When Is It Ok To Use A Credit Card?

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Odetta King
Odetta King Financial Professional

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When Is It Ok To Use A Credit Card?

Some could say “never!” but there might be situations in which using a credit card may be the option you want to go with.

Many families use credit with good intentions – and then life happens – surprise expenses or a change in income leave them struggling to get ahead of growing debt. To be fair, there may be times to use credit and times to avoid using credit.

Purchasing big-ticket items
A big-screen TV or a laptop purchased with a credit card may have additional warranty protection through your credit card company. Features and promotions vary by card, however, so be sure to know the details before you buy. If your credit card offers reward points or airline miles, big-ticket items may be a faster way to earn points than making small purchases over time. Just be sure to have a plan to pay off the balance.

Travel and car rental
For many families, these two items go hand in hand. Credit cards sometimes offer additional insurance protection for your luggage or for the trip itself. Your credit card company may offer some additional protection for car rentals. You might score some extra airline miles or reward points in this category as well because the numbers can add up quickly.

Online shopping
Credit card and debit card numbers are being stolen all the time. Online merchants can have a breach and not even be aware that your credit card info is out in the wild. The advantage of using a credit card as opposed to a debit card is time. You’ll have more time to dispute charges that aren’t yours. If your debit card gets into the wrong hands, someone might be quickly spending your mortgage money, food and gas money, or college tuition for your kids. Credit cards may be a better choice to use online because the effects of fraud don’t have an immediate impact on your bank balance.

Legitimate emergencies
Life happens and sometimes we don’t have enough readily available cash to pay for emergencies. Life’s emergencies can range from broken appliances to broken cars to broken bones and in these cases, you may not have any other viable options for payment.

Using credit isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, if you plan carefully, you may reap several types of benefits from using credit cards and still avoid paying interest. You’ll have to pay off the balance right away to avoid finance charges, though. So, always think twice before you charge once.

Some credit cards offer consumer benefits, like extended warranties, extra insurance, or even rewards. There are some situations in which using a credit card may come in handy.

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WFG261519-07.20

Debit Or Credit? What's The Difference?

For many people, when purchasing items with a debit card or credit card, the only difference for them may boil down to simply entering a PIN code or scribbling a signature.

But what really is the difference? The answer may be a little complicated, largely due to misnomers and a blending of terms used by the public. Read on to see what the difference actually is.

A clarification of terms
The words credit, debit, and cash seem to be used so loosely by the general public that many people seem confused by what the difference is between them. But in accounting and finance, they have very specific meanings. For our purposes, cash is money that you can spend immediately. It can be cold hard currency of course – bills and coins which you might have in your hand or in your wallet – or cash can refer to the balance in your checking account. This is money that you own, and you can withdraw all of it right now, electronically or physically.

Credit is basically someone’s willingness to accept an IOU from you. Here we will use it as a noun. Buying on credit means the seller trusts the buyer to hand over cash – money which is spendable right now – in the future. Debit, on the other hand, is a verb, and it means to deduct an amount from a cash balance immediately (often a bank account balance). Of course, credit can also be a verb (meaning to add to a cash balance immediately). This mixing of verbs and nouns can make the distinction of the terms in everyday use difficult.

Cash is money you can spend right now, electronically or physically. Credit is an agreement to pay cash later. Debit is a verb that means to subtract cash from a balance right away.

When money is due
The major difference between credit and debit cards is the time when cash must be paid. Credit cards, standing in for a promise to pay cash later, allow one to purchase things even if said person has no cash immediately available. For example, if you need to buy some clothes for a new job, you might only have enough cash on hand to purchase one outfit. You may not receive any more cash until you get your first paycheck in two weeks. But you probably wouldn’t want to wear the same outfit every day for two weeks. What can you do?

This is when credit comes in handy: you buy all the outfits you need now, while making a promise to pay the credit card company back in the future. You receive your outfits immediately even though you don’t technically have enough cash yet. You need to complete some work before you receive the money, but the credit card company accepts your IOU in place of cash for the time being.

On the other hand, if you use a debit card to pay for the clothes, the cash will be deducted immediately from your bank account. Remember, the balance of your bank account is cash in financial terms because it is spendable right now. When you enter your PIN code, the bank checks that you have enough money to make the purchase immediately and, if you do, the bank authorizes the transaction. If you need new shoes for your job but don’t have enough money in your bank account, you won’t be able to use a debit card.

Interest rates for using credit cards
Why would anyone ever want to use debit if they could use credit? One reason is budgeting and discipline. However, a stronger reason can be interest: promising to pay later may come at a price, and that price is called interest. Credit card companies do not make these short term loans out of the goodness of their hearts. They do it for profit. If you borrow money for a little while – i.e., you take money and promise to pay it back later – you will have to compensate the bank, seller, or credit card company for that ability. Thus we potentially pay interest with credit cards but not with debit cards.

Why don’t we pay interest on debit cards? Well, because the money is already yours, of course.

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WFG261473-07.20

Which Debt Should You Pay Off First?

Nearly every type of debt can interfere with your financial goals, making you feel like a hamster on a wheel – constantly running but never actually getting anywhere.

If you’ve been trying to dig yourself out of a debt hole, it’s time to take a break and look at the bigger picture.

Did you know there are often advantages to paying off certain types of debt before other types? What the simple list below doesn’t include is the average interest rates or any tax benefits to a given type of debt, which can change your priorities. Let’s check them out!

Credit Cards
For most households, credit card debt is the place to start – stop spending on credit and start making extra payments whenever possible. Think of it as an investment in your future!

Auto Loans
Interest rates for auto loans are usually much lower than credit card debt, often under 5% on newer loans. Interest rates aren’t the only consideration for auto loans though. New cars depreciate nearly 20% in the first year. In years 2 and 3, you can expect the value to drop another 15% each year. The moral of the story is that cars are a terrible investment but offer great utility. There’s also no tax benefit for auto loan interest. Eliminating debt as fast as possible on a rapidly depreciating asset is a sound decision.

