While growing up, I didn’t learn much about personal finance nor the concept of credit cards, which were matters I wasn’t exposed to until later in life. I learned a few basics such as bill paying, check writing, and bank accounts from my parents but for the most part, I was left to my own devices throughout college and my early adult life. So it’s a really good thing I didn’t own a credit card until I had successfully established some savings and picked up my very first books on finance: Bogle on Mutual Funds and Your Money Or Your Life, whose pages I devoured quite handily.
But I must admit that when I received my very first credit card, I was slow to use it. I’m one of those people who gets stuck by inertia and takes a while to change my typical behavior. I did not have a credit card during my college days (thank goodness) as it seemed to me that during those days, credit card companies were not frequenting campuses in the manner that they do today. I don’t recall seeing too many offers for credit floating around my university then, and I can’t speculate how I would’ve reacted if I did see any. Ultimately, this led to me getting my cards during a time that I felt financially responsible for myself as I worked on my first job. Such a start may have caused me to be more cautious and responsible about using credit, a fantastic thing!
Nowadays though, anyone with a pulse can pick up a credit card very easily and begin getting themselves into quick trouble. It’s way too convenient to start using a card, which can be done with your eyes closed without the benefit of an instruction manual. I thought I’d help out a little by putting together all the pertinent warnings I’ve come across when dealing with the plastic. Protect your credit and avoid debt by knowing what it is you shouldn’t do!
How To Get In Trouble With Credit Cards
#1 Misusing balance transfers.
We put together a list of great balance transfer credit cards. But if you’re going to transfer your balance to a new credit card with a lower rate, you’ll have to check if it’s a promotional rate. It’s probably not wise to do a transfer if you’re unable to wipe out your debt before a promo rate expires and jumps up to a much higher rate. On top of that, you’re charged a transfer fee if you move your balance.
#2 Not shopping for the best rates.
The best way to use a credit card is to always pay your balance in full. If so, then the card’s rate may not be as important to you as other features would be, such as having rewards programs and long grace periods, or having no annual fees. But if you believe you’ll be carrying a balance, then by all means, find those cards with the lowest interest rates (e.g annual percentage rates or APRs). Note that one card can carry a number of APRs, so make sure you review all the card’s terms. Tip: Shop for the best rates if you’re going to carry a balance!
#3 Falling for introductory rates.
Because APRs can change on you, you’ll need to watch out for those introductory rates (also known as teaser rate, special rate, “limited time only” or promotional rates). The rates may sound sweet so that they entice you to sign up and transfer your balances over to a card but you may find that after a given period of time, those rates shoot up. Tip: Transfer your balance over if you’re planning to pay it off before the teaser rate expires and changes to a higher APR.
#4 Ignoring the terms and other fine print.
Some credit cards have you automatically signed up for certain features. If you read the fine print, this may be something you can end up opting out from and avoid getting ensnared into something you’d rather not participate in or pay for. According to a FindLaw.com survey, only 44% of customers read the terms of their credit cards, which means that some of us may not realize that rates can change on us, or that fees can be triggered when we don’t expect it. Tip: Check if you need to opt out of anything.
#5 Taking out cash advances.
It’s just not a good move to have to take out cash advances. There are high service fees and possibly higher rates associated with cash advances so it’s definitely something I don’t ever plan to use. Cash advances are costly, while saving the money for what you need is always the cheapest way to go.
#6 Not reviewing your monthly statements.
We religiously review our monthly statements to make sure there are no erroneous charges on it and to keep our eye out for fraudulent activity.
#7 Not checking your credit reports.
It is highly recommended to review your credit report at least once a year to catch any errors it may have. Mistakes in your report can lead to consequences to your credit score, higher interest rates, issues with employment or housing, or indications of fraud. Report any problems to the credit bureaus, which do receive notices of errors online.
#8 Not working with creditors when there are problems.
You’d be surprised how easy it is to work and negotiate with creditors who are looking to keep your business. If you’ve got any questions about your bill or the terms of your card, don’t hesitate to ask. I’ve had the pleasure of successfully disputing charges on my card as well as getting many fees waived just by having amiable talks with customer service.
#9 Signing up for retail credit cards.
They’re everywhere offering you an instant 10% off your day’s purchase! I’ve got family who simply cannot say “NO” to these offers and they’re now swimming in retail cards. These cards are a lousy deal because they have potentially higher rates and they just add to the clutter in your wallet. Are the one time discounts worth the hassle of dealing with more cards, open credit lines and additional debt?
#10 Paying bills without prioritizing them.
I’ve talked a lot about prioritizing our bills as a way to save on costs and protecting our interests. Pay off those bills that are the most important (those that keep the roof over your head) and most expensive (the highest interest rate debt) first. Not caring about the order of your bills can potentially jeopardize your living situation if you find that you’re having trouble covering the most essential bills by month’s end.
