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How to be smart with your credit cards
Although some experts say that credit card debt is a financial four-letter word and should be avoided at all costs, others agree that the availability of credit can be a great compliment to a strategic financial strategy. Used responsibility and within the guidelines of your budget, credit cards can help you more effectively manage you purchases and your cash flow at the same time.
Among those who utilize credit cards and still manage to stay out of debt, there is a common thread of behaviors and attitudes that seem to fuel their money management success. If you’re interested in cultivating a healthier relationship with your Visa or Mastercard, consider these tried and true practices of smart spenders:
Use fewer credit cards
How many of us have more than one credit card? The vast majority of people would confess to having two, three, or four, and all would have an outstanding balance. The smarter approach is to use one or maybe two cards, and avoid spreading your spending across multiple accounts. It’s difficult to track, and while each card individually appears as if the balance is manageable, their combined total quietly inches toward budget breaking.
Pay the balances in full
Smart spenders recognize the hidden cost of credit card debt. If you’re monitoring your spending and keeping it in line with your monthly budget, you should be able to pay the outstanding balance in full every month. If not, your interest begins to compound, and your debt starts to grow exponentially. Your revolving debt also negatively impacts your credit score.
Pay your bill on time
When your payment is late, you’re charged interest and also a pretty hefty late fee. Smart spenders know the importance of on-time payments and how it can be accomplished through organization. While you may not be mailing a payment, you’ll still need to allow time for online payments to be processed so don’t wait until the last minute. On-time payments also contribute to a higher credit score.
Smart spenders understand that some expenses require more of your monthly budget, so you’ll need to plan for in advance; car repairs, home maintenance, property taxes, even holiday gifts, for example. Their budget includes saving for both expected and unexpected financial events, so they’ll have the funds, regardless of the increased financial obligations for a particular month.
Use credit card rewards to your advantage
Today, credit cards offer a host of promotions in order to gain your business. Whether it’s miles, points, rebates, or cash back, there are many to choose among. Smart spenders use the credit card that offers the most valuable reward and one that they can use to their advantage.
Credit cards can help build your credit worthiness as easily as they can destroy it. Use these tips to keep your budget in line and your debt under control while you create a stellar credit history.
15 ideas for how to get out of credit card debt
When it comes to money, there are few things more gut-wrenching than seeing those credit card statements pile up in your inbox every month. You hesitate to open them because you already know that they’ll be worse than last month. High interest, late fees, impulse purchases…it’s out of control and you need a game plan.
According to Investmentzen.com, the average American household has $16,748 in debt. And with an average interest rate of more than 15%, that’s no small chunk of change. Compounded with the worry and stress of managing that burden, the number of consumers looking for realistic ways to pay down their debt grows every day.
We came up with 15 easy but effective ways to help you dig yourself out of debt as quickly as possible:
- Create a spreadsheet. Be sure that it details all of your debt so you can see the full picture. You’ll know where you started, be able to track your progress, and know when to celebrate the milestones.
- Toss offers for new credit accounts. The more credit you have available, the greater the opportunity you have to build up a balance. It’s too much of a temptation!
- Stop making purchases with credit. Pay cash whenever possible. It will take some sacrifice at times, but you’ll be sure to spend less and only buy what you need.
- Negotiate a lower interest rate. If you’ve been a long-time customer with an on-time payment history and a worthy credit rating, your current creditors may be willing to lower your rate to keep your business.
- Track your spending. Some consumers honestly don’t know where their money goes. Write down every dime you spend for one month, and you’ll soon find out where your money goes when it disappears.
- Create a realistic budget. Start with the necessities. It’ll help you identify those areas where you can lower your expenses—like cable subscriptions, gym memberships or cleaning services—so you can redirect it to paying down your debt.
- Find ways to earn extra cash. Would a part-time job fit into your schedule? How about consigning some clothes on Poshmark.com or Swap.com? Ever wanted to be a mystery shopper? House sit, babysit?
- Curb your social media interaction. Keeping up with the Joneses takes a lot of hard work. New clothes, new golf clubs, a fancy family vacation…they all cost money. Don’t let them tempt you.
- Start cooking at home. It’s a lot easier–and tastier–to eat out, but it also costs more. It’s time to channel your inner Rachael Ray and get cookin’. That includes lunch, too.
- Send extra cash to your highest-interest credit card. Just don’t forget about making the minimum payments on your other credit cards to keep them current.
- Consider a balance transfer. If your credit card has a high interest rate, you may be able to find one with a 0% promo rate. Be careful though– read all the fine print about transfer fees and interest rates after the promotional rate expires.