Student Loans
Like auto loans, student loans are usually in the range of 5% to 10% interest. While interest rates are similar to car loans, student loan interest is often tax deductible, which can lower your effective rate. Auto loans can usually be paid off faster than student loan debt, allowing more cash flow to apply to student debt, investment accounts, or other needs.

Mortgage Debt
In most cases, mortgage debt is the last type of debt to pay down. Mortgage rates are usually lower than the interest rates for credit card debt, auto loans, or student loans, and mortgage interest may be tax deductible if structured properly. If mortgage debt keeps you awake at night, paying off other types of debt first will give you greater cash flow each month so you can begin paying down your mortgage.

When you’ve paid off your other debt and are ready to start tackling your mortgage, try paying bi-monthly (every two weeks). This simple strategy has the effect of adding one extra mortgage payment each year, reducing a 30-year loan term by several years. Because the payments are spread out instead of making one (large) 13th payment, it’s likely you won’t even notice the extra expense.

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WFG260052-07.20

The Advantages Of Paying With Cash

Debit cards are convenient.

Just swipe and go. Even more so for their mobile phone equivalents. We like fast, we like easy, and we like a good sale. But are we actually spending more by not using cash like we did in the good old days?

When using plastic, the reality of the expense doesn’t sink in until the statement arrives. And even then it may not carry the same weight. After all, you only need to make the minimum payment, right? With cash, we’re more cautious – and that’s not a bad thing.

Try an experiment for a week: pay only with cash. When you pay with cash, the expense feels real – even when it might be relatively small. Hopefully, you’ll get a sense that you’re parting with something of value in exchange for something else. You might start to ask yourself things like “Do I need this new comforter set that’s on sale – a really good sale – or, do I just want this new comforter set because it’s really cute (and it’s on sale)?” You might find yourself paying more attention to how much things cost when making purchases, and weighing that against your budget.

If you find that you have money left over at the end of the week (and you probably will because who likes to see nothing when they open their wallet), put the cash aside in an envelope and give it a label. You can call it anything you want, like “Movie Night,” for example.

As the weeks go on, you’re likely to amass a respectable amount of cash in your “rewards” fund. You might even be dreaming about what to do with that money now. You can buy something special. You can save it. The choice is yours. Well done on saving your hard-earned cash.

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WFG259665-06.20

5 Things You Can Do With A Bonus

It’s your lucky day and you’re flush with cash.

Maybe you just got a bonus at work, or a tax refund, or won that scratch-off lottery ticket.

Hold up. Don’t spend it all just yet. There are some great ways you can put that windfall to work for you before it disappears during a spontaneous shopping spree.

1. Pay off those credit cards
This may not seem like quite as much fun as the Paris vacation you were daydreaming about – but paying down debt is like finding money every single month. Every $100 you pay in interest equals about $130 you’d have to earn when you consider taxes. Paying down debt is the fastest way to give yourself a monthly raise if you come into some unexpected cash.

2. Save it
Experts recommend that you have enough savings to cover at least 3 to 6 months of expenses. This is the perfect opportunity to break away from the statistics and get prepared. Consider a high-yield checking account that allows easy access to your savings.

3. Put it in the college fund
If you have kids, this is a great time to contribute to the college fund or to start one if you haven’t already. Tuition can range from around $10,000 for in-state public schools to nearly $35,000 for private schools (1). And that’s not counting books and boarding! It’s never too early to give your kids a head start!

4. Invest in yourself
This might be the perfect chance to finish off those last few credits for a degree or to earn that certification you’ve been wanting but couldn’t justify spending money to complete. If you choose carefully, the right degree or certification can open doors in your career, potentially enhancing your earning power and helping you break out of the holding pattern.

5. Take a vacation
Maybe it’s a trip to Paris or maybe it’s someplace else you’ve always wanted to go. If all the above are in good shape, go ahead and treat yourself. You deserve it!

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(1) Justin Song, “Average Cost of college in America”, ValuePenguin, 2020


WFG258641-06.20

4 Easy Tips To Build Your Emergency Fund

Nearly one quarter of Americans and almost half of Canadians have no emergency savings, according to a recent report. (1&2)

Without an emergency fund, you can imagine that an unexpected expense could send your budget into a tailspin. That’s why building an emergency fund is so important. You CAN do this!

4 tips to building your emergency fund

Where to keep your emergency fund
Keeping money in the cookie jar might not be the best plan. Mattresses don’t really work so well either. But you also don’t want your emergency fund “co-mingled” with the money in your normal checking or savings account. The goal is to keep your emergency fund separate, clearly defined, and easily accessible. Setting up a designated, high-yield savings account is a good option that can provide quick access to your money while keeping it separate from your main bank accounts.

Set a monthly goal for savings
Set a monthly goal for your emergency fund savings, but also make sure you keep your savings goal realistic. If you choose an overly ambitious goal, you may be less likely to reach that goal consistently, which might make the process of building your emergency fund a frustrating experience. (Your emergency fund is supposed to help reduce stress, not increase it!) It’s okay to start by putting aside a small amount until you have a better understanding of how much you can really “afford” to save each month. Also, once you have your high-yield savings account set up, you can automatically transfer funds to your savings account every time you get paid. One less thing to worry about!

Spare change can add up quickly
The convenience of debit and credit cards means that we use less cash these days – but if and when you do pay with cash, take the change and put it aside. When you have enough change to be meaningful, maybe $20 to $30, deposit that into your emergency fund. Look into ways of automating your savings to make putting away money seamless and hassle free!

Get to know your budget
Making and keeping a budget may not always be the most enjoyable pastime. But once you get it set up and stick to it for a few months, you’ll get some insight into where your money is going, and how better to keep a handle on it! Hopefully that will motivate you to keep going, and keep working towards your larger goals. When you first get started, dig out your bank statements and write down recurring expenses, or types of expenses that occur frequently. Odds are pretty good that you’ll find some expenses that aren’t strictly necessary. Look for ways to moderate your spending on frills without taking all the fun out of life. By moderating your expenses and eliminating the truly wasteful indulgences, you’ll probably find money to spare each month and you’ll be well on your way to building your emergency fund.

