Seven Rules to Using a Credit Card Safely

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Credit card companies encourage revolvers (people who don’t pay off their credit card every month) and discourage transactors (people who pay off their credit card every month). Most Americans are revolvers.

The average American has 3.84 credit cards , and the average credit card balance was $5,910 .

Most Americans would be much richer if they avoided credit cards or had their ability to use credit revoked. They are like drunk drivers on a windy mountain road at night.

If you are a revolver, we strongly recommend that you get out of credit card debt and then stay away from credit cards while you learn to transact safely.

These are the seven rules to using a credit card safely.

1. Pay off your credit card in full each month.

Putting all your expenses on credit cards can be valuable. You can build credit while also saving 2-5% each month through cash rewards. If you slip once though, it can impair your credit score and erase your savings. Failing to pay off your credit card results in interest accruing from the date of purchase. If you don’t pay your balance in full every month, you can use our online tool to calculate the incredibly high cost of credit card interest.

To ensure that your payment arrives in a timely way, skip the mail and pay your credit card statement online. I set up my local checking account to automatically pay the entire balance of every card I use.

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. Then, ask for the interest and late charges to be waived. They normally agree once in a 12-month period.

2. Use your credit card company to resolve charge disputes.

Call your credit card company for help if you have been wronged by a business regarding a charge on your credit card. You can also refuse to pay for any charge on your card during a dispute. 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.

I’ve only taken the time to fight regarding a few charges on my credit card. 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.

3. Turn off marketing every 3 years.

Getting the right credit card for the right reasons is half the battle. Using credit cards correctly is the other half. Ads from credit card companies don’t build real wealth, which is why they have to advertise them.

As soon as you receive your credit card, dial the 24-hour customer service number listed on the back of the card. Tell the representative you want the maximum amount of privacy on your account. Tell them you want no phone calls or offers, and most importantly make clear you do not want any access checks. When you think you have listed every marketing possibility, be sure to ask, “Is there anything else I can turn off?”

We wrote “Every Three Years, Say No to Advertisers” to show the list of what questions you should ask. Credit card companies are allowed to turn marketing back on every three years, which means you must go back through these steps again. I make it a practice to re-ask them to turn off marketing every chance I get, even if I have called them for some other reason. Many representatives will simply see if marketing is turned off, but that is insufficient. You must ask them to input today’s date as the last time marketing was turned off.

4. Get notified when you use your card.

I set an alert to automatically notify me if I make a purchase over $1. This is the best fraud alert that I have found. Any time my credit card is used, I will receive a notification telling me that I (or someone else) made a purchase. This is quick enough that I have not forgotten about my purchase but delayed enough to remind me what my purchase costs.

I receive my bill via postal mail in order to have a written record of my purchases and also in order to remind me that money will be flowing out of my checking account. This step is admittedly optional since I have also set my entire credit card bill to automatically pay from my checking account each month but I like the paper reminder.

5. Enter all your credit card information into a secure password vault.

One of the downsides to maximizing cash back is that you will have a large number of credit cards. If you aren’t willing to protect your financial information, you probably shouldn’t have any credit cards. But make sure to have easy access to your credit card information in case your credit cards are stolen.

Whenever you receive a new credit card and set up a login, enter all of the credit card’s information into a secure password vault, including your user id, password, name of credit card, credit card number, expiration date, security code, and 24-hour customer service phone number.

However, which password vault you choose matters. After the recent breach into cloud-based password vault LastPass, we determined that password vaults that rely on local storage on your own computer will likely keep your information the safest. Stay away from cloud-based vaults as they are vulnerable to hackers. Password managers may provide a choice of both, so always go with the local storage option and back it up periodically alongside your own computer back-ups.

I like KeePass, but other local storage password vaults are also viable options.

6. Use a credit freeze.

My wife and I have had our credit frozen for many years. Anytime we apply for credit, we temporarily lift the credit freeze, usually for a week or two so lenders have time to see our credit report and score. Keeping your credit frozen is one of the best ways to protect your identity. If you have not implemented a credit freeze, do so after applying for credit.

7. Get a credit card in your name only.

I recommend getting a credit card in only your name; do not put your spouse on your card.

Having separate credit cards has several advantages. First, you will both be eligible to receive any Welcome Bonus. Second, this avoids not knowing who has made a specific purchase. Third, divorce happens. If you are separating, you don’t want your spouse making charges on your card and potentially affecting your credit score. You also don’t want to mess up your credit card history by removing yourself from your only source of credit or trying to make a charge to a card from which you have been removed.

If you and your spouse already have a joint card, the second signer can simply apply for the same type of credit card on their own. You don’t need to remove them from the original card. Instead, keep that card the same and also have a card where they are the only signer. This let’s them keep the credit history you’ve built together, while also granting them all the new welcome bonuses and email-alert-based fraud protection of a new card.

While you can never grow rich by spending money, credit cards can decrease your spending by 2-5%. It isn’t a replacement for working hard or being disciplined, thrifty, grateful, or generous. At best, credit cards can enhance your other financial efforts.

Photo by RDNE Stock project on Pexels. Image has been cropped.

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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.