iStockphoto

iStockphoto

 

America doesn’t need convincing when it comes to using credit cards. We love them.

Approximately 182 million Americans – 77.4 percent of the population 18 and over – have one, or actually, more than one. We’ve got an average of 4.5 credit cards per consumer and we used them to buy $2.1 trillion on goods and services last year, according to The Credit Examiner.

The Federal Reserve says we owe the card companies $847 billion and neither party seems particularly alarmed about that. It seldom takes more than a phone call to the card companies to get them to raise our spending limit and not much more than a walk through the mall to get us to exercise that option.

When the impulse hits us to buy another pair of shoes or a new washing machine or even a bedroom set, we rush to get that card out of our pockets like there is a fire alarm going off. In less than a minute, the itch to buy something is scratched. We own it.

Remorse has no place in credit card transactions. That’s why plastic has buried cash, checks, and in most cases, common sense, as the currency of the day. Imagine the guilt if you had to fish $100 in cash out of your pocket every time you wanted a pair of shoes? Or write a check for $787 for a new washing machine? Or stop at the bank and withdraw $2,188 for a new bedroom set?

People would think twice about the purchase, which is one more time than the seller wants. Throwing down a piece of plastic, on the other hand, doesn’t take much though and causes a whole lot less guilt. Credit card purchases offer nothing but pleasure. We’re addicted. We know it and anyone with the coveted piece of plastic will admit it, no matter how deep a hole we’ve dug with credit cards.

The question now isn’t how to use a credit card. The question is, can we wean ourselves away from them? And do we want to do that?

The easy answer is: No. The economy is in tough enough shape without taking away the largest spending tool ever created. The plusses in plastic far outweigh the minuses. There is no beating the convenience, record keeping, buyer protection and positive contributions to a credit score that come with using a credit card.

Some people would add “rewards” to that list, but being a member of the “no such thing as a free lunch” team makes it difficult for me to include that as a positive. If you really think you’re earning a “free” airline ticket, have at it.

Nonetheless, there are so many good reasons to use credit cards that it makes sense to have one, or two. The more important step would be to look at when and where we use them to determine whether it’s a valid item to own.

The “when” should be easy to answer because all it involves is common sense: Use a credit card when you have enough money in your bank account to cover the purchase. If your bank balance says $100, then the new flat-screen TV and surround-sound speakers need to go back on the shelf.

There are no valid excuses on this point. We all have access to online banking that gives us an up-to-date balance any day or time. A smart phone or computer is all it takes to know if we can legitimately afford a purchase. Still, only 30 percent of card holders pay off their balance at the end of each month. That means 70 percent of us either don’t know or don’t care what our bank balance is.

The question of “where” to use credit cards is debatable. The easy answer, again, involves common sense: Use the credit card wherever you would normally pay with cash. That means grocery stores, restaurants, department stores, even where you pay monthly bills like utilities, water, phone and gas.

Using a credit card in as many places as your bank account can afford, will end the monthly arguments over where we spent money. If one party wants to argue that we spend too much on dining out, there is evidence available on our monthly credit card bill with no room for debate.

This could become a debatable issue when we buy some big-ticket items. Does it make sense, for example to pay college tuition with a credit card, knowing you can’t afford the balance at the end of the month? The interest on a student loan would be considerably less than the interest on the unpaid balance of a credit card.

A similar argument can be had when people use one credit card to pay off another. The premise for doing this – I’ll pay less interest with the new card – ignores the fact that I got in trouble because I wouldn’t stop using the card when I didn’t have enough money to pay it off. Pay your bills, don’t put them off.

The one time you definitely want to leave the credit card home is when you need actual cash. Banks and ATM machines charge fees to pull out the money we gave them in the first place. Gambling casinos are another place where transaction fees make you a loser before placing the first bet. There also are some sizeable fees for people travelling abroad who want access to the currency of the country they’re visiting.  Don’t leave home without some cash.

More importantly, don’t leave home without a credit card. All other conveniences and inconveniences aside, credit cards might be the single most valuable tool in dealing with emergencies. When you absolutely, positively are in a jam, a credit card can be the saving lifeline.

That alone makes America’s love affair with the credit card worth it.

Bill Fay is a writer for Debt.org, focused mainly on news stories about the spending habits of families and government. He spent 21 years in the newspaper business and eight more in television and radio, dealing with college and professional sports, then seven forgettable years writing speeches and marketing materials for a government agency.