Debunking credit myths: Are cards a surefire way to get into debt?

Jan 4, 2021

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Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.

We discuss travel rewards credit cards quite frequently here at TPG. These cards allow you to earn top sign-up bonuses and then give you numerous bonus categories for everyday spending, opening up fantastic redemptions like premium-class flights and luxurious hotel rooms.

However, there are a number of misconceptions out there when it comes to credit cards, so this is part of a new series that debunks these myths. Today I’ll shift gears and consider a myth that prevents many people from even signing up for a card at all.

Every time I apply (and am approved) for a new credit card, I’m always a little surprised at the amount of credit that an issuer extends to me. If I add up all of my credit lines on the various cards in my wallet, my available credit is higher than my annual income.

I could max out my cards this weekend and be in big trouble, but even if you have a single card, a credit limit of $20,000 (for example) can be a dangerous thing. You probably know at least one friend or family member who has overspent on a credit card and is now paying down a balance with hefty interest charges.

While our site devotes a lot of time to the rewards you can earn on top credit cards, it’s important to note that credit card issuers are not in business to give things to consumers for free. They make money in two key ways: transaction fees and interest/late charges. Neither of these are possible if you don’t actually use your card on everyday purchases. If an issuer only extended you a credit line that represented what you could actually afford each month, that wouldn’t be an enticement to use the card and would likely wipe out the chance of collecting interest entirely. By giving you greater spending power (and dangling carrots like introductory 0% annual percentage rate), issuers are hoping you’ll use the card more and increase the fees they can collect.

Credit cards can play an important role in building up your positive credit history, as long as you’re careful with your spending habits.(Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

However, this should not deter you from applying for a card. Opening and using a travel rewards credit card is not a guarantee that you’ll get yourself into debt. It all comes down to spending within your means. Remember that the very first commandment for travel rewards credit cards is to pay your balance in full every month. Even a single month’s worth of interest charges can eliminate any value you get from the points or miles you earn, and not paying the full statement balance can significantly impact your credit score as well.

This goes beyond just rewards as well. Many people may stay away from credit cards due to the fear of getting into debt, preferring payment methods like debit cards or cash, where there’s little to no risk of spending beyond what you can afford. However, using a credit card responsibly is an important way to build up your credit history.

If you’ve never had a credit card, it’ll be much harder (or more expensive) to get a car loan or mortgage. On the surface, this seems like a paradox: If you stay away from credit cards to avoid debt, you’re responsibly managing your finances and should seemingly be rewarded for this conservative behavior. However, that’s not how banks operate. If you don’t have a lengthy credit history, it could hurt you when it comes to other financial decisions.

Note that you can start building up your credit history by becoming an authorized user on someone else’s account, which is something my parents did when I was in high school. It paid enormous dividends when I joined the working world and had several years’ worth of positive credit history. American Express even allows you to set customized limits for your authorized users online.

This can be a great way to ensure that a family member on your account can build up their credit history without too much risk to your credit score.

Bottom line

Opening your first credit card can be a scary proposition. Gaining access to a credit line that goes beyond what you can reasonably afford does carry some risk, but it can also be a key element in building up your credit history. The most important thing you can do is treat a credit card like a debit card and only spend within your means. This will not only help your credit score but will ensure that you develop the financial discipline needed for a successful future.

Related: From debt to over 20 credit cards: The story of my personal finance journey

Additional reporting by Benét J. Wilson

Featured photo by Shutterstock

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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