Credit Card Karate: The Moves to Block Spending

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The availability of easy credit does not encourage financial virtue. Five minutes of credit card indiscretion literally can undo a life of financial responsibility, just like flirting at a bar with an available stranger can threaten marital fidelity.

You are trying to stick to your budget and live well within your means. You want to be a supersaver, someone who amasses real wealth by living simply and investing the remainder. To achieve these goals, you have to set rules in advance for how you will handle credit. If you don’t, credit cards could undo all your hard work and planning.

A life of credit card debt is like the worst slavery imaginable. Failing to pay just a few hundred dollars a month will cause your debt to spiral out of control. At the end of just three years you could owe about $9,600, the average family’s credit card debt.

Credit cards rates of 18% or even more are typical when you fail to pay. It used to be called usury and was illegal. But nowadays it is described as financial services and has become a highly respectable career.

If you don’t stop buying that $200 worth of junk on credit, your debt will only worsen. After 24 years, you could be over a million dollars in debt for just $58,000 worth of merchandise. But if you switch that engine from reverse to forward, you could retire as a millionaire simply by saving and investing what you aren’t paying on your credit card.

Consider the two sides to using credit. On the one hand, credit cards provide you with convenience, protection and help you maintain your budget. On the other hand, they can be a seductive siren’s song leading you to financial ruin.

A few visualization techniques can help you avoid the wanton use of credit cards. Studies show that when people pay with a credit card, they are willing to spend twice as much money as when they use cash. Other research indicates that the biggest savings are enjoyed when people refuse to make small everyday unnecessary purchases. Put these two studies together, and by simply using a credit card you risk doubling your spending and cutting your savings in half. Thus credit card debt can sink families even faster than saving and investing can help them grow rich.

In the first visualization, imagine that everything you buy with a credit card costs twice as much as the number on the price tag. Only if an item costs twice as much will you be as hesitant to purchase it as if you had to pay cash.

To use the second technique, remove the decimal place on the price when you use your credit card. The younger you are, the more failing to save early will cost you when you retire. For example, at age 20, the $8.50 lunch you charge will cost you $850 in your retirement at age 63. If that isn’t incentive enough, add another zero. It will cost you $8,500 in your retirement by age 85.

The years after college and before children are a great time in your life to save. You may not have another time to save aggressively until the kids graduate from college. You lose time and squander your resources if your credit card spending dampens aggressive savings. Every seven years you wait to fund your Roth IRA, you cut your retirement standard of living in half.

There’s a greater advantage to contributing $2,000 annually for the seven years after college then beginning during the eighth year and continuing for the rest of your life. With normal market returns, after seven years of $2,000 annual contributions, your investments will be appreciating at a rate of more than $2,000 a year, without any additional contributions.

Reining in your spending anytime is better than concluding that credit card debt is inevitable. Wait seven years from now and you cut your retirement lifestyle in half again. So visualize cutting your retirement in half or your credit card.

If you don’t think you have any problems with your use of credit cards, but you haven’t been saving and fully funding your 401(k) and Roth IRA, you do have a problem. If so, put the credit card back in your wallet and start saving.

Using a credit card properly is important. Not abusing a credit card is essential. Unless both partners in a marriage agree on how they handle credit, the cards aren’t worth the plastic they are printed on. Either spouse should have veto power regarding the use of credit.

Each partner needs this respect because both parties can be liable for the underlying debt. So if you are part of a couple who are always paying fees or interest, you are better off running your budget with cash and envelopes.

There is no shame in alcoholism, only in being a drunk. Similarly, there is no shame in having credit troubles, only in continuing to be spendthrift. Financial troubles sink a great number of marriages, nearly all of them because they fail to admit that for them an open credit line is an empty credit line. Alcoholics struggle similarly with an open bottle.

Thus the only shame around credit problems is an unwillingness to accept help. Many people use credit cards intelligently for nondiscretionary purchases such as bills, utilities, groceries and gasoline. But smaller impulse items, such as eating out or spending on books, music, electronics or clothes, can quickly wreak havoc on their spending plans.

If one type of purchase causes you trouble, stop using credit cards in that area. If one person has difficulty, the other should be willing to bear the burden of paying the bills. Cash accounting means you can’t spend too much. It is the perfect exercise of sobriety for your spending habits.

One of my favorite movies is “The Karate Kid” starring Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi. Miyagi trains his young apprentice Daniel by having him wax his cars, sand his floors and paint a fence. Only after several days of backbreaking work does Daniel realize that his body has learned the defensive moves of karate through the muscle memory of “Wax on, wax off.”

You can’t learn the critical lessons of finance with the electric waxing machine of plastic credit. By refusing to use credit, you have the visual feedback of money going from your paycheck to a budget envelope and then leaving your wallet in exchange for something you really need.

Most people don’t learn these lessons from their parents. And even if your elders handled money well, you still have to learn the lessons for yourself. Having a parent who excels in karate doesn’t mean you can crane kick.

So if your spouse vetoes the use of credit, you can either get mad like Daniel did at Mr. Miyagi or you can get busy learning financial karate.

Photo by SOON SANTOS on Unsplash

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President, CFP®, AIF®, AAMS®

David John Marotta is the Founder and President of Marotta Wealth Management. He played for the State Department chess team at age 11, graduated from Stanford, taught Computer and Information Science, and still loves math and strategy games. In addition to his financial writing, David is a co-author of The Haunting of Bob Cratchit.