Using a Credit Card Properly

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Getting the right credit card for the right reasons is half the battle. Using it correctly is the other half.

When the perfect card arrives in the mail, sign it, activate it and pull the sticker off the front. But before you put it in your wallet and start using it, deny the credit card company the permission to market to you.

Dial the 24-hour customer service number on the back of the card. Tell the representative you want the maximum amount of privacy on your account. The credit cards companies have multiple lists in their system. You may find it challenging to turn off each possible marketing opportunity.

Specify that you want no phone calls, statement inserts or junk mail. That means no phone calls from third parties, no selling your information, no sweepstakes offers and no offers of credit protection.

Most importantly, make clear you do not want any access checks. These checks look innocent, but micro print on the back explains that by cashing the check you are accepting the company’s offer to bill subscription charges directly to your credit card.

When you think you have listed every marketing possibility, be sure to ask, “Is there anything else I can turn off?”

None of these offers help you build real wealth, which is why they have to advertise them. You won’t miss anything. We’ve all made the mistake of wasting too much time on a deceptively easy offer that subsequently was very difficult to rescind. Your time is worth more than sifting through the ashes of advertising looking for valuables. Do yourself a favor and repeat the process just described for all of your other credit cards too.

If you have already taken my advice, put all your purchases on your ideal card. If you spend $50,000 and earn 2%, you will receive an extra $1,000 to save and invest. It’s worthwhile using a card that pays you.

Debit cards can be dangerous. Every time you use one, you reveal how to access your entire bank account and drain it dry. Hackers are targeting merchants who have debit card personal identification numbers (PINs) as the weak link in their security system. Your bank’s computer system may be secure, but the computer in the gas kiosk where you just paid is not. Even using your debit card like a credit card leaves your entire account exposed.

The most you can lose with a credit card is $50, which you can simply contest and refuse to pay. The most you can lose with a debit card is $500 if you wait more than two days to report the fraud. Your liability is unlimited if you wait more than 60 days. And while you are waiting for the money to be replaced, supporting your lifestyle is up to you.

Additionally, debit transactions are routinely approved even if you have insufficient funds. The bank processes the $5 charge and tacks on a $35 overdraft fee. It would take $1,750 in spending on your dream credit card earning 2% cash back to pay for one overdraft fee.

Pay the bill as soon as it arrives in the mail. Don’t wait until the last minute. You never want to risk paying interest or late charges. Paying electronically via electronic transfer, Bill Pay or by using your debit card is the quickest and easiest method. Because these are bank-to-bank electronic connections, this payment method is secure. You will save both time and money.

If for some reason you are late paying the bill, pay it as soon as you can, and then call customer service. Explain the reason for the late payment, and ask for the interest and late charges to be waived. If you have been a good customer, they may agree but usually only once in a 12-month period.

If paying either interest or late payments becomes a pattern, put the credit cards in a drawer and opt for a debit or cash system. Both people in a marriage should agree on the use of credit, with either partner having veto power about using credit.

Watch out for a few other special situations. Some merchants require a minimum purchase to use your credit card, which violates Visa and MasterCard agreements.

Vendors are also prohibited from adding on a credit card surcharge, but they can offer a cash discount. Although this may seem like not much of a distinction, it means that if merchants have an advertised price, they are not allowed to charge over that price just because you are using a credit card.

If you believe a specific merchant has violated these rules, call either 1-800-VISA-911 or 1-800-MASTERCARD. Merchants need to keep the credit card companies satisfied, which is leverage you can use in a dispute. Having charged a purchase on your credit card can help if you believe a specific merchant has treated you unfairly.

Try to resolve the dispute directly with the merchant if you can. Most merchants are reasonable, but if they are obstinate, the question isn’t “Can they do that?” The only question is “Will you let them get away with it?”

Every one of us has felt cheated by being promised more than we actually received. But you may not realize that leverage and the law are on your side if you are willing to take the time to dispute the charge. Wrongdoing thrives when good people do nothing. You can do something.

You can refuse to pay for any charge on your card during a dispute. I’ve only taken the time to fight regarding a few charges on my credit card. It requires lawyer-like patience and an eye for details. Documentation, especially of the portion in dispute, is critical. So is following the rules, which includes putting everything in writing as well as keeping copies for your own records.

Remember that your credit card’s financial institution wants to keep you as a customer. Issuing a charge back is easy for them to do pending the resolution of a conflict.

The merchant’s bank similarly wants to keep the merchant as a customer, but only if their business practices don’t generate time-consuming disputes. They only make money from a seamless volume of transactions.

The final step in using your credit card properly is to record your spending information. Part of wealth management is spending money deliberately. You need a way to keep track of your expenditures.

For couples in financial trouble, establishing and following a budget eliminates fights about the first dollar spent. It frees them to focus on those categories where they went over budget.

Capturing how you spend doesn’t even have to take the form of a budget. It can just be a tool to see what you have done, decide together what you would like to do and adjust how you will spend your money going forward. Think of a spending plan as simply the process of adjusting how you spend to best reflect what you value. Nothing is better for a relationship than talking together about what you hold dear and your hopes and dreams for the future.

Simplify whatever method you use by capturing your spending electronically. For every vendor on our credit card statement, we download our information into QuickBooks. But other interfaces such as mint.com or an Excel spreadsheet can work just as well.

Credit cards can provide convenience, protection and a little extra savings. But you must pay promptly and take the time to negotiate a fair resolution if your payment is not received or you don’t get what you’ve paid for.

Photo by Ryan Born on Unsplash

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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. Favorite number: e (2.7182818...)