Tuesday, August 26, 2008

It's not the credit cards, It's the consumers!

I recently saw a clip on Good Morning America (link to clip) about a family who they challenged to go without credit cards for one month. This family came back raving about how much money they had saved by not having credit cards. I think this is completely ludicrous!

In my opinion, these sort of stories (and there are plenty of them) completely miss the boat. What these stories glaze over is that it is not the credit cards, but rather the consumer behavior attached to those credit cards that gets people in trouble. I would bet money on the fact that I can save more by using credit cards than by using cash. Here's why:

1. With credit cards, you know where your money goes
It is astounding to me that this doesn't get mentioned more often. With credit cards, you have a monthly statement, and you can even get a yearly statement online. You can import your purchases into programs like Quicken, or add them to a spreadsheet. This allows you to dissect your expenditures, tweak your budget, and be accountable to yourself during and at the end of the month.

2. I can shop for things online and find a bargain without ever leaving my desk. That means I'm not burning gas and wasting time going from store to store, I have full information on product reviews, and can compare apples to apples identical products. By using "user ratings" on sites like Amazon, it is easy to find the truly better products, and not just the prettier boxes.

3. I get cash back on my charges. I know that some of you may roll your eyes, but if you have the right card (such as Pentagon Federal's Visa Platinum) you can earn real cash (not "points") that gets credited to your bill each month. For example, the Pentagon Federal card earns 5% on gas, 3% at the grocery store, and 1.25% on all other purchases. That means if I charge $1500 in a month, I'm getting roughly $20 back -- $240 per year. Not bad for doing nothing.

Of course all of this assumes you have the discipline to pay off your credit cards at the end of the month and not spend more than you have available. If you can't do that, then maybe you are better off with cash or debit.