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(1) Maurie Backman, “Nearly 50% of Americans Don’t Have Enough Emergency Savings to Get Through the COVID-19 Crisis”, the Motley Fool, March 27, 2020.

(2) Steve Randall, “Almost half of Canadians have no emergency fund”, Which Mortgage, January 9, 2019.


WSB258602-06.20

Why You Should Pay Off High-Interest Debt First

Credit card debt can be sneaky.

Often, we may not even realize how much that borrowed money is costing us. High interest debt (like credit cards) can slowly suck the life out of your budget.

But paying down high-interest debt can free up cash flow in a big way. It might take time to produce a meaningful return. Your “earnings” will seem low at first. They’ll seem low because they are low. Hang in there. Over time, as the balances go down and more cash is available every month, the benefit will become more apparent.

High Interest vs. Low Balance
We all want to pay off debt, even if we aren’t always vigilant about it. Debt irks us. We know someone is in our pockets. It’s tempting to pay off the small balances first because it’ll be faster to knock them out.

Granted, paying off small balances feels good – especially when it comes to making the last payment. However, the math favors going after the big fish first, the hungry plastic shark that is eating through your wallet, bank account, retirement savings, vacation plans, and everything else. In time, paying off high interest debt first will free up the money to pay off the small balances, too.

Summing It Up
High interest debt, usually credit cards, can cost you hundreds of dollars per year in interest – and that’s assuming you don’t buy anything else while you pay it off. Paying off your high interest debt first has the potential to save all of that money you’d end up paying in interest. And imagine how much better it might feel to pay off other debts or bolster your financial strategy with the money you save!

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WFG258307-06.20

Watch out for these 5 Credit Card Red Flags

Credit cards aren’t free money — that should go without saying, but millions of Americans don’t seem to have received that memo.

Americans now owe a record $1.04 trillion in credit card debt.¹ If you’re not careful, credit card debt could hurt your credit score, wipe out your savings, and completely alter your personal financial landscape.

So: debt, debit, both, or neither? Before you apply for that next piece of plastic, here’s what you need to watch out for.

Low interest rates
Credit card companies spend a lot of money on marketing to try to get you hooked on an offer. Often you hear or read that a company will tout an offer with a low or zero percent APR (Annual Percentage Rate). This is called a “teaser rate.”

Sounds amazing, right? But here’s the problem: This is a feature that may only last for 6–12 months. Ask yourself if the real interest rate will be worth it. Credit card companies make a profit via credit card interest. If they were to offer zero percent interest indefinitely, then they wouldn’t make any money.

Make sure you read the fine print to determine whether the card’s interest rate will be affordable after the teaser rate period expires.

Fixed vs. variable interest rates
Credit cards will operate on either a fixed interest rate or a variable interest rate.² A fixed interest rate will generally stay the same from month to month. A variable interest rate, by contrast, is tied to an index (fancy word for interest rate) that moves with the economy. Normally the interest rate is set to be a few percentage points higher than the index.

The big difference here is that while a fixed rate may change, the credit card company is required to inform its customers when this happens. While a variable APR may start out with a lower interest rate, it’s not uncommon for these rates to fluctuate. What’s more, the credit card company isn’t required to tell you about a variable rate change at all!³

Low interest rates are usually reserved for individuals who have great credit with a long credit history. So, if you’ve never owned a credit card (or you are recovering from a negative credit history) this could be a red flag.

Of course, you could avoid these pitfalls altogether if you pay off your credit card balance before the statement date. Whatever the interest rate, be sure you’re applying for a credit card that’s affordable for you to pay off if you miss the payoff due date.

High credit limits
While large lines of credit are usually reserved for those with a good credit history, a new cardholder might still receive an offer for up to a $10,000 credit limit.

If this happens to you, beware. While it may seem like the offer conveys a great deal of trust in your ability to pay your bill, be honest with yourself. You may not be able to recover from the staggering size of your credit card debt if you can’t pay off your balance each month.

If you already have a card with a limit that feels too high, it may be in your interest to request that the company lower your card’s limit.

Late fees
So you’re late paying your credit card bill. Late payments not only have the potential to hurt your credit score, but some credit cards may also assess a penalty APR if you haven’t paid your bill on time.

Penalty APRs are incredibly high, usually topping out at 29.99%.⁴ The solution here is simple: pay your bill on time or you might find self paying ridiculous interest rates!

Balance transfer fees
It’s not uncommon for a cardholder to transfer one card’s balance to another card, otherwise known as a balance transfer. This can be an effective way to pay off your debt while sidestepping interest, but only if you do so before the card’s effective rate kicks in. And, even if a card offers zero interest on balance transfers, you still may have to pay a fee for doing so.

Whatever type of credit card you choose, the only person responsible for its pros and cons is you. But if you’re thrifty and pay attention to the bottom line, you can help make that credit card work for your credit score and not against it.

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¹ Samuel Stebbins “Where credit card debt is the worst in the US: States with the highest average balances,” USA Today (March 7 2019, updated April 26, 2019)
² Latoya Irby, “Credit Card Interest Rates: Fixed vs. Variable Rates,” The Balance (May 20, 2019)
³ Latoya Irby, “Credit Card Interest Rates: Fixed vs. Variable Rates,” The Balance (May 20, 2019)
⁴ Latoya Irby, “Credit Card Default And Penalty Rates Explained,” (August 12, 2019)

WFG254213-04.20

Should You Get Rid Of Your Credit Cards?

There’s no doubt that credit card debt is a huge financial burden for many Americans.

On average, each household that has revolving credit card debt owes $7,104 (1). It might be tempting to see those numbers and decide to throw out your credit cards entirely. After all, why hang on to a source of temptation when you could make do with cash or a debit card? However, keeping a credit card around has some serious benefits that you should consider before you decide to free yourself from plastic’s grasp.

You might have bigger debts to deal with
On average, credit card debt is low compared to auto loans ($27,934), student loans ($46,679), and mortgages ($192,618) (2). Simply put, you might be dealing with debts that cost you a lot more than your credit card. That leaves you with a few options. You can either start with paying down your biggest debts (a debt avalanche) or get the smaller ones out of the way and move up (a debt snowball). That means you’ll either tackle credit card debt first or wait while you deal with a mortgage payment or student loans. Figure out where to start and see where your credit card fits in!

