It’s back to basics month at Get Rich Slowly! Today, we’re going to take a l-o-n-g look at how to use credit cards wisely. Believe it or not, credit cards can be a useful tool — so long as you don’t fall into debt.
For a long time, I thought credit cards were evil. Starting in college, I abused credit cards. As a result, I ended up deep in debt. Those two decades of debt sucked, and they led me to believe that credit cards were dangerous.
Well, credit cards are dangerous — but they’re not evil. Credit cards are a tool. Like any other tool, credit cards can be used to build or to destroy. Just as you’d treat a chainsaw with respect, you need to be careful with credit to avoid hurting yourself. If you use credit cards wisely, they can actually give you a financial edge!
Because this is a long article, I’ve create a table of contents so that you can jump to the section you need. (Or, you can read the entire thing, of course.)
Table of Contents
How Credit Cards Work
First, let’s review some basics.
When you buy something with a credit card, you’re taking a small loan from the card issuer — Bank of America, Capital One, your local credit union — and you owe the issuer that amount. If you pay your balance in full each month, the card basically gives you a short-term, interest-free loan. You’re taking advantage of “float”.
This free float is a fine thing — so long as you pay your balance every month. But if you carry a balance, the advantage of float vanishes. Anything you might have gaines is lost to fees and high interest rates.
How many Americans carry balances and how much debt does the average cardholder owe? There’s a lot of conflicting data out there, but one reliable source of information is the Federal Reserve, which every three years publishes its Survey of Consumer Finances. The latest study, from 2016, found that:
- 43.9% of American families have credit card debt, and
- the average amount owed is $5700.
Clearly, lots of Americans continue to struggle to use credit cards wisely.
That said, not everybody who uses credit cards goes into debt. In fact, the Survey of Consumer Finances shows that over half of Americans use credit cards without going into debt. They treat them as a convenience.
True story: Last year, I went into a bank to apply for a new travel credit card. During the half-hour process, I chatted with the banker. “We banks don’t like people like you,” he told me. “I’m sure you’re a nice guy, but you pay your bill every month. We don’t make any money on you. Fortunately, 90% of people who use credit cards suck with money!” He told me banks are willing to lose money on the handful of folks who use credit cards wisely because they make so much money on the people who abuse them.