back to reality…

Okay, I suppose I should lend some clarification to that opening paragraph:  The truth is that credit cards can be our friends, and actually enhance our wealth (primarily on a smaller level) IF they’re not misused and/or abused.

There are varying attitudes about plastic money – ranging from considering them indispensable to labeling them as downright evil. Mostly, though, they are simply misunderstood… and most definitely improperly utilized. Bottom line, if you use credit cards with some intelligence – and a big heaping helping of common sense – you will benefit.

The vast majority of people, especially young adults as well as teens unlucky enough to have access, use credit cards to purchase “stuff” they can’t afford otherwise.  A new stereo system, the most up-to-date cellphone, that dope blouse she just has to have… these are items that fall under the immediate gratification category, and should only be bought with saved cash that has been set aside for that specific purpose.

We’ve all been in this situation, or at the very least known someone who has.  A giant credit card balance is run up, but when the bill arrives and only asks for a minimum payment of $25, we reason that we can afford that… so what’s the problem?

I just wrote about how credit cards work, their interest rates, and how paying off an account one minimum payment at a time is a long road to ‘Brokesville’ in a recent post.  Instead, what we want to touch on this time around is how Visa, Mastercard, Discover, and the rest can be used in our favor.

All those offers we receive from credit card issuers via spam or junk mail are due to what has become an extremely competitive industry.  Credit card companies realize you have a lot of choices, and they want to come off as having the best available perks.  This attempted “one-upsmanship” by these companies works in your favor, and you should be prepared to pounce – the correct way.

In fact, credit card companies will work so hard for your business, most are willing to pay you to use them. Seriously. They offer incentive in the form of rebates – cash credited back to you depending on what you buy, where you buy it, and how much you spend.  Used wisely, this is a boon for you.

For the sake of discussion, we are going to focus in this space on cash-back offers as opposed to frequent-flyer miles or any other type of credit card rewards. The principles I’m about to reveal are similar with all of the above.

Essentially, there are two types of cash-back cards.  Some, like Capital One, offer a flat percentage of cash-back on every purchase you make using its card.  I believe that rate is currently 1.5% back (at least, that’s what Jennifer Garner and Samuel L. Jackson have been telling us).  And those endorsers push the “we pay on everything” aspect very hard.  No messing with odd offers on specific items, they will tell you.  Just use their card anywhere and get a reward every time.

Others, like Discover and Chase, have promotional offers that usually go by quarters during the year – three-month time-frames.  This may sound somewhat limiting, but the fact is they represent a much better overall deal for you.  For instance, a card might offer as much as 5% cash back on gasoline purchases from January through March, then switch to groceries for April-June.  In addition, they typically offer a flat 1% on everything else.

Pretty sweet, I say.   If I spend $80 at the supermarket, that’s $4 refunded to me by my card. That’s enough to cover my box of protein bars. Works for me.

If you’ve read this far, you probably have a question similar to the following:  OK, the cash-back is nice and all, but it defeats the purpose to run up a big balance that charges 20% interest or maybe more. You can’t use a credit card to buy necessities!  That’s a sure-fire way to bankruptcy, isn’t it?

Am I warm?  Well, the answer is that running up a balance would be utterly stupid and would, indeed, nullify the advantage of these comparatively small cash-back offers.  But who said anything about running up a balance?

Bear in mind that these purchase examples are things you would buy anyway.  Most folks need gas for a car, or a motorcycle, or whatever… and EVERYONE needs to eat. The trick is simply to use the appropriate card when the items are bought, then have the basic discipline to pay the account in full during the grace period rather than allow the charges to accumulate.

Shazam!  Free money.

Of course, I’m guilty of glossing over the part about paying the balance in full each month.  For many, many people, there is NOTHING SIMPLE about paying off several hundred dollars in one click, swipe, or written check.  But for this to work for you, it MUST be done without compromise.  Every single month.

Think you can take advantage of this simple strategy without going into debt that lasts longer than a couple of weeks?  Great!  If you can, here are the steps to make things easier to get going:

1. Do some research into different card offers to see which offer what rewards in specific categories.  Ideally, you’d like to get access to as many 5% offers as possible for different types of purchases. (Note:  At this writing, American Express is offering a card with a short-term 6% cash-back on groceries, but the card carries an annual fee and some other disadvantages.  Be sure you know exactly what is required and included before you apply).

2. Try to end up with three cards – one you can use for groceries, one for gas, and a third for eating out – restaurants are a common category for cash-back promos but, of course, don’t over-use this to the point of spending more to eat than makes sense.  Be smart.  You may not find 5% cash-back cards for all three categories, and if you don’t, 3% is still decent.  Also, a fourth card for miscellaneous purchases with a steady cash-back percentage is nice to have available.  But again, discipline in its use is everything.  Only buy necessities you would have bought anyway.

3. Budget yourself so that you are not spending more on these various categories than you otherwise would, especially if you get a good restaurant cash-back deal.  Not to beat a deceased pony, but it makes zero sense to defeat the benefit of this strategy by over-spending.

4. Look up each account you obtain and note the monthly payment due date.  Prepare to pay off your monthly balances at least a week ahead of this deadline.  Don’t cut it close.

5. Stay on top of every account constantly.  One practice I do that helps me stay organized is to go into my online banking on my personal bank account and update the amount to be sent to each credit card issuer as I make the purchases.  I don’t suggest you rely on remembering to make these payments, or try to get cute in timing them.  Enter them well ahead of time and update the growing amounts until those payments are automatically paid on the dates you pre-set (remember, a week ahead of the actual payment due dates).

6. Have fun with your cash-back by putting $25 increments into gift cards for whatever.  Or better yet, if the card allows (most do), use the cash-back as a credit right back into your account.  This isn’t as fun, but makes better use of the funds you gained by using the cards.  It’s kinda cool to charge $238 worth of gas and pay only $213 because the other $25 came from rewards.  Over time, these savings really do add up to be significant.  To truly appreciate and enjoy the bounty, track these numbers and the overall return.

Credit cards are great if you use them smartly, and incredibly harmful if you don’t.  Be among the former.

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DISCLAIMER:  This post represents the author’s opinion only, sometimes based on and supported by cited numbers and sometimes not. In no way should any part or all of the content of this post be interpreted as official financial advice, nor does it represent an intention to solicit readers into a specific strategy or investment.  Profitability is NEVER guaranteed.  Invest at your own risk.