Ditching credit cards can lower your credit score
Credit utilization and availability play a big role in determining your credit score (3). The less credit you use and the more you have available, the better your score will likely be. Closing down a credit card account may drastically lower the amount of credit you have available, which then could reduce your score. Even freezing your card in a block of ice can have negative effects; credit card companies will sometimes lower your available credit or just close the account if they see inactivity for too long (4). This may not be the end of the world if you have another line of credit (like a mortgage) but it’s typically better for your credit score to keep a credit card around and only use it for smaller purchases.

It’s often wiser to limit credit card usage than to ditch them entirely. Figure out which debts are costing you the most, and focus your efforts on paying them down before you cut up your cards. While you’re at it, try limiting your credit card usage to a few small monthly purchases to protect your credit score and free up some extra funds to work on your other debts.

Need help coming up with a strategy? Give me a call and we can get started on your journey toward financial freedom!

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(1) Erin El Issa, “Nerdwallet’s 2019 American Household Credit Card Debt Study,” Nerdwallet, December 2, 2019

(2) Erin El Issa, “Nerdwallet’s 2019 American Household Credit Card Debt Study,” Nerdwallet, December 2, 2019

(3) Latoya Irby, “Understanding Credit Utilization: How Your Usage Affects Your Credit Score,” The Balance, February 20, 2020

(4) Lance Cothern, “Will My Credit Score Go Down If A Credit Card Company Closes My Account For Non-Use?” March 2, 2020


WFG252544-0320

The return of – dun, dun, dun – Consumer Debt

It might sound like a bad monster movie title, but the return of consumer debt is a growing concern.

A recent New York Times article details the rise of consumer debt, which has reached a new peak and now exceeds the record-breaking $12.68 trillion of consumer debt we had collectively back in 2008. In 2017, after a sharp decline followed by a rise as consumer sentiment improved, we reached a new peak of $12.73 trillion.[i]

A trillion is a big number. Numbers measured in trillions (that’s 1,000 billion, or 1,000,000 million – yes, that’s correct!) can seem abstract and difficult to relate to in our own individual situations.

While big numbers can be hard to grasp, dates are easy. 2008 is when the economy crashed, due in part to an unmanageable amount of debt.

Good debt and bad debt
Mortgage debt still makes up the majority of consumer debt, currently 68% of the total.[ii] But student loans are a category on the rise, currently more than doubling their percentage of total consumer debt when compared to 2008 figures.[iii] Coupled with a healthier economy, these new levels of consumer debt may not be a strong concern yet, but the impact of debt on individual households is often more palpable than the big-picture view of economists. Debt has a way of creeping up on families.

It’s common to hear references to “good debt”, usually when discussing real estate loans. In most cases, mortgage interest is tax deductible, helping to reduce the effective interest rate. However, if a household has too much debt, none of it feels like good debt. In fact, some people pass on home ownership altogether, investing their surplus income and living in more affordable rented apartments – instead of taking on the fluctuating cost of a house and its seemingly never-ending mortgage payments.

Credit card debt
Assuming that a mortgage and an auto loan are necessary evils for your household to work, and that student loans may pay dividends in the form of higher earning power, credit card debt deserves some closer scrutiny. The average American household owes over $15,000 in credit card debt,[iv] more than a quarter of the median household income. The average interest rate for credit cards varies depending on the type of card (rewards cards can be higher). But overall, American households are paying an average of 14.87% APR for the privilege of borrowing money to spend.[v]

That level of debt requires a sizeable payment each month. Guess what the monthly credit card interest for credit card debt of $15,000 at an interest rate of 15% would be? $187.50! (That number will go down as the balance decreases.) If your monthly payment is on the lower end, your debt won’t go down very quickly though. In fact, at $200 per month paid towards credit cards, the average household would be paying off that credit card debt for nearly 19 years, with a total interest cost of almost $30,000 – all from a $15,000 starting balance! (Hint: You can find financial calculators online to help you figure out how much it really costs to borrow money.)

You may not be trillions in debt (even though it might feel like it), but the first step to getting your debt under control is often to understand what its long-term effects might be on your family’s financial health. Formulating a strategy to tackle debt and sticking to it is the key to defeating your personal debt monsters.

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The effects of closing a credit card

Americans owe over $900 billion in credit card debt[i], and credit card interest rates are on the rise – now over 15 percent.[ii]

So if you’re on a mission to reduce or eliminate your credit card debt (go you!), you may be thinking you should close out your credit cards. However, you need to know that doing that may have several effects, some of which may not be what you’d expect.

There are times when canceling a card may be the best answer:

  1. A card charges an annual fee
    If you’re being charged an annual fee for the privilege of having a certain credit card, it may be better to cancel the card, particularly if you don’t use it often or have other options available.

  2. You can’t control your spending
    If “retail therapy” is impacting your financial future by creating an ever-growing mountain of debt, it may be best to eliminate the temptation of buying on credit.

Then there are times when closing a credit card may not make much difference, or could even hurt your score:

  1. Lingering effects: The good and the bad
    Many of us have heard that credit card information stays on your report for 7 years. That’s true for negative information, including events as large as a foreclosure. Positive events, however, stay on your report for 10 years. In either case, canceling your credit card now will reduce the credit you have available, but the history – good or bad – will remain on your credit report for up to a decade.

  2. The benefits of old credit
    Did you know that one aspect factored in to your credit score is the age of your accounts? Canceling a much older account in favor of a newer account can actually leave a dent in your score, and we know that canceling the card won’t erase any negative history less than 7 years old. So it may be best to keep the older credit account open as long as there are no costs to the card. Another point to consider is that the effects of canceling an older account may be magnified when you’re younger and haven’t yet established a long enough credit history.

Credit utilization affects your credit score
Lenders and credit bureaus not only look at your repayment history, they also look at your credit utilization, which refers to how much of your available credit you’re using. Lower usage can help your credit score while high utilization can work against you.

