Make Sure Your Credit Card Has Smart Features

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Credit cards can be a blessing or a curse. Used correctly, they are both convenient and safe and can help you stick to your budget. But the dark side of heedless use can lead to financial ruin. Rather than rejecting credit cards altogether, however, choose the right card for the right reasons.

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

Credit card companies know that people have an irrational loyalty to their first card. That’s why they market college students so heavily. You may feel attached to your current credit card, but believe me, the credit card company feels no such allegiance to you.

Because both spouses must live with the consequences, each should have the right to veto any use of credit. Using credit successfully should begin with your choice of card.

Your sole criterion for picking a credit card is to maximize the financial benefit to your family, assuming you use the credit card correctly. You will be paying off the entire balance every month, so certain features, such as the interest rate, are not a concern. Nor do we care about how the company can change the interest rate if you fail to pay.

But to be in this enviable situation, you need significant taxable savings and investments in order to weather a financial emergency. Lacking such discipline, you may want a different type of card.

Credit cards companies create a host of gimmicks to entice you. Usually these come-ons are themed around a hobby or an interest. I’m certain you are proud of your alma mater and rooting for your favorite sports team. The credit card companies are counting on it. You can even have a photo of your children or grandchildren on the front of the card and change it every six months. Don’t succumb.

Selecting the right card is worth about 2% of your credit card purchases. So if you spend $25,000 a year using the card, it means an extra $500 in your wallet. You can buy a lot of sports paraphernalia and photographs of your family for $500. Besides, the credit card companies don’t really care about your sports team. They sell a matching card for your arch rivals too!

So forget about how the card looks and focus on the rewards program. Airline miles are the oldest and most common. Unfortunately, they are some of the worst reward programs. Over 75% of airline miles expire unused.

Card companies have also learned to provide themes for the rewards. Although it makes great marketing sense for companies to appeal to an affinity group using an exclusive offer, don’t fall for such an appeal. Which would you rather have, reward points that can be spent anywhere or rewards that can only apply to one specific interest?

They may have some appealing offer, but you will be able to get it on eBay for a fraction of what you will miss by not using another card. Cash awards can be used to buy anything.

Get the cash. You could be earning game time with the World of Warcraft Visa. Or a donation could be allocated to the Make-A-Wish-Foundation for each of your purchases. But these may not be the greatest decisions after a year. With cash, you are in control. Get the money, and then decide if you want to buy the game time or make a contribution and take the tax deduction.

Most cards have a rewards program worth between one and three pennies per dollar spent. Oddly enough, themed rewards tend to be toward the low end and cash rewards are apt to be higher. Even the popular cards that fund 529 plans don’t pay as much as a cash rebate. So get the cash rebate and then fund a 529 plan yourself, which can also net you a state tax deduction.

I’ve been using the Platinum Discover card, one of the first cards that offered a cash-back bonus. It used to be 2%. Now it is 1% with a 5% cash-back bonus on certain items you sign up for every three months. Even then it has maximum amounts.

During the process of researching this article, I’ve learned about several flat 2% unlimited cash-back options, one with Schwab Bank. Because we use Schwab as a custodian for our assets, it makes everything easy. The cash rebate is deposited directly into our investment account. That makes it 2% additional savings instead of 2% additional spending.

Usually I don’t mention specific products, but my experience should help illustrate two principles. First, the best choice changes regularly. And second, you should be looking for at least 2% cash back on your purchases. Some savvy consumers literally use a deck of credit cards to take advantage of special offers. One card gets 5% back at Wal-Mart. Another gets 5% back on gasoline purchases. I’m interested in simplicity. Let me know if you find a deal better than an unlimited 2% back on all purchases.

Needless to say, your credit cards should have no annual fee. And the company should allow you at least 20 days to pay your bill before interest accrues. You should never be paying interest.

Another very helpful feature is the ability to download your purchase information electronically. Importing this data into your budget can save you time. Electronic interfaces exist for QuickBooks, mint.com or a simple spreadsheet format. Most people find keeping track of a budget too much hassle, but the right credit card can simplify the process.

Probably one of the greatest time-saving devices is being able to put all your purchases on a credit card, receive 2% cash back and then roll all those purchases into your budget once a month. With QuickBooks, so long as you have purchased from the vendor before, the software remembers how you coded past purchases and automatically assigns a category.

Some credit cards offer to extend the warranty for items you have bought using it. This may be called a warranty manager feature. Usually it doubles the free repair period for up to one year for eligible purchases. I never recommend an extended warranty, but getting a free year for no extra charge can be very worthwhile.

Finally, many credit cards are offering a feature called ShopSafe that allows you to shop online and generate a onetime-use credit card number for Internet purchases. If you worry about your credit card number being compromised on the Internet, this service will give you some additional peace of mind.

Starting with the right credit card for the right reasons will make using it properly that much easier.

Photo by Nick Pampoukidis 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...)