When you’re auditioning credit cards, you’ve got to deal with a cast of thousands.
A credit card can be more than just a way to buy things without having to pay cash. But the extra bells and whistles that many credit cards offer rarely come for free. And they’re not all worth what you have to pay for them, either. So you’ve got to ask yourself two questions: What credit card perks—if any—do you need? And are they worth your money?
AFFINITY CARDS: SUPERCARDS?
Some banks offer credit cards that are cosponsored by another organization, perhaps an airline, an ecommerce site, your college or university, or a charity. These affinity cards give you something extra on top of the usual credit privileges: You can earn frequent flier miles, get special deals, or make contributions when you use the card.
Affinity cards are becoming more and more common, so chances are you’ll be able to find one that does what you’re looking for. And if you plan to accumulate a lot of charges on your card—say, if you use it for business—these cards can be a great way to save money or support organizations or causes that matter to you.
But do the math before you sign up for an affinity card. Rewards tend to accumulate slowly. For example, at the rate of one frequent flier mile for every dollar you spend, an average card can require as much as $40,000 in charges to earn a single round-trip ticket. And affinity cards may have higher than average annual fees, so if you’re not going to use your card for most of your purchases, you might end up paying more than you’re actually getting back.
Your first credit card is likely to be a classic card. And if you get an American Express charge card, it’s likely to be green. But you may be offered gold, platinum, or titanium versions—each charging a higher annual fee than the basic card.
If you’re wondering whether it makes sense to spring for the added cost, the answer depends on whether you’ll use the additional benefits enough to justify the price you’ll pay.
For example, if a platinum card costs several hundred dollars but gives you membership privileges at two or three airlines’ club facilities, it might be worth it if you travel on those airlines. The same is true if the card covers car rental collision insurance and you rent cars frequently.
But if you pay the extra charge expecting to get better service from the merchants where you use the luxury model card, you’re likely to be disappointed.
TEASERS AND TRANSFERS
Lots of cards offer introductory rates, also known as teaser rates, to attract new customers. For example, you might find a card with a 3.6% interest rate for the first six months, before it increases to its regular rate.
These offers can be a mixed blessing. On one hand, if you know you’re going to run up a balance, it might save you some money to have a low rate at first. And if you know you can pay off your balance in a few months, you may be able to take real advantage of the teaser rate.
But if you’re not watching the calendar, it’s easy to let your teaser time run out. At that point, you may start accumulating more serious interest—often at a higher rate than you could find on a card without a teaser rate. And while switching cards every few months to take advantage of teaser offers might save you money, it can make you seem unreliable to creditors in the future.
Many cards will also offer you the chance to transfer balances from other cards to their card at a lower rate than your usual rate. This can be a convenient way to consolidate your debt, and may save you money. Just be sure you know the date you’ll have to pay off the balances you transfer before the actual higher rate kicks in. And be sure to find out ahead of time what all of the charges will be.
A LITTLE PROTECTION
Some cards—including most charge cards, but also more upscale versions of credit cards—offer various kinds of protection on the purchases you make with the card. For instance, a card might provide collision insurance on a car rental so that you don’t have to pay extra for that coverage, or automatically protect things you purchase against damage or theft up to a certain value. These features can save you money and provide peace of mind, but be sure that you’ll get some use out of them if you’re going to be paying fees for them.
When you get cash using a credit card and your PIN, you’re borrowing against a cash advance limit. But if you have an American Express card and you’re part of their Express Cash program, you can use your card to withdraw money directly from your checking account for a flat fee of 3% of your withdrawal, or $5.
Since you’re not borrowing, there’s no finance charge. And there’s no fee for signing up for Express Cash. But the annual fee for the card is higher than on most classic credit cards.