- Consolidate your debt. A debt consolidation loan from a bank or a credit union may help you pay off your credit cards all at once. Then focus on making one large monthly payment to repay the debt consolidation loan.
- Track your progress. It’s hard not to obsess over your progress. Set reminders every few months to measure your success and find a fun, inexpensive way to celebrate!
- Keep your goals front and center. Will paying down your debt help you buy a home? Finally get a good night’s sleep? Pay for your daughter’s wedding? Whatever it is, it’ll keep you motivated when you slip up, or things aren’t moving as quickly as you’d like.
- Talk to a credit counselor. If your debt is too overwhelming, there are highly reputable, non-profit consumer credit counseling organizations that are experts in this area. Their services are free of charge. They’ll help you create a budget, review suitable options for dealing with your debt and design an action plan specifically for your situation.
Once you’ve reached your goal, it’s important to guard against the bad habits that helped you get here in the first place. Following a budget and using credit responsibly will help you maintain healthy financial habits. With that comes less stress and greater peace of mind, and who doesn’t want that?
5 Tips for Making the Most of Your Rewards Credit Card
One of the best things about choosing to use a rewards credit card for your day-to-day spending is the points, miles or cash back you can earn every time you swipe. But it can be tricky. To make sure you’re getting the most out of your card, take a look at the tips below.
Pick a card that offers rewards you’ll actually use
It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement around a new card that’s just hit the market. But before you apply, consider whether the card comes with a rewards program that actually fits your lifestyle. Otherwise, you might get stuck with a bunch of points or miles that you’ll never redeem — something that happens to 1 in 5 consumers, according to NerdWallet’s research on reward cards.
Doing some digging upfront to find a card that will be valuable to you is the key to ensuring you’ll get the most out of your plastic.
Know your card’s rewards earning structure
By investing a little time in reading your card’s terms and conditions, you might find there are ways to score extra points on certain kinds of spending.
For example, it’s common for travel credit cards to award extra points or miles for every dollar spent on dining out. Consequently, using your travel card when you take your family out to dinner or pick up your morning coffee is a smart idea, because it will help you get to your next vacation faster. Knowledge is power, so get familiar with the ins and outs of how to maximize earning your rewards.
Budget carefully every month
If you’re carrying a balance on your card and justifying it with all the rewards you’re earning, here’s a wake-up call: You’re paying out much more than you’re bringing in. Most credit cards return only about 1% of your spending in rewards, and charge double-digit interest rates on unpaid balances.
To make the math work in your favor, stick to a budget so you don’t put more on your card than you can pay off each month.
Keep your account in good standing
One of the biggest mistakes you can make with a credit card is to fall behind on payments. Miss one and your account will no longer be in good standing and your ability to earn rewards could be jeopardized. Also, your credit score will suffer.
The solution? Pay your credit card bill on time each month, preferably in full but at least the minimum due. Online bill pay can make that process fast and easy.
Be smart about redeeming your rewards
Many rewards cards have multiple options when it comes time to redeem points or miles. For example, in some cases you’ll be able to choose between travel credits or merchandise.
However, it’s common for points or miles to vary substantially in value depending on how you cash them in. Before you go through with a rewards redemption, do the math to figure out which choice will give you the most bang per point. After all, there’s no sense in using your rewards on a vacuum when they would go further if redeemed for airfare.
Following these tips can help sweeten the treats a rewards card can provide while you navigate the tricky ins and outs of how it all works.
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Are points really worth it?
Are rewards programs worth the hassle- or the cost? That depends on you, and the types of rewards you’re working towards. For instance, airline miles are notoriously difficult to redeem…blackout dates, limited seats, and inconvenient flight times are just a few of the challenges. In comparison, hotel and merchandise points are relatively easy to earn and redeem, as are cash back rebates.
The offers can be so tempting
You’re spending money, so why not get something in return? It’s a great option for consumers who love to travel, can be flexible and are organized enough to keep track of the offers and deadlines. Even better are the points that can be redeemed for cash. It sounds too good to be true, but is the opportunity for rewards worth some of the trade-offs? Should you even consider a higher interest rate or an annual fee in exchange for a seemingly lucrative points program?
The answer is in the details
The key is having a clear and detailed understanding of the rewards program. Many programs set minimum spending requirement each month before points can be earned while others have minimum redemption requirements. Miles might only be redeemed on one named airline. Big cash back advertisements may be for a limited time or restricted to specific shopping categories. Each program is different and unique so heed the small print.
