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It’s the cold, hard truth: Credit cards enable people to go into debt faster than ever before.
That’s partly because it’s never been easier to get a credit card. Did you know 72% of American adults have at least one credit card?(1) And many have more than one! A few decades ago, we didn’t have this problem.
Before the 1950s, when modern credit cards were introduced, people pretty much bought just what they could pay for in cash. Fast-forward to today: The Federal Reserve says Americans are facing over $1 trillion in credit card debt.(2) And the average credit card debt for a U.S. household carrying a balance is $16,048.(3) Yikes!
While a lot of people are determined to take control of their money in every other way, they can’t seem to quit their credit cards. For those folks, credit cards are the last thing to go.
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Here are some excuses behind the credit card obsession, and proof that no reason is good enough to keep that plastic around.
1. “They’re so easy to use compared to cash.”
That’s true! They don’t require as much space in our wallets, and we don’t have to think about actual dollars in our account when we swipe. Unfortunately, that also means it’s easier to overspend.
A study by Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and MIT even showed a difference in brain activity when we use credit cards instead of cash.(4) Using cash activates pain receptors in our brains, creating an emotional response that keeps us from making the purchase. Credit cards don’t do that, so we don’t feel the pain of spending.
So suddenly, that $2 coffee turns into a $10 midmorning meal.
2. “They’re great in case of an emergency.”
Lots of people say they keep a credit card around “in case of an emergency.” It’s a simple fix to a stressful situation, right? But then Christmas becomes an emergency. And your takeout. And that new smartphone. Before you know it, your “emergencies” become debt.
Don’t tempt yourself. Instead of using a credit card, build up an emergency fund of 3–6 months of living expenses and rely on that the next time a true emergency happens. Then it just becomes a minor inconvenience. Crisis averted!
3. “They give us rewards, points, miles, or cash back!”
Credit card companies are marketing geniuses. With rewards systems that appeal to just about anyone, they know exactly how to tempt you to sign up. But no one ever got rich off a rewards program.
You have to use the card a lot to earn the perks. This just equals more spending you might have avoided if you weren’t trying to reach the next reward level. Your risk of debt has just increased. Stick to cash and spend only what you have budgeted for. Eventually, you’ll see the rewards that come with building real wealth.
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4. “They’re easy to pay off every month.”
Maybe. But we’ve heard more than a few stories of people who planned to pay off their balances each month but fell into a trap along the way. Their spending slowly increased until those minimum payments didn’t seem so bad. From there, their debt swelled faster than Violet Beauregarde after she chomped on Willy Wonka’s chewing gum. Don’t let your debt turn into a larger-than-life blueberry.
5. “They’re necessary to build a credit score.”
A high credit score means just one thing: You’ve interacted with debt a lot. It does not mean you’re winning with money. In fact, it doesn’t measure anything about your relationship with money other than how much you like to borrow. So why would you want a high credit score? Because it allows you to take on even more debt in the future? No way, José!
The truth is, you can qualify for a mortgage and rent an apartment with zero credit (which will happen eventually if you stop borrowing altogether). And for everything else—even cars—pay cash. No credit score needed. Then you can focus on building wealth instead of worshiping your FICO score. Don’t let credit cards enslave you.
6. “They make our dreams reality.”
Credit cards give us opportunities we would never have otherwise. It’s all about instant gratification, right? If our only way to those opportunities is by going into debt, we might need to examine our hearts. Overspending often signals a deeper problem. When we constantly crave stuff, we’re suffering from discontentment and materialism. We compare ourselves to the Joneses (who are probably in debt themselves!), and feel shamed and inadequate when we don’t measure up.
We use credit cards to satisfy an endless desire for more, bigger, newer, and nicer stuff. The problem is, as soon as the excitement wears off, we’re onto the next best thing. Nothing ever satisfies. A credit card can’t fill the emptiness in our hearts. True joy comes from a sense of contentment.
Sometimes we don’t realize how easily credit cards can harm our finances and hearts until we step back and really look at the root of our addiction. When we understand how dangerous they are—and the lies we’ve been told about them—we can break up with these pesky pieces of plastic more easily.
Want to learn how to take control of your money and never rely on a credit card again? Sign up for Financial Peace University today!