For example, if you have $20,000 in credit available and $10,000 in credit card balances, your credit utilization is 50 percent. If you close a credit card that has a credit limit of $5,000, your available credit drops to $15,000 but your credit utilization jumps to 67 percent if the credit card balances remain unchanged. Going on a credit card canceling rampage may actually have negative effects because your credit utilization can skyrocket.

If unnecessary spending is out of control or if there is a cost to having a particular credit card, it may be best to cancel the card. In other cases, however, it’s often better to use credit cards occasionally, and make sure to pay them off as quickly as possible.

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Is a balance transfer worth it?

If you have established credit, you’ve probably received some offers in the mail for a balance transfer with “rates as low as 0%”.

But don’t get too excited yet. That 0% rate won’t last. You’re also likely to find there’s a one-time balance transfer fee of 3% to 5% of the transferred amount.[i] We all know the fine print matters – a lot – but let’s look at some other considerations.

What is a balance transfer?
To attract new customers, credit card companies often send offers inviting credit card holders to transfer a balance to their company. These offers may have teaser or introductory rates, which can help reduce overall interest costs.

Teaser rate vs. the real interest rate
After the teaser rate expires, the real interest rate is going to apply. The first thing to check is if it’s higher or lower than your current interest rate. If it’s higher, you probably don’t need to read the rest of the offer and you can toss it in the shredder. But if you think you can pay the balance off before the introductory rate expires, taking the offer might make sense. However, if your balance is small, a focused approach to paying off your existing card without transferring the balance might serve you better than opening a new credit account. If – after the introductory rate expires – the interest rate is lower than what you’re paying now, it’s worth reading the offer further.

The balance transfer fee
Many balance transfers have a one-time balance transfer fee of up to 5% of the transferred amount. That can add up quickly. On a transfer of $10,000, the transfer fee could be $300 to $500, which may be enough to make you think twice. However, the offer still might have value if what you’re paying in interest currently works out to be more.

Monthly payments
The real savings with balance transfer offers becomes evident if you transfer to a lower rate card but maintain the same payment amount (or even better, a higher amount). If you were paying the minimum or just over the minimum on the old card and continue to pay just the minimum with the new card, the balance might still linger for a long time. However, if you were paying $200 per month on the old card and you continue with a $200 per month payment on the new card at a lower interest rate, the balance will go down faster, which could save you money in interest.

For example, if you transfer a $10,000 balance from a 15% card to a new card with a 0% APR for 12 months and a 12% APR thereafter, while keeping the same monthly payment of $200, you would save nearly $3,800 in interest charges. Even if the new card has a 3% balance transfer fee, the savings would still be $3,500.[ii] Not too bad. If you’re considering a balance transfer offer, use an online calculator to make the math easier. Also, be aware that you might be able to negotiate the offer, perhaps earning a lower balance transfer fee (or no fee at all) or a lower interest rate. It costs nothing to ask!

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How to Build Credit When You’re Young

Your credit score can affect a lot more than just your interest rates or credit limits.

Your credit history can have an impact on your eligibility for rental leases, raise (or lower) your auto insurance rates, or even affect your eligibility for certain jobs (although in many cases the authorized credit reports available to third parties don’t contain your credit score if you aren’t requesting credit). Because credit history affects so many aspects of financial life, it’s important to begin building a solid credit history as early as possible.

So, where do you start?

  1. Apply for a store credit card.
    Store credit cards are a common starting point for teens and young adults, as it often can be easier to get approved for a store card than for a major credit card. As a caveat though, store card interest rates are often higher than for a standard credit card. Credit limits are also typically low – but that might not be a bad thing when you’re just getting started building your credit. A lower limit helps ensure you’ll be able to keep up with payments. Because you’re trying to build a positive history and because interest rates are often higher with a store card, it’s important to pay on time – or ideally, to pay the entire balance when you receive the statement.

  2. Become an authorized user on a parent’s credit card.
    Another common way to begin building credit is to become an authorized user on a parent’s credit card. Ultimately, the credit card account isn’t yours, so your parents would be responsible for paying the balance. (Because of this, your credit score won’t benefit as much as if you are approved for a credit card in your own name.) Another thing to keep in mind is that some credit card providers don’t report authorized users’ activity to credit bureaus.* Additionally, even if you’re only an authorized user, any missed or late payments on the card can affect your credit history negatively.

Are secured cards useful to build credit?
A secured credit card is another way to begin building credit. To secure the card, you make an initial deposit. The amount of that deposit is your credit line. If you miss a payment, the bank uses your collateral – the deposit – to pay the balance. Don’t let that make you too comfortable though. Your goal is to build a positive credit history, so if you miss payments – even though you have a prepaid deposit to fall back on – you’re still going to get a ding on your credit history. Instead, it’s best to use a small amount of your available credit each month and to pay in full when you get the statement. This will help you look like a credit superstar due to your consistently timely payments and low credit utilization.

As you build your credit history, you’ll be able to apply for credit in larger amounts, and you may even start receiving pre-approved offers. But beware. Having credit available is useful for certain emergencies and for demonstrating responsible use of credit – but you don’t need to apply for every offer you receive.

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Source:
“Does Being an Authorized User Help You Build Credit?” Discover*, 2018, https://discvr.co/2lAzSgt.

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Handling Debt Efficiently – Until It’s Gone

It’s no secret that making purchases on credit cards will result in paying more for those items over time if you’re paying interest charges from month-to-month.

Despite this well-known fact, the average American now owes over $6,000 in credit card debt.* For households, the number is much higher, at nearly $16,000 per household. Add in an average mortgage of over $200,000, plus nearly $25,000 of non-mortgage debt (car loans, college loans, or other loans) and the molehill really is starting to look like a mountain.

The good news? You have the potential to handle your debt efficiently and deal with a molehill-sized molehill instead of a mountain-sized one.

