Question: My fiancé says I have too many credit cards. I have 15, with 12 being from various stores I shop at frequently. They include Saks Fifth Avenue, TJ Maxx, and American Eagle.
I think I’m being responsible because I’m saving money on my shopping trips. My fiancé says having too many cards is bad because I sometimes forget to make a payment on time. But that’s rare.
He’s also concerned because I have around $6,000 in balances, but I’m not worried because those are spread out over so many cards. So, on any one card, it’s only a few hundred dollars. So that’s better for my credit score, right?
– Olivia in New York
Howard Dvorkin, CPA responds…
Your fiancé is right. In fact, he’s more right than he realizes.
Before I explain how and why let’s begin with this: Credit cards are a problem in this country in the same way alcohol is. Both are pleasing in moderation, but they can also kill you if you overuse them.
Olivia, you just might be a credit-card-aholic…
Store credit cards are mostly awful
Sticking with the alcohol analogy, store cards are like overpriced wines in fancy bottles: They look good at first glance, but once you open them up, they’re not worth it.
Store cards lure you in with initial offers that are indeed lucrative. Your TJ Maxx card offers new cardholders 10 percent off their first store or online purchase, plus you earn five reward points for every dollar you spend. What can possibly go wrong?
Well, for starters, the TJ Maxx card charges a whopping 27 percent APR for new purchases. The national average is 19 percent, and you can get many cards for less than that. (One popular example: Chase Freedom Unlimited is as low as 15 percent, while many other cards have introductory zero-percent rates for up to a year.)
In fact, Saks Fifth Avenue’s card hovers near 26 percent and American Eagle is around 25.5 percent. (These rates fluctuate, but not by much.)
If you pay off these cards each month, you indeed come out ahead. But if you’re carrying $6,000 in balances, I’m betting at least some of that is on those 15 store cards you have. If so, you’re paying at least $1 for every $4 you charge. It’s almost impossible to get out of debt that way.
I don’t care what perks these store cards offer you, these steep interest rates will wipe out any gains in a single month of carrying a balance – and these stores know that. They’re not in business to lose money, are they? So why do you think they keep offering them to shoppers like you? Because they know most cardholders will only look at the savings side, not the cost side.
Your credit score is simpler than you think
Olivia, you also referenced your credit score, but the same logic I just spelled out applies there, too: You need to focus on the right thing.
While there are five factors determining your score, one of them isn’t the balance you have on each card. So, spreading out your $6,000 in balances over numerous cards doesn’t really matter. You know what does? “Sometimes” forgetting to make your payments.
Of those five factors I just mentioned, the biggest is called “credit history.” That’s shorthand for, “Do you pay your bills on time?” Since it counts for 35 percent of your credit score, even paying late “sometimes” can drag it down. The solution can be as simple as setting up autopay through your card or your bank, which will raise your credit score over time.
If you really want to improve your credit score, check out Debt.com’s multimedia report, Get the Credit Score You’ve Always Wanted. It’s the plainest-English explanation I’ve ever seen.
The problem is at home, not in the store
Despite everything I’ve just said, Olivia, your real problem isn’t those store cards. It’s your addiction to credit cards in general. I do know some folks who have 15 credit cards, but they’re a rare breed. One is Jason Steele, who writes for Debt.com. Jason is a credit card expert who deftly manipulates rewards programs, so he makes the most money. But he never carries a balance or misses a payment.
With 15 cards, that takes discipline. If you don’t possess that – and let’s face it, not many people want to spend their days monitoring their credit cards – then you need to pare down and pay up, Olivia. You don’t want to get married and begin your new life in debt.
Your fiancé is probably concerned with your spending habits as much as your current debt. If you truly shop often at a dozen stores, you may want to look hard at those purchases. Are they all really necessary?
It’s a well-established fact that fighting about money is a leading cause of divorce. I might actually suggest you and your fiancé pursue pre-marriage financial counseling, which can help you confront and defeat any of these issues.
Last thing, Olivia: If you have a spending problem, you’re not alone. It doesn’t make you a bad person. Millions of Americans share your problem. Thankfully, there’s a lot of free help available.