A credit card just might be the ultimate frenemy. Depending on how you use it, that little piece of plastic could be a good friend or an awful enemy. There are really only two secrets to keeping that credit card a good friend. The first is to use it sensibly. The second is knowing what and what not to put on it.
This is relatively easy. If you want to use that credit card sensibly you need to keep the balance low and pay it off at the end of every month. What’s a low balance? That’s pretty simple, too. It’s whatever amount of money you have to pay off your card when you get your statement. How much is that? This is question that only you can answer, which means doing a little budgeting. Sit down with a spreadsheet program or a pencil and a piece of paper and list all of your expenses – both fixed and variable. Your fixed expenses would be things like your rent or mortgage payment, car payment and insurance. Your utility bill, transportation costs, clothing and entertainment would be variable expenses. When you finish your list add up everything and subtract this number from your monthly take-home pay. If you have money left over, which we hope you do, you should save some of it and then budget the rest for your credit card. Let’s say, for the sake of the example, that after you subtract your fixed and variable expenses and the money you’ve earmarked for saving you have $100 left over. This then is the balance you could afford to carry on a credit card because you would know you would be able to pay it off at the end of the month.
The danger of carrying balances forward
Why you don’t want to carry a balance forward from month-to-month is because of the power of compounding interest. This is something else that can be either a friend or an enemy. It can be your friend when you’re saving money but an enemy when you create debt. The way it works with a credit card is that once you carry a balance forward you’ll be charged interest on it, which will be carried forward to the next month where you will again be charged interest. This means you are now paying interest on interest. That’s compounding. And it can get ugly. If you were to run up a $5000 balance on your credit card at 15% and made only a minimum payment of $112.50 it would take you 266 months to be rid of that debt and would cost you $5,729.21 in interest – or more than that original balance.
What to put on a credit card
You’ve already seen the real answer to that question, which is to put no more on that credit card than you can pay off when you get your statement. So long as you know what that number is you can put anything on that card and you should probably charge as much as possible as this then becomes a record of your spending, which you could use in your budgeting.
The one exception
The one exception to this rule of charging only what you can afford is major purchases like a washer-dryer or refrigerator. If you need to buy one of these big-ticket items and don’t have the cash available it could be okay to put it on a credit card. Just keep in mind that you will need to pay back the money, which means budgeting for it. If you were to put a $1000 item on that credit card you should budget an extra $100 or $200 a month to pay it off as quickly as possible and keep from falling victim to that old devil of compound interest.
It’s important to remember that credit card debt is unsecured debt. Many experts believe that it’s the worst way to borrow money because it typically carries a very high interest rate – much higher than a car or home loan. Plus, credit card debt is never tax deductible as is the interest you pay on a home mortgage or student loan. Given this, there are five things you should never put on a credit card.
The first is college tuition. There are literally millions of American adults who are still paying for their college educations years after they left school. In many cases they haven’t even been able to find work in their fields of study – leaving them members of what’s now called the “underemployed.”
There are two big reasons why you should never put college tuition on a credit card. The first is the aforementioned compounding interest. The second is that it’s better to fund your education with low-interest student loans, grants, part-time jobs and scholarships as this would save you thousands of dollars over the long term.
Second, don’t put your income taxes on a credit card. Even if you find yourself hit with a big tax liability, don’t charge it. While the IRS makes it easy to make your payments with a credit card there are several reasons to not do this. First, the payment processing company will assess a fee of 1.88% to 2.35% and this will only add to the burden you’re already facing. In addition, the IRS will let you set up a payment plan with a much better interest rate. As of this writing its underpayment interest rate charge for each quarter is just 3%, which is much better than you would get with any credit card.
A third thing you shouldn’t put on a credit card is a vacation. While getting away from the stress of everyday life can feel really good don’t finance that trip with a credit card. If you do this you’ll only be coming home to the problems caused by that debt. A better solution is to plan a vacation that fits within your means such as camping, staying at hostels or visiting friends and family members. You say that’s not your idea of a dream vacation? Then set up a vacation fund, contribute to it every month and you will eventually have the money in hand to finance your dream vacation.
You should also never put a big wedding on a credit card. You might be tempted to have a really lavish event but just as with a vacation, you need to plan a wedding that will fit within your means and avoid creating credit card debt. We know that this will be a very special day for the two of you but it’s not worth it if you have to begin your lives together laboring underneath a huge pile of debt.
Last but not least, don’t put medical bills on a credit card. These bills can be staggering but if you talk with your healthcare providers you should be able to get payment plans that have little or no interest and payments you could actually afford. It’s possible that you could also tap into a charitable organization for financial help. But once you put those bills on a credit card that’s it. You ‘re stuck with that debt and with a big monthly payment probably for years to come.