Focus on the easiest target first.
Some types of debt don’t have an easy solution. While it’s possible to sell your home and find more affordable housing, actually following through with this might not be a great option. Selling your home is a huge decision and one that comes with expenses associated with the sale – it’s possible to lose money. Unless you find yourself with a job loss or similar long-term setback, often the best solution to paying down debt is to go after higher interest debt first. Then examine ways to cut your housing costs last.

Freeze your spending (literally, if it helps).
Due to its higher interest rate, credit card debt is usually the first thing to tackle when you decide to start eliminating debt. Let’s be honest, most of us might not even know where that money goes, but our credit card statement is a monthly reminder that it went somewhere. If credit card balances are a problem in your household, the first step is to cut back on your purchases made with credit, or stop paying with credit altogether. Some people cut up their cards to enforce discipline. Ever heard the recommendation to freeze your cards in a block of ice as a visual reminder of your commitment to quit credit? Another thing to do is to remove your card information from online shopping sites to help ensure you don’t make mindless purchases.

Set payment goals.
Paying the minimum amount on your credit card keeps the credit card company happy for 2 reasons. First, they’re happy that you made a payment on time. Second, they’re happy if you’re only paying the minimum because you might never pay off the balance, so they can keep collecting interest indefinitely. Reducing or stopping your spending with credit was the first step. The second step is to pay more than the minimum so that those balances start going down. Examine your budget to see where there’s room to reduce spending further, which will allow you to make higher payments on your credit cards and other types of debt. In most households, an honest look at the bank statement will reveal at least a few ways you might free up some money each month.

Have a sale. To get a jump-start if money is still tight, you might want to turn some unused household items into cash. Having a community yard sale or selling your items online can turn your dust collectors into cash that you can then use toward reducing your balances.

Transfer balances prudently.
Consider balance transfers for small balances with high interest rates that you think you’ll be able to pay off quickly. Transferring that balance to a lower interest or no interest card can save on interest costs, freeing up more money to pay down the balances. The interest rates on balance transfers don’t stay low forever, however – typically for a year or less – so it’s important to make sure you can pay transferred balances off quickly. Also, check if there’s a balance transfer fee. Depending on the fee, moving those funds might not make sense.

Don’t punish yourself.
Getting serious about paying down debt may seem to require draconian measures. But there likely isn’t a need to just stay home eating tuna fish sandwiches with all the lights turned off. Often, all that’s required is an adjustment of old spending habits. If your drive home takes you past a mall where it would be too tempting to “just pick a little something up”, take a different route home. But it’s important to have a small treat occasionally as well. If you’re making progress on your debt, you deserve to reward yourself sometimes. All within your budget, of course!

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Sources:
El Issa, Erin. “2017 American Household Credit Card Debt Study.” NerdWallet*, 2017, https://nerd.me/2ht7SZg.

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Tips on Managing Money for Couples

Couplehood can be a wonderful blessing, but – as you may know – it can have its challenges, too.

In fact, money matters are the leading cause of arguments in modern relationships.* The age-old adage that love trumps wealth may be true, but if money is tight or if a couple isn’t meeting their financial goals, there could be some unpleasant conversations (er, arguments) on the bumpy road to bliss with your partner or spouse.

These tips may help make the road to happiness a little easier.

1. Set a goal for debt-free living.
Certain types of debt can be difficult to avoid, such as mortgages or car payments, but other types of debt, like credit cards in particular, can grow like the proverbial snowball rolling down a hill. Credit card debt often comes about because of overspending or because insufficient savings forced the use of credit for an unexpected situation. Either way, you’ll have to get to the root of the cause or the snowball might get bigger. Starting an emergency fund or reigning in unnecessary spending – or both – can help get credit card balances under control so you can get them paid off.

2. Talk about money matters.
Having a conversation with your partner about money is probably not at the top of your list of fun-things-I-look-forward-to. This might cause many couples to put it off until the “right time”. If something is less than ideal in the way your finances are structured, not talking about it won’t make the problem go away. Instead, frustrations over money can fester, possibly turning a small issue into a larger problem. Discussing your thoughts and concerns about money with your partner regularly (and respectfully) is key to reaching an understanding of each other’s goals and priorities, and then melding them together for your goals as a couple.

3. Consider separate accounts with one joint account.
As a couple, most of your financial obligations will be faced together, including housing costs, monthly utilities and food expenses, and often auto expenses. In most households, these items ideally should be paid out of a joint account. But let’s face it, it’s no fun to have to ask permission or worry about what your partner thinks every time you buy a specialty coffee or want that new pair of shoes you’ve been eyeing. In addition to your main joint account, having separate accounts for each of you may help you maintain some independence and autonomy in regard to personal spending.

With these tips in mind, here’s to a little less stress so you can put your attention on other “couplehood” concerns… Like where you two are heading for dinner tonight – the usual hangout (which is always good), or that brand new place that just opened downtown? (Hint: This is a little bit of a trick question. The answer is – whichever place fits into the budget that you two have already decided on, together!)

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Sources:
Huckabee, Tyler. “Why Do People In Relationships Fight About Money So Much?” Relevant*, 1.3.2018, https://bit.ly/2xiflG9.

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Avoid these unhealthy financial habits

As well-intentioned as we might be, we sometimes get in our own way when it comes to improving our financial health.

Much like physical health, financial health can be affected by binging, carelessness, or simply not knowing what can cause harm. But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel – as with physical health, it’s possible to reverse the downward trend if you can break your harmful habits.

Not budgeting
A household without a budget is like a ship without a rudder, drifting aimlessly and – sooner or later – it might sink or run aground in shallow waters. Small expenses and indulgences can add up to big money over the course of a month or a year. In nearly every household, it might be possible to find some extra money just by cutting back on non-essential spending. A budget is your way of telling yourself that you may be able to have nice things if you’re disciplined about your finances.

Frequent use of credit cards
Credit cards always seem to get picked on when discussing personal finances, and often, they deserve the flack they get. Not having a budget can be a common reason for using credit, contributing to an average credit card debt of over $9,000 for balance-carrying households.[i] At an average interest rate of over 15%, credit card debt is usually the highest interest expense in a household, several times higher than auto loans, home loans, and student loans.[ii] The good news is that with a little discipline, you can start to pay down your credit card debt and help reduce your interest expense.

