Tip #288 - Using Credit is Okay Sometimes. I'm going to say something on here that I don't see on many personal finance blogs. I have read dozens of personal finance and money-saving blogs over the past few years. And the almost universal theme I see in all of them is that the writer started his blog because he racked up a lot of debt and learned how to dig himself out and wants to pass his experience and advice on to others. Sometimes this advice is in the form of "Throw away all of your credit cards," "Live a debt-free life," or "Wait until you have the money set aside before you buy what you want." In fact even Dave Ramsey got started down his successful career because he was in a lot of debt at one time and pulled himself out of it.
Now here's my comparison to that line of thinking. If you are an alcoholic and want to stop drinking, then looking to alcoholics who have given up alcohol and have been living a sober life for years is a great place to start. And like alcoholics, people who have absolutely no willpower when it comes to going on a shopping spree with their credit card and no money in the bank to pay back the bill in 30 days when it comes due, that advice most personal bloggers give is probably sound.
But what if you were never an alcoholic? What if you hardly ever drink or just like a glass of wine with your meal once in awhile? Whose advice do you look for so that you won't become an alcoholic? The answer? Probably no one's. Why would you be looking at a reformed alcoholic for drinking advice since you don't abuse alcohol? Now substitute alcohol for credit cards. If you aren't out-of control with them - if you use them to make big-item purchases or to go away on vacation, why is that bad for you? It's not always. There are plenty of people out there who are just not educated in finance who just want to figure out how to best build up their savings, how to spend less, or how to invest. To those people, I say, it is okay to have credit cards. It's okay to take out a loan if you need one. It's okay to float your money for a month to earn interest - as long as you have a financial plan and a budget, and are living within your means.
Let's look at some scenarios of when using credit is okay or not okay:
Example 1: Marnie has a budget and a financial plan. One of her goals has been to buy a car. She's been saving money for 5 years for it and has $10,000 in a CD earmarked for the car. The CD is earning 6% interest, and it is coming due in 6 months at which time she will buy her car. But her car dies suddenly and she needs to buy one this week instead of 6 months from now. She can get a loan from her credit union for 4.5% interest, and she can pay it back in 6 months when her CD comes due. Should she take out a loan? Many people tell her she should never take out a loan on a decreasing asset. But if she breaks her CD, she will lose her interest. Besides, she is borrowing at a lower rate than what she is earning. Is using credit okay in this situation? My advice? Take out the loan. Marnie's story shows she is responsible with money. She has been saving long-term for a goal, and she has a budget and a plan. When her CD comes due, she can pay back the loan and all is good. If the interest she is making is greater than the loan she is taking, then by all means she should take the loan.
Example 2: Mindy has $12,000 on her credit card balance. She pays the minimum $250 each month on the card. Her dad told her, it will take her 15 years to pay off her balance by just paying the minimum, but she doesn't care. She thinks as long as she can pay the minimum she is in good shape. Plus she tells herself that she always has $350 leftover each month that she can put toward the card, but she chooses to only put the minimum amount towards it and spend the remaining $100 on a night out.
Mindy's friends call her and tell her they have found a fabulous deal on a cruise - 6 days in the sunny Caribbean for just $800. Mindy knows that she can afford it because even if it makes her minimum payment higher on her card, she can still pay it and forgo going out to dinner each month. Is using her credit card wise in this situation? I think all of us would probably agree here that Mindy is not responsible with money. She might, in fact, be termed a crediholic. She cannot give up using her credit card and has no understanding of how little she is paying back when just paying the minimums. My advice? No way! Have someone sit down with you and work on a plan to accelerate your credit card repayment instead and explain how credit cards work.
