A Crash Course in Credit

I once knew a woman, a very smart woman, who got a credit card her first month of University. The credit card people were set up with with a booth in the student centre during all the welcome week activities, during clubs week, and randomly throughout that first entire semester. They had a cute little spiel ready for students, telling them that now that they’re adults they need to learn how to spend like adults. They didn’t ask these students if they had a credit card already, or if they knew how to use credit. They didn’t explain interest rates, or cash back fees, or penalty fees. And they apparently didn’t explain how payments work, either.

Later that year, while hanging out with this woman in the library, her phone rang and she ignored it. She seemed to be ignoring calls quite regularly, actually, so I asked her about it.

“Oh, it’s just the collection agency again. I told them I don’t owe them anything, so they should stop calling, but they don’t.”

After asking her a few dozen times over the next week, she finally told me why they were calling, and why she claimed she didn’t owe them anything.

“I had a credit card, and it got maxed out. But I don’t have the card any more, so I don’t have to pay it. They said that when I got it. It’s not my responsibility, and they can’t keep harassing me.”

Was it stolen? Lost? No, it seems that when she had maxed the card out, she then cut it up and destroyed it. Now, when she had signed up for the card, they had told her that if any charges were made and she didn’t have the card, then she wouldn’t be responsible for any charges made. Of course, they meant that if the card was stolen, and someone else used it, she wouldn’t have to pay for what they bought. That’s not the way she understood it, though, and she never read her paperwork for clarification. She honestly thought that she didn’t owe any money to the credit card people (or the people at collections) because she cut up the card. And no amount of trying to explain that credit card companies do not make money by giving away free money would convince her otherwise.

So here she was, just a year into her post-secondary education, with student loans already mounting, and her credit already being ruined because of this one credit card.

So, how do you avoid this? Well, I may be both the first AND the last person you would ever want financial advice from. I didn’t read my paperwork when I got my student loans, I don’t make enough at my job to pay my rent AND buy groceries, so groceries have been going on a credit card that is almost maxed out. I have multiple cards, with balances, AND a line of credit to help me pay them all off. Basically, I’m financially screwed right now. I also know exactly what I did wrong, and when, and can point out every single mistake I made so that others can avoid them.

So, with that in mind…..

Know Your Interest Rates

There are no interest-free cards out there. Every card has an interest rate, and most start out around 19.99%. That means that, for every purchase you make on your card that you do not pay in full at the end of your billing cycle, you will wind up paying an extra 20% on that purchase. So those jeans you just had to have because they were 30% off? If you don’t pay them off in full at the end of the month, they were only 10% off. And if you don’t pay them off by the end of the NEXT month, you paid an extra 10% on them.

For every purchase you make, you wind up paying interest if you don’t pay off your card in full at the end of your billing cycle. And if you keep carrying a balance, you keep gaining interest. That initial $100 purchase gained $20 after the first month, bringing it up to $120. Now the 19.99% interest is being charged on the $120. So now you’re paying $23.99 in interest that month, making your bill $143.99.  The next month the interest goes up to $28.78, brining your total owed up to $172.77. See how the amount goes up every month? Every time you don’t pay your credit card bill in full, the amount you owe goes up. And then the interest is paid on the total amount you OWE, not the total amount you SPENT. You may have only spent $100, but three months later you’re owing more than $170 because of interest charges.

Fees, Charges, and Penalties

Some cards have an annual fee attached to them. At the moment, I have a card with an unusually high credit limit, which I carry a pretty high balance on. I pay an annual fee of $25 in order to get a lower interest rate (11.99%, as opposed to the 21.99% the card had before). This annual fee means I save roughly $100 a month in interest fees per $1000 in balance on the card. Since this card carries a high balance, which I cannot pay off very quickly, the annual fee makes sense. If I were to be carrying no balance on the card, or a balance so small that the saved interest did not matter, then paying a fee wouldn’t make any sense. So check to see if any card you’re looking into has any sort of annual fee.

Some cards have fees or charges that differ depending on how you use them. A card might have an interest rate of 19.99% for any credit card purchases, but 23.99% for any cash advances. I didn’t know there was a different interest rate just for cash advances in my first year of university, and took out quite a few one semester when my cash flow ran dry. Looking back, that was a completely stupid idea.

There can also be penalties your credit card company will hand down for things like late payments, short payments, or no payments at all. Want a little more incentive to pay your bills on time every month, other than the threat of financial penalties? How about lower interest rates, better loan prospects, high credit ratings, and a much more understanding bank? I was able to get my card switched to a lower rate with an annual fee because, even when money is ridiculously tight, I make sure I make my payments on time every single month. Banks and credit card companies like to reward things like that.

You NEED Good Credit!!!

Credit cards count as “bad credit” when you have your finances assessed. If you carry a lot of credit card debt, don’t make payments, or have things wind up in collections (your credit card company sells your debt to another company, they harass you until you pay everything off, and you get massive black marks on your credit report for years), your entire credit score is effected. Now, I don’t know much about how to read or assess credit scores. I had it explained to me once, but right now I’m too scared to get my credit report. Between the credit cards, line of credit, student loans, and my extremely low income, it can’t be too wonderful. I know it won’t be too awful either, though. My student loan is read as a different type of credit as my cards, and I’ve always been on time with my payments, which are all good things. But right now, with my debt, I can never buy a home, or get an auto loan, or a small business loan.

Every little bit of credit you get affects your credit score, which affects how much money banks will be willing to lend you. With a good score, you can buy a house with a decent interest rate, maybe buy a nice car too. With my credit, I might be able to buy a house in a few years, but my interest rate on the mortgage will be pretty high. And for my friend who just cut up her card, she let things get so bad that she can’t even get a mortgage at all now!

Rewards Cards

I got an American Express just because I can collect Airmiles with it. I only use it places where I can already collect Airmiles with my Airmiles card, so I wind up getting double the Airmiles. I’m a very active points collector, though. I save up Airmiles to spend on their website on things I really want, like an expensive straightening iron or a big fancy mixer for the kitchen. I collect Optimum points from Shoppers Drug Mart in an almost obsessive manner. I have almost 3 times the maximum points level right now, and just keep saving. I know that in January, my hours at work will be cut drastically, so I use the points then to buy things I need but can’t afford. I also have a credit cards that collects Optimum points as well.

If you know you will be paying off the card, then go ahead an get a rewards card. Just make sure it’s for something you will actually use. Why collect flight miles if you don’t fly?

 

So that’s just a bit of what I’ve learned over the years, from screwing up my own financial situation so badly. I hope it helps you out, so you don’t wind up like me, sunshine.

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