Mum’s the word
No matter how much income you have, money can be a stressful topic in families. This can lead to one of two potentially harmful habits.

First, talking about the family finances is often simply avoided. Conversations about kids and work and what movie you want to watch happen, but conversations about money can get swept under the rug. Are you a “saver” and your partner a “spender”? Is it the opposite? Maybe you’re both spenders or both savers. Talking (and listening) about yourself and your significant other’s tendencies can be insightful and help avoid conflicts about your finances. If you’re like most households, having an occasional chat about the budget may help keep your family on track with your goals – or help you identify new goals – or maybe set some goals if you don’t have any. Second, financial matters can be confusing – which may cause stress – especially once you get past the basics. This may tempt you to ignore the subject or to think “I’ll get around to it one day”. But getting a budget and a financial strategy in place sooner rather than later may actually help you reduce stress. Think of it as “That’s one thing off my mind now!”

Taking the time to understand your money situation and getting a budget in place is the first step to put your financial house in order. As you learn more and apply changes – even small ones – you might see your efforts start to make a difference!

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Understanding credit card interest

We all know credit cards charge interest if you carry a balance, but how are interest charges actually calculated?

It can be enlightening to see how rates are applied, which might motivate you to pay off those cards as quickly as possible!

What is APR?
At the core of understanding how finance charges are calculated is the APR, short for Annual Percentage Rate. Most credit cards now use a variable rate, which means the interest rate can adjust with the prime rate, which is the lowest interest rate available (for any entity that is not a bank) to borrow money. Banks use the prime rate for their best customers to provide funds for mortgages, loans, and credit cards.[i] Credit card companies charge a higher rate than prime, but their rate often moves in tandem with the prime rate. As of the second quarter of 2018, the average credit card interest rate on existing accounts was 13.08%.[ii]

While the Annual Percentage Rate is a yearly rate, as its name suggests, the interest on credit card balances is calculated monthly based on an average daily balance. You may also have multiple APRs on the same account, with a separate APR for balance transfers, cash advances, and late balances.

Periodic Interest Rate
The APR is used to calculate the Periodic Interest Rate, which is a daily rate. 15% divided by 365 days in a year = 0.00041095 (the periodic rate), for example.

Average Daily Balance
If you use your credit card regularly, the balance will change with each purchase. If credit card companies charged interest based on the balance on a given date, it would be easy to minimize the interest charges by timing your payment. This isn’t the case, however – unless you pay in full – because the interest will be based on the average daily balance for the entire billing cycle.

Let’s look at some round numbers and a 30-day billing cycle as an example.
Day 1: Balance $1,000
Day 10: Purchase $500, Balance $1,500
Day 20: Purchase $200, Balance $1,700
Day 28: Payment $700, Balance $1,000

To calculate the average daily balance, you would need to determine how many days you had at each balance.
$1,000 x 9 days
$1,500 x 10 days
$1,700 x 8 days
$1,000 x 3 days

Some of the multiplied numbers below might look alarming, but after we divide by the number of days in the billing cycle (30), we’ll have the average daily balance.
($9,000 + $15,000 + $13,600 + $3,000)/30 = $1,353.33 (the average daily balance)

Here’s an eye-opener: If the $1,000 ending balance isn’t paid in full, interest is charged on the $1353.33, not $1,000.

We’ll also assume an interest rate of 15%, which gives a periodic (daily) rate of 0.00041095.
$1,353.33 x (0.00041095 x 30) = $16.68 finance charge

$16.68 may not sound like a lot of money, but this example is only about 1/12th of the average household credit card debt, which is $15,482 for households that carry balances.[iii] At 15% interest, average households with balances are paying $2,322 per year in interest.

That was a lot of math, but it’s important to know why you’re paying what you might be paying in interest charges. Hopefully this knowledge will help you minimize future interest buildup!

Did you know?
When you make a payment, the payment is applied to interest first, with any remainder applied to the balance. This is why it can take so long to pay down a credit card, particularly a high-interest credit card. In effect, you can end up paying for the same purchase several times over due to how little is applied to the balance if you are just making minimum payments.

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What to do first if you receive an inheritance

In many households, nearly every penny is already accounted for even before it’s earned.

The typical household budget that covers the cost of raising a family, making loan payments, and saving for retirement usually doesn’t leave much room for spending on daydream items. However, if you’re fortunate, you might be the recipient of some unexpected cash – your family might come into an inheritance, you could receive a bonus at work, or you might benefit from some other sort of windfall.

If you ever inherit a chunk of money or receive a large payout, it may be tempting to splurge on that red convertible you’ve been drooling over or book that dream trip to Hawaii. Unfortunately for many though, newly-found money has the potential to disappear with nothing to show for it, if there is no strategy in place ahead of time to handle it wisely.

If you do receive some sort of unexpected bonus – before you call your travel agent – take a deep breath and consider these situations first.

Taxes or Other Expenses
If a large sum of money comes your way unexpectedly, your knee-jerk reaction might be to pull out your bucket list and see what you’d like to check off first. But before you start making plans, the reality is you’ll need to put aside some money for taxes. You may want to check with an expert – an accountant or tax advisor may have some ideas on how to reduce your liability.

If you suddenly become the owner of a new house or car as part of an inheritance, one thing to consider is how much it might cost to hang on to it. If you want to keep that house or car (or any other asset that’s worth a lot of money), make sure you can cover maintenance, insurance, and any loan payments if that item isn’t paid off yet.

Pay Down Debt
If you have any debt, you’d have a hard time finding a better place to put your money once you’ve set aside some for taxes or other expenses that might be involved with an inheritance. It may be helpful to target debt in this order:

  1. Credit card debt: This is often the highest interest rate debt and usually doesn’t have any tax benefit. Pay your credit cards off first.
  2. Personal loans: Pay these next. You and your friend/family member will be glad you knocked these out!
  3. Auto loans: Interest rates on auto loans are lower than credit cards, but cars depreciate rapidly (very rapidly). Rule of thumb: If you can avoid it, you don’t want to pay interest on a rapidly depreciating asset. Pay off the car as quickly as possible.
  4. College loans: College loans often have tax-deductible interest, but there is no physical asset with intrinsic value attached to them. Pay these off as fast as possible.
  5. Home loans: Most home loan interest is also tax-deductible. But since your home value is likely appreciating over time, you may be better off putting your money elsewhere if necessary, rather than paying off your home loan early.

