A woeful number of humans take a blithe step into the credit card swimming pool and emerge with hideous personal finance injuries, perhaps even mortally wounded by their own ignorance and a cabal of companies who play for keeps.
But a credit card doesn’t have to be that way.
Used with savvy and wisdom, that little piece of colorful plastic with its often usurious interest rates can actually save you money. That’s right. Plastic can actually be better than cash when you know what you’re doing.
Here are eight ways to get one over on your banker for a change.
Think About Transferring or Consolidation
If you have a fistful of card balances it might be a good idea to consolidate and transfer them over to a different card. One of the tactics credit card companies use to draw new customers is to offer zero percent interest on the new balance for a length of time, often six months or one year. This can be a great way to get out from under old high-rate balances and gain a breathing period of sorts. Focus like a demon on paying off that balance within the introductory period and will have done yourself a huge financial favor.
Before you make the switch, pay attention to the fine print. There is sometimes a transfer fee – three percent is a common rate – but you still might come out ahead. Also, be aware that the interest rate will go up after the initial period, but if you do the proper research, you could still come smelling like a freshly washed shirt.
Be Standoffish About Reward Cards
Reward cards can be a great way to save money but only if you pay off the balance each month. Fail to do that and risk falling victim to the higher interest rates charged to offset the reward payouts. Make no mistake, rewards are a real-world benefit of some cards, but do some soul-searching first. Can you trust yourself to absolutely, no doubt about it pay off the card every single month? To not do so is to turn a good idea into a bad one.
Limit Your Cards
There are several reasons that owning too many credit cards can get you into trouble. Perhaps the most obvious issue involves reward cards. When you use too many, it’s impossible to maximize the benefit of any single card. Additionally, there is the all-too-human tendency to charge up all the cards, while conveniently forgetting that the sum of all those low balances adds up to a single large balance. Use only one credit card or, if that’s impossible, use a savings app, like Mint, in order to keep all your bank accounts in one place. The simplicity makes it easier to keep track of what’s actually going on in your financial life. Ignorance leads to overspending.
Ask for a Lower Rate
Did you know that sometimes all it takes to get a lower rate is to ask for it? True story. Let’s say you’re considering transferring a balance to a card with a different company. From your old company’s perspective, they’d rather give you a lower rate and keep you as a customer than let you take your business elsewhere. Keep that in mind before you make the switch, and don’t be afraid to pick up that phone!
Study Your Card Before Traveling
Some credit cards offer waived baggage fees, free travel for adding a travel companion, no foreign transaction fees, and sometimes even complimentary trip insurance. Any or all of these perks singly or together can add up to a significant savings on those holiday or vacation trips. This is another good reason to study the fine print long and hard before selecting a credit card. All are NOT created equal.
The Benefit of Longevity
While we’ve mentioned the idea of switching credit cards a few times, there is one very good reason to hold onto a card that you’ve had forever. Charge a few items on it monthly but pay it off and keep the balance low. Having a long term but still active credit card will have a positive effect on your credit score, and a higher credit score means you’ll get better loan terms when you visit the bank for a house or car loan.
Zero Percent Rates Aren’t Just for Balance Transfers
Some cards offer a zero percent introductory rate to all new customers, not just those who transfer a balance. Opening one these cards can be a great idea if you have a big expense in your future like new furniture, a car, or medical procedure. With this strategy you can break up the purchase into monthly payments that equal the length of the initial period and essentially make the purchase on credit but with no interest paid.
Sneaky Savings on Car Rentals
Accepting a car rental company’s “generous” offer of insurance can add a few hundred dollars to the cost of renting a vehicle for a week. Many credit cards offer complimentary insurance if you pay for the rental with the card. Free car insurance is a good perk, right?
The Bottom Line
Think of a credit card like a tool. Used properly, it can provide financial benefits that cash could never match. Just keep in mind that, like a tool, it can create a mess when used for a job it was not intended. Like you don’t reach for a hammer when you need a screwdriver, don’t whip out that credit card unless it will help – and not destroy – your financial situation.
Anthony is a Financial Advisor from New York with a degree in Mathematics that loves sharing his opinions and vision to people who are interested in improving their financial status. He is also Content Editor and Founder of Smart Saving Advice, a site where you will find advice on saving money and apps that help you organize your finances.