This post originally appeared in Forbes as part of the Intelligent Investing series. In order to read the original version, click here.
Today I’m breaking the silence on something that most financial planners—including myself—never talk about. I spend my life speaking to clients about things that can make or break their financial futures, including last-minute alterations in Social Security benefits, or changes to state and federal taxes. But for some reason I never talk about changes to the thing that 189 million American adults are carrying in their back pockets right now—credit cards.
Of course if I’m going to call for a revolution in the way we think and talk about plastic, I’ve got to take a long look in the mirror as well as my wallet. Despite the credit card industry’s excellent advertising campaigns (from angry vikings to Samuel L. Jackson), I have continually refused to take the time to figure out the right credit card for me. I made a decision on one card 20 years ago, and another 33 years ago. So, for the last few decades, I’ve just been assuming things are “pretty good” every time I swipe. But I’m not the only one stuck in that rut. An incredible 40% of cardholders have either never changed their primary card, or have gone a decade without switching, according to CreditCards.com. Surprised? Maybe if people were actually talking about this, the statistics wouldn’t be so shocking.
Granted, the topic of credit cards definitely comes up from time to time in my office, but only when I’m advising people not to overspend. While that’s certainly great advice, it’s only one very small piece of the puzzle. In today’s credit card landscape, you need to become a fine print-reading expert who always knows exactly what you’re getting with every card, and on every statement.
Introductory bonus offers from credit card companies are now almost three times what they were a decade ago. Today, a $500 sign-up bonus for spending $3,000 is commonplace. If you’re a responsible steward of your credit and able to pay your bills on time, you’re actually losing out by not having a new card.
Depending on how much you spend annually and how many points you stand to earn overall, a good rewards credit card could add thousands to your budget every year. I know people who get themselves to Europe and back every quarter because they charge everything to a credit card to get the miles. Again, if you’re diligent about paying your bill on time and tracking things, rewards cards can be a boon to your budget.
Yes, the perks are bigger and better than ever, but are we just being distracted by “free” money? Remember that $500 bonus? You only get that if you spend $3,000 on your card within the first three months. The credit card companies know that many of us are going to go into debt to get that $500, and will thus spend much more on interest over our lifetime as a cardholder than we could ever hope to “earn” in rewards.
What may shock many cardholders is the fact that there’s no guarantee their card’s perks will even be here tomorrow. Countless card companies are reneging on offers that they dangled to attract customers a few years ago. A few with reduced perks include:
- American Express, which restricted the number of guests allowed in the Centurion Lounge for Platinum and Centurion cardholders.
- Chase, which removed price protection from its Sapphire credit card
- United MileagePlus Explorer and Visa Signature, which removed price and return protection perks. Trip cancellation insurance was also reduced.
- Citi Prestige, which stopped offering American Admirals Club access and free rounds of golf.
And of course these companies aren’t exactly taking out advertisements to let folks know—the notification might have come to you buried at the end of an e-mail, or via a small slip of paper enclosed in a bill. It’s up to you to read the fine print, in whatever form it comes, and be on the lookout for any indication that your perks and protections are changing.
A few other stay-safe tips include:
- Don’t be afraid to pull the plug on your card
It’s a hassle to change cards, I know. But when your card removes benefits, say goodbye. It will take maybe 20 minutes to get your automated charges set back up on a new card, with better perks.
- Make credit cards a tool in your arsenal, not an albatross around your neck
Credit cards can be the biggest asset or the biggest liability in your wallet, depending on the decisions you make. Many rewards cards users—40%—carry a balance, according to a study by CompareCards.com. Debt is a way of life for many Americans, but it doesn’t have to be for you.
- Put pen to paper before you cash in your rewards
If your card allows you to redeem your points for some combination of travel rewards and cashback, be aware that the dollar-to-point ratio is often far better if you redeem your points for travel than for cash back. Do the math before you cash in your points.
- Don't hoard points and miles
Unfortunately, rewards points are likely to become less valuable in the future— or even expire— as merchants can change their benefits at any time.
- Apps can be your best friend
There’s Earny, which automates your credit card’s price protection process and hunts down refunds you might be eligible for. There’s also Wallaby, which tells you which card you should use at specific retailers to maximize your rewards. There’s also Clarity Money, which allows you to view all your daily transactions, and scours your accounts to help you cancel unwanted monthly subscriptions.
- Don’t fall victim to a scam
Only give out your information via phone if you placed the call yourself, and if you’re using a web site, triple-check that it’s the right one, with the secure lock at the top of your browser.
Don’t let me be the only one breaking the silence
Those of you in my generation may remember businessman Sy Syms, founder of the SYMS off-price clothing chain. His company tagline read, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” But today, for credit card companies, their best customer is the busy consumer who never revisits their decisions or reads the fine print.
Remember that credit card companies haven’t suddenly become generous—they’re doing what they’ve always done: looking out for number one.
Thankfully, you can look out for number one, too, by studying your cards closely and meeting with your financial planner at least once a year for a financial check-up. Hopefully the next time you go in, you’ll be asked what’s in your wallet.