How many credit cards should you have?
When banks introduced Canada’s first credit card, Chargex, in 1968, it was designed as a convenient tool for their most valued customers. Today’s creditors have a more egalitarian approach — it seems that if you have a pulse, you can have a credit card.
But why stop at one? According to Statistics Canada, there are 3.1 credit cards in circulation for every Canadian over the age of 18 — that’s 74 million cards.
According to Laurie Campbell, program manager for the Credit Counselling Service of Toronto, it’s not uncommon for people to carry eight or 10 cards and a debt load of $30,000 or more. “The biggest problem we see is overspending with credit cards,” she says. “There is a direct correlation between debt and the amount of credit cards you have.”
Canadians charged more than $170 billion to Visa and MasterCard in 2004, compared to $39 billion in 1990, according to Statistics Canada.
“People don’t see it as real money and that leads to impulse spending,” says Campbell. Indeed, studies show the average person spends 112 percent more on a credit card than he would if using cash.
As a result, people are living beyond their means. As many as 50 percent of credit card users don’t pay their balance each month, opting instead to carry debt and pay interest ranging from a 1.9 percent introductory rate to almost 30 percent on some retail cards.
“We don’t recommend consumers carry a balance,” says Scott Hannah, executive director of the Credit Counselling Society in Vancouver, B.C. Sometimes, however, it’s unavoidable when essential expenses arise, such as auto repairs. The key is recognizing the difference between a want and a need. “Easy and quick access to credit really obscures thinking,” he says.
Credit has never been more accessible. With more than 600 institutions issuing Visa and MasterCard cards, add to that the retail card market (24 million in circulation), and it’s easy to see why wallets are bulging with plastic. In 2003, Canadians received 191.7 million credit-card offers — about six for each person — according to market research firm Mail Monitor.
It’s a competitive market and credit card companies profit from interest and user fees. These days, juggling more than one card or carrying a balance is made easier because a standard minimum monthly payment is as low as two percent, whereas it used to be 5 percent. But remember, if you owe $5,000 at 18 percent interest and pay only the minimum each month, it will take about 30 years to pay off the card (that’s if you never use it again).
“People can carry a lot more debt,” Hannah says. “It’s easier to spend, but harder to pay back.”
The perks of credit
On the flip side, credit cards are hugely convenient and by today’s standards, a necessity — you can’t even rent a movie without one. With more transactions taking place on the Internet, a credit card is handy for finding deals on books or flights. Some cards also have benefits, such as travel insurance, member discounts or points programs.
Retail cards, while charging interest in the 24 to 28 percent range, offer lucrative reward programs and discounts. It’s OK to take advantage of such perks, but Campbell cautions there’s no real benefit if you carry a balance.
“It may make sense to have a credit card for a favourite retailer,” says Hannah, but not one for every store you shop at.
The magic number
Experts agree that in most cases one card is enough.
It used to be that some outlets only accepted one type of card, so it made sense to have a Visa, MasterCard and maybe an American Express, but those days are over. “If you have an all-purpose card, 99 percent of the time you’re going to be able to use that card,” says Campbell.
Hannah seconds the one-card rule, but he recommends keeping business expenditures separate with two cards.
Christine McDonald, a spokeswoman for the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, says the key is “making sure you use the credit you have wisely.” She warns juggling too many cards makes it harder to keep track of spending and payments and hurts your credit score.
One’s credit rating is based largely on credit outstanding, but how much credit you have at your disposal is also considered. Even if there’s nothing owing, just having cards can influence lenders when it comes to granting a mortgage. Several credit cards indicate the potential to get in over your head fast.
Credit cards do help establish a credit history, but Campbell says “people don’t need more than one to build up their credit rating.”
Choosing a card
It’s important to choose the right card. As a general rule, those who carry a balance are better off paying a small annual fee for a low-interest-rate card, while those who pay in full each month may opt for a standard higher-rate card.
When credit card spending is out of control, the best thing to do is cut up the cards and pay down debt. For some people it makes sense to consolidate debt with a lower-interest line of credit. Otherwise, Campbell recommends paying off the card with the highest rate of interest first. A credit counsellor can help explore the options. Once the debt is paid, contact the issuer and close the account.
Credit cards are two-faced — they’re convenient and come with plenty of perks, but can lead to trouble if you overspend or juggle multiple cards. One, perhaps, two, is all most people need — anything more is playing with fire.