Depending on who you ask, credit cards are either dangerous or lucrative, a great convenience or a terrible temptation. What they really are, at their core, is a debt product. The credit card issuer has extended you a line of revolving credit in the amount of the card’s limit.
Further reading: Don’t Buy the Pro- or Anti-Credit Card Hype
When you make a purchase using a debit card, the funds are immediately or within a few days transferred out of your account to pay for the purchase. When you make a purchase on a credit card, you are incurring debt to the credit card issuer. Between the time you make the purchase and when the payment is due, the credit card issuer is giving you an interest-free loan. If you fail to pay the balance in full by the payment due date, the credit card’s interest rate then applies to the balance.
Credit cards can be very dangerous products, especially for those who live paycheck-to-paycheck, are inexperienced with money and banking, or are unorganized. This is because credit cards typically have a very high interest rate (the average rate is 15%), meaning that if you carry a balance on your card beyond the grace period that debt will become very expensive. (In today’s low interest rate environment, it’s difficult to think of any other debt product aside from payday loans that typically has interest rates higher than those on credit cards.)
However, when used with discipline, credit cards can confer some benefits, such as fraud protection, additional insurance, and rewards (in the form of cash back, airline miles, goods, etc.). The exact benefits the user gains from using a credit card can be learned from the terms and conditions. The terms and conditions will also detail how expensive a mistake can be in terms of the late fees and interest rates.
You must determine for yourself if credit cards are a useful product for you. Credit card companies make money not only from charging interest and late fees, but also from merchants. There is a percentage fee that credit card companies collect from every transaction, so you need to realize that their rewards structures and so forth are set up to induce you to spend more than you intended to. Credit cards can also be very tempting for people who don’t have any cash reserves in the case of an emergency or a month that is more expensive than anticipated, but these people are highly susceptible to getting stuck in a debt cycle with credit card balances that they have difficulty paying down. It may be better to avoid using credit cards entirely, because their very convenience ends up being a trap.
Further reading: “I Want a Credit Card, but I’m Scared”
Perfect use of a credit card, or it never costing you more than cash would, entails always paying the balance off in full on or before the due date and never spending more than you would if you were using debit or cash.
One of the most important attributes of credit card usage to be cautious about is its ability to dissociate the act of making a purchase from the consequence of paying for it. Even if you pay off the balance in full every period, it is possible to get 1-2 months behind in your spending in comparison to if you used debit or cash because of the grace period credit cards give you. Even if you never actually pay fees or interest, this is an undesirable position to be in because you are borrowing from your future paychecks when you make a purchase.