#11 Using credit instead of cash or debit cards.
Again, there’s no issue with using cash vs credit or debit cards if you can afford to pay off all your balances in full. But by using cash or debit cards, you’ll only be limited to spending what you have in your bank account. There’s always that danger of going beyond what you can afford when you’re tapping your credit, making it too easy to get in over your head with debt.
#12 Not paying credit card bills on time.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve lost out on good money by having to cover late payment fees. I’ve messed up on occasion and forgotten to pay a bill or two on time. That’s actually one thing I’m seeking to improve — to be more organized and systematic about things. Not being organized just means money lost, and I’ve paid dearly for my absent-mindedness. To avoid late or missed payments, sign up for auto payments.
#13 Paying the minimum on credit cards.
You don’t have to play by the credit card company’s rules. They want you to pay only the minimum! But why should you? Pay more than you have to and you’ll beat your debt faster.
#14 Spending on credit for the rewards.
It’s been said that a third of credit card holders use their cards for the rewards (miles, points, perks, gifts, etc) but if you’re feeling too comfortable about spending on credit because you’ve convinced yourself that you’re getting the rewards for free, then this is a big mistake. Rewards are never worth the debt you can potentially bury yourself under.
#15 Being in denial about one’s spending.
It’s easy not to think you are not really spending your own money when you are using credit. A lot of card holders sweep reality under the rug and think that they can spend now and worry about paying about their purchases later. Or that “things will work out” and they’ll find the money to cover their credit card bill somehow. I’m blaming this type of thinking for much of the rampant debt problems we’re seeing everywhere.
#16 Collecting credit cards.
Credit cards can be cute. Or slick. Or really cool these days. They’ve become attractive on many fronts and many people are succumbing to the marketing forces behind these cards. There are a lot of people out there who have turned to credit card collecting as a hobby or even as a money-making venture via credit card arbitrage. Regardless of your reason for having a lot of cards, you could be facing the temptation to use them…a lot. I only keep a limited number of cards because there’s risk in carrying them; the risk of fraud, loss, error or mismanagement of this tool has kept me from owning more than a couple of cards.
#17 Putting daily expenses on credit.
If you’re responsible about paying your cards, I don’t really see an issue with paying all your expenses through credit. The trouble occurs when one is unable to control their spending because all of it just goes on credit. You know, out of sight, out of mind. Because expenses and debt can add up really quickly, it’s best not to pass off everything to the plastic.
#18 Closing credit cards improperly.
Apparently, there’s a system behind closing your credit cards. You should never close the following cards you carry:
- any card with a balance
- your only card with available credit
- your only credit card
- your oldest credit card account
- your card with the most favorable terms
In your quest to simplify our finances, you may be tempted to cancel accounts you don’t use or don’t plan on ever using. Bad move? Well this could be a mistake as far as preserving a favorable FICO score. It’s to do with your credit to debt ratio.
#19 Adding additional names to your card.
Unless you completely trust whoever it is who has their name on your card, you shouldn’t be adding anyone to your account. The moment you do, you’ve lost control of how the card may be used, which just means that you may encounter more spending on it than you bargained for.
#20 Using your credit card internationally.
If you’ve ever used your card outside of the country, then you may already know that there are extra charges and fees imposed on international transactions. If you’d rather save on this cost, then go with cash and traveler’s checks instead. Still, what I like about using a credit card abroad is that there may be less risk in doing so, since transactions on a card can still be disputed if there’s any question, while there’s the risk of cash and checks getting stolen when you’re traveling. Personally, I pay extra for the convenience of using credit during trips.
#21 Exceeding your credit limit.
Going over your credit limit can incur you some unwanted, costly over-the-limit charges and fees that can also make a dent on your credit report. So here are a few tips to avoid maxing out:
- review your statements regularly and pay in cash when you’re close to the limit
- guideline: stay within 30% to 50% of your credit limit
- if necessary, request for an increase in your credit line (though it could just be an excuse to spend even more, so be careful!)
We haven’t had much trouble with our credit cards because we do pay our balances in full each month, review our statements for possible billing errors or suspicious activity, and have had good luck with dealing with our credit card companies. They’ve displayed great customer service when we’ve disputed questionable transactions and when we’ve asked to negotiate unexpected and unwanted fees and charges (regardless of who was at fault!); they’ve been proactive with tracking and monitoring for fraud and we’ve received some wonderful rewards in the process. I’m actually a fan of credit cards but I guess you can say that the beauty of credit cards is in the eye of the beholder… or rather, in the way they are used.
Image Credit: Mother Jones
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