Fund Your Emergency Account
Before you buy that red convertible, make sure you’ve set aside some money for a rainy day. Saving at least 3-6 months of expenses is a good goal. This could be liquid funds – like a separate savings account.

Save for Retirement
Once the taxes are covered, you’ve paid down your debt, and funded your emergency account, now is the time to put some money away towards retirement. Work with your financial professional to help create the best strategy for you and your family.

Fund That College Fund
If you have kids and haven’t had a chance to put away all you’d like towards their education, setting aside some money for this comes next. Again, your financial professional can recommend the best strategy for this scenario.

Treat Yourself!
NOW you’re ready to go bury your toes in the sand and enjoy some new experiences! Maybe you and the family have always wanted to visit a themed resort park or vacation on a tropical island. If you’ve taken care of business responsibly with the items above and still have some cash left over – go ahead! Treat yourself!

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Debit or Credit? What's the difference?

For many people, when purchasing items with a debit card or credit card, the only difference for them may boil down to simply entering a PIN code or scribbling a signature.

But what really is the difference? The answer may be a little complicated, largely due to misnomers and a blending of terms used by the public. Read on to see what the difference actually is.

A clarification of terms
The words credit, debit, and cash seem to be used so loosely by the general public that many people seem confused by what the difference is between them. But in accounting and finance, they have very specific meanings. For our purposes, cash is money that you can spend immediately. It can be cold hard currency of course – bills and coins which you might have in your hand or in your wallet – or cash can refer to the balance in your checking account. This is money that you own, and you can withdraw all of it right now, electronically or physically.

Credit is basically someone’s willingness to accept an IOU from you. Here we will use it as a noun. Buying on credit means the seller trusts the buyer to hand over cash – money which is spendable right now – in the future. Debit, on the other hand, is a verb, and it means to deduct an amount from a cash balance immediately (often a bank account balance). Of course, credit can also be a verb (meaning to add to a cash balance immediately). This mixing of verbs and nouns can make the distinction of the terms in everyday use difficult.

  • Cash is money you can spend right now, electronically or physically.
  • Credit is an agreement to pay cash later.
  • Debit is a verb that means to subtract cash from a balance right away.

When money is due
The major difference between credit and debit cards is the time when cash must be paid. Credit cards, standing in for a promise to pay cash later, allow one to purchase things even if said person has no cash immediately available. For example, if you need to buy some clothes for a new job, you might only have enough cash on hand to purchase one outfit. You may not receive any more cash until you get your first paycheck in two weeks. But you probably wouldn’t want to wear the same outfit every day for two weeks. What can you do?

This is when credit comes in handy: you buy all the outfits you need now, while making a promise to pay the credit card company back in the future. You receive your outfits immediately even though you don’t technically have enough cash yet. You need to complete some work before you receive the money, but the credit card company accepts your IOU in place of cash for the time being.

On the other hand, if you use a debit card to pay for the clothes, the cash will be deducted immediately from your bank account. Remember, the balance of your bank account is cash in financial terms because it is spendable right now. When you enter your PIN code, the bank checks that you have enough money to make the purchase immediately and, if you do, the bank authorizes the transaction. If you need new shoes for your job but don’t have enough money in your bank account, you won’t be able to use a debit card.

Interest rates for using credit cards
Why would anyone ever want to use debit if they could use credit? One reason is budgeting and discipline. However, a stronger reason can be interest: promising to pay later may come at a price, and that price is called interest. Credit card companies do not make these short term loans out of the goodness of their hearts. They do it for profit. If you borrow money for a little while – i.e., you take money and promise to pay it back later – you will have to compensate the bank, seller, or credit card company for that ability. Thus we potentially pay interest with credit cards but not with debit cards.

Why don’t we pay interest on debit cards? Well, because the money is already yours, of course.

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When is it ok to use a credit card?

Some could say “never!” but there might be situations in which using a credit card may be the option you want to go with.

Many families use credit with good intentions – and then life happens – surprise expenses or a change in income leave them struggling to get ahead of growing debt. To be fair, there may be times to use credit and times to avoid using credit.

Purchasing big-ticket items
A big-screen TV or a laptop purchased with a credit card may have additional warranty protection through your credit card company. Features and promotions vary by card, however, so be sure to know the details before you buy. If your credit card offers reward points or airline miles, big-ticket items may be a faster way to earn points than making small purchases over time. Just be sure to have a plan to pay off the balance.

Travel and car rental
For many families, these two items go hand in hand. Credit cards sometimes offer additional insurance protection for your luggage or for the trip itself. Your credit card company may offer some additional protection for car rentals. You might score some extra airline miles or reward points in this category as well because the numbers can add up quickly.

Online shopping
Credit card and debit card numbers are being stolen all the time. Online merchants can have a breach and not even be aware that your credit card info is out in the wild. The advantage of using a credit card as opposed to a debit card is time. You’ll have more time to dispute charges that aren’t yours. If your debit card gets into the wrong hands, someone might be quickly spending your mortgage money, food and gas money, or college tuition for your kids. Credit cards may be a better choice to use online because the effects of fraud don’t have an immediate impact on your bank balance.

Legitimate emergencies
Life happens and sometimes we don’t have enough readily available cash to pay for emergencies. Life’s emergencies can range from broken appliances to broken cars to broken bones and in these cases, you may not have any other viable options for payment.

Using credit isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, if you plan carefully, you may reap several types of benefits from using credit cards and still avoid paying interest. You’ll have to pay off the balance right away to avoid finance charges, though. So, always think twice before you charge once.

Some credit cards offer consumer benefits, like extended warranties, extra insurance, or even rewards. There are some situations in which using a credit card may come in handy.

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