I'm sure you've heard about some of the benefits offered by credit card companies via commercials, junk mail, etc. However you may not realize the full extent of the available benefits and the protection that credit cards can offer. Benefits can be earned on money spent on everyday purchases, and in many cases these benefits are considered non-taxable discounts by the IRS. In addition, the use of credit cards can reduce your personal asset exposure. There are some precautions to take before making the change to using credit cards, but if done properly there are great benefits to be gained.
- Assess your spending - It is extremely important to assess one’s level of discipline in spending before pursuing increased credit card use. Be honest with yourself about your spending habits because only you know how you (and your spouse) approach spending. If there is any doubt, don’t risk getting into credit card debt and instead stay with what works for you now. If misused, the benefits that come from credit card use will be quickly erased by paying credit card interest and fees, so make sure that you always have sufficient funds available to pay your off credit cards accounts in full each month. If you determine that you are sufficiently disciplined and financially sound, then there are a few items to consider in choosing your card and benefit/reward program (see the next bullet).
- Choose your benefits - Before choosing a credit card, check to see where the most benefit will be for you. Points towards travel related costs offer the greatest benefit for many. If you go on vacation every year and stay at the same place, or enjoy staying with certain hotel brands, then choose a card that offers reward points toward your particular hotel taste. If you fly home for the holidays, are planning a trip in the future with substantial airline costs, or you like to travel but are impartial to specific hotels, then consider looking into a card that offers rewards towards flights. For some, a rewards program that pays cash is the best option.
- Consider the fees - It is important to assess the fees that are associated each card option. There are a number of cards that offer significant benefits with very low fees. If you choose a card offering 1 point for every dollar spent and your weekly budget for groceries is $200, then you can expect to earn about 10,400 points ($200 x 52 weeks) per year just on groceries. This might not sound like much, but when you actually make a list of all expenses that can be paid by credit card it adds up quickly. Other significant expenses that usually accept credit cards are gas, restaurants, vacation costs not covered by points, cell phones, utilities, home furnishings, etc. Take into account how many points you feel you will generate in one year, see what value those points would get you, then compare that value to the card's annual fee. In many cases, a couple years of stock-piling points can earn you an entire vacation trip of lodging for a fraction of the actual cost.
- Monitor - Keep in mind that over time companies may change reward policies - such as increasing the number of points or miles needed for certain services. Make sure you stay informed and monitor your reward status as you plan how to use the benefits you have earned. Remember that it doesn’t take more spending to gain the benefit - just a good financial grip on what you already spend and good judgment in assessing the overall benefit.
One additional benefit to using credit cards is that it reduces the risk that your personal bank account will be compromised in everyday spending. When you use a check card or some form of payment that drafts directly from your account, then your personal monetary assets are directly at risk in each transaction. If you use a credit card and do not setup the auto draft feature, then you can confirm each transaction at month end before paying the bill. Usually, the credit card company's money is tied up during the administrative process if there is a fraudulent activity, as opposed to yours.
The use of credit cards is certainly not for everyone. With prudent use and sound management, however, there are many great benefits to be gained.