There’s also the credit card terms to consider. If you’re not able to pay off your credit card balance each month, the cash back bonus won’t make a dent in the interest you’re accruing, and some credit card companies charge a hefty annual fee.
Maximizing your benefit
To get the most benefit from a rewards program, you should plan to use your credit card frequently. You should also have your debt management well under control and be able to avoid accumulating any revolving debt as a result.
Ask any group of people why they chose a given credit card, and a vast majority will say it’s the rewards that reeled them in. For some consumers, they work. For others, they sound too good not to work. Understanding the details and knowing your own spending habits are what will help you choose the card that best suits your needs.
Five things you’ve got to do if you have a credit card
Establishing and managing good credit is an important responsibility in today’s world. Especially since your credit rating—that 3-digit number that defines your credit worthiness- depends on it. There are several factors that impact your credit rating, one of which is your credit card activity. We’ve come up with five best practices when tempted by the love of plastic money:
1. Watch your credit limit
Did you know that credit card companies start to monitor any account with a balance that’s more than 40% of the credit limit? Experts recommend keeping credit card utilization below 30 percent on each card and collectively. This shows lenders that you know how to spend responsibly and this can help raise your credit score. Anything more than that and it could indicate that you’re struggling financially and lenders might worry that you’ll have trouble paying it back.
2. Make your payments on time
If you’re late just one time, call the customer service representative and kindly ask if they’ll waive the late fee. If you’ve historically paid on time, they may do it as a courtesy. If you’re habitually late, it will cost you. Making your monthly payment on time impacts your credit rating, your interest rate, any promotions the company offers, and more.
We all slip up now and again, though. If you miss a payment, make it as quickly as possible because the amount of time really does matter. Paying five days late is better than paying 30 days late so act quickly—and then maybe think about signing up for auto pay.
3. Pay off your monthly balances in full
Paying off your monthly balance in full each month builds a practice of excellent credit habits. It will help to avoid late payments, unnecessary finance charges, and the accumulation of unnecessary debt. It will also benefit your credit score and keep your credit utilization ratio in check, which is an important factor in the calculation of your credit rating.
4. Open your statements!
Even if you pay your bills online, it’s important to view the activity on your monthly statements. Is there a random charge you didn’t authorize? Maybe a monthly subscription that you didn’t realize you agreed to? Has your payment due date changed? Is a promotional date ending or has there been a change in your interest rate or fees? Your statement includes lots of valuable information, much of which impacts your finances, so take a few minutes and read it carefully. We’re hoping not, but you may be surprised at what you find.
5. Store the customer service number, just in case
If your card is ever missing or stolen, the first thing you’ll need to do is report it to the credit card company so a hold can be put on the account. Without the physical card, however, you won’t have the customer service number. Write down the credit card name and customer service phone number now and keep it handy. If you choose to copy the credit card number, plan to put it in a safe place where it’s not easily accessible to just anyone.
Why get your credit card from a credit union?
In today’s market, there’s no shortage of credit card options, so it can be difficult to decide which one is the smartest choice. It’s always wise to shop around for the best deal, which, more often than not, is your local credit union.
Same function, better features
Why should you consider a credit card from a credit union over a big bank issued credit card? Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Better rates. Credit union credit cards carry an average annual percentage rate that can be several percentage points below those offered at big banks. In fact, federal law prohibits federal credit unions from charging interest rates higher than 18%. Big banks have no restrictions on the amount of interest they can charge their credit customers.
Lower fees and penalties. In addition to lower APRs, many credit unions waive balance transfer fees, and levy significantly lower over-limit, cash advance, and late payment fees. With all of your options, be sure you’re aware of the fees before you sign on the dotted line. One misstep could be especially costly.
Generous grace period. Credit unions typically extend a five-day grace period for late payments in comparison with one day at big banks, and most will give you a second chance before raising your interest rate. Over time, an increased interest rate adjustment can amount to a substantial penalty if you carry a balance each month.
Rewards programs. The same incentives provided by big bank credit cards are also offered through credit union credit cards. If points, travel, or gift cards are what makes you happy, you won’t have to sacrifice your favorite perks. Most of those bonuses come from the payment processor, like Visa or MasterCard, not from the card issuer, so rest assured your refund protection and car rental insurance can very possibly remain intact.
A strong competitive edge
Credit unions are able to offer more customer-friendly options and conveniences because they are owned by their members. They are not-for-profit organizations and, therefore, don’t need to maximize their revenue. In fact, profit on credit cards is used to provide lower mortgage rates and higher savings account rates to its members. In today’s cost-conscious market, their consumer-focused service and competitive products have earned them a substantial edge over the traditional big banks where profit is a top priority.