Example 3: Craig is 35 and single. He has $350,000 saved toward retirement and puts away $20,000 more per year towards it. He also has 6 months' worth of money in the bank in case of an emergency and two savings accounts set up - one for for a car and one for a house. He should meet his car goal next year, and his house goal in three years. His take-home pay is $7,000 per month and he uses his credit card buy all of his items - his groceries, clothes, vacations. He pays off his balance each month. Lately, Craig has been reading personal finance blogs and most of them say that credit cards are bad. He wonders if he should get rid of his cards and start paying cash from now on. What do you think? My advice? No. He sounds like he is set for retirement, his car, and his house. Sure, he may spend more money in the grocery store for an impulse buy that he might not do if he paid with cash. But he can limit is losses with credit cards and they give him some insurance if he uses it for air travel or car rental. And for big purchases, as long as he is deciding on how much to spend before he buys, then using credit is a better deal. It not only gives him some refund power if there is something wrong with the product, but it also gives him 1% reward with each purchase. As long as his financial plan is sound, then he does not need to live like a pauper - giving into an occasional carton of ice cream at the grocery store will only help him enjoy life more.
I can give many more examples where I think it's okay to use credit cards or take loans. Conversely, I can think of several examples, and know many in person who need to stay clear of debt of any kind. Which type of person are you?. Are you a crediholic? Can you not control yourself if you have a credit card in your hand? Do you like to buy things "above your means" such as a fancy sports car and put it on a loan? If so, give them up and follow what many financial bloggers are saying about credit cards or debt. On the other hand, are you responsible with your money? Do you have a savings account? An emergency fund? A financial plan for the future? Do you take out a loan only when you know you are doing it for the right reasons and can pay it back in a reasonable amount of time? Do you decide in advance what you will buy and then happen to pay for it with a credit card? If so, then it's okay to use credit and take out a loan. Just like an alcoholic, crediholics should stay away from debt and credit cards. But just like there are millions of others out there who can control their drinking, there are many who can use credit and debt wisely, too.
In Real Life (IRL) - Our credit union has a great deal on IRAs. From January until April you can add more money to any existing IRA CDs. For example, I have some IRA CDs. One of them is earning 4.9%. I opened it a few years ago and there are still 5 years left until maturity. If I were to put my $5000 Roth money that I invest each year into a current IRA at this credit union (or anywhere else for that matter), I'd be able to earn 2.6% for a five-year certificate. On the other hand, during January to April, I can add on to a current IRA that I already have such as the one earning 4.9%. I love this deal and only found out about it last year.
I've always wondered how much longer they will continue to offer this deal. Last year I made 2009 IRA contributions in early 2010. But this year, I started to think about whether they would even continue this deal next year and decided I wanted to make all of my and my husband's 2011 IRA contributions now while I know they still have this offer. Problem was, I didn't have the money available for it. Sure, I knew by year-end, we'd have the $10,000 saved up to put toward our IRA. But in April? We only had $3,000 of it saved. So what did I do? I took a loan. Yes, I did. We have a home equity line of credit for $50,000. We owed nothing on it so it was available, and current rates are 3.25%. So I borrowed $7000 from it with plans to pay it all back this year with the money we would have put toward the IRA.
Did I do the right thing? I think so. I'm currently making more in the IRA (4.9%)than I am paying out on the Home Equity Loan (3.25%). Yes, the home equity loan rate can change but it would have to go above 5% for it to cost more than I'm earning on the IRA since the interest is tax deductible. Also, I am getting the gift of time. Even if the bank continues this great IRA add-on offer, I would have to wait to put the money in the IRA until January 2012, and I will have lost out on 9 months' worth of interest, while the money sits in a checking account waiting to be invested. So I am earning about $262 in those 9 months and paying out about $170 (before a tax deduction) if I keep the loan for the whole 9 months. Plus I am assured of getting this great deal from the credit union that might not be available next year.
Had I said to my husband "Let's go take the trip around the world we've been wanting to take and just use our equity fund, I would not think taking a loan in that instance is wise. Each situation and each person is different - sometimes it's wise to use credit. Other times it's not. What do you think? Do you think having some debt or using credit cards and taking out loans is okay?
Please check out other financial ideas on Frugal Fridays at Life As Mom.