This article was updated on June 23, 2018.
Credit card debt is easy to rack up and hard to pay off, which can scare off a lot of potential users. Perhaps influenced by friends' horror stories, only a third of adults under 30 even have a credit card.
But if you use them responsibly by only charging what you can afford to pay for completely when your bill is due, credit cards become a useful tool. Besides the possibility of rewards points, you get consumer protection from your credit card issuer. Think of it as an extra insurance policy when things go wrong.
What's offered by each credit card varies, so read the fine print when you apply for a card. But in many cases, your card can help get you out of an expensive bind. Here are some common scenarios.
Your card gets lost or stolen
Say your latest credit card statement shows that someone's been living it up at your expense. If it's not your kid ordering toys through your Amazon Echo, odds are high that a fraudster gained access to your credit card information.
If your credit card itself was stolen, report the theft as soon as possible. At most, you'll be liable for $50 in unauthorized charges, but many credit cards will refund the full amount immediately.
Debit cards don't offer the same protections. If you report the theft before any charges are made, you won't be liable for them. You'll be liable for $50 if you wait two business days to report and $500 if you wait up to 60 days. Wait any longer, and you could lose all the money in the account. It can take weeks for your money to be deposited back into your account while the bank investigates your case.
One of the best defenses against credit card fraud is to be careful when shopping online. Make sure the retailer's Web address begins with https://, which means the site has security measures in place to protect customers. If your credit card is stolen, or you suspect your card number has been compromised, report it to your credit card issuer immediately. And before you pay your credit card bill, look through each charge on the statement to make sure there are no fraudulent charges.
When good purchases go bad
You cut the tags off that new jacket, only to later decide it wasn't what you really wanted. Now the store won't take it back, and you're out of luck. Or are you?
Many major credit cards will refund the cost of like-new items that retailers won't let you return. Different cards offer varying levels of coverage, usually for up to 60-90 days after purchase.
For example, American Express cards cover items for 90 days from the purchase date and will refund up to $1,000 per purchase for up to $50,000 per year (that coverage increases to $10,000 per purchase for more elite cards, like their Platinum and Gold cards). The Chase Sapphire Preferred card covers you for up to 90 days as well, reimbursing up to $500 per item for up to $1,000 per year.
Credit cards also offer protection in case an item is damaged or stolen within 90 days of purchase. Keep in mind that you may have to file a claim with your insurance company first in the case of theft. Some items are excluded from this coverage: motorized vehicles like boats, aircraft, or motorcycles; antiques or pre-owned items; perishable or consumable items like perfume or batteries; tickets; gift cards; travelers checks; animals and plants; and permanent building fixtures like flooring, heaters, and air conditioners.
Before you pay extra for an extended warranty, check your credit card's policy. Many include an extra year of coverage for purchases made with that card for no additional cost. Some items (such as cars, boats, and secondhand items) are excluded, and you won't be reimbursed for normal wear and tear. Keep the receipt and the manufacturer's warranty in a safe place in case you need to file a claim with your credit card issuer.
Your vacation doesn't go according to plan
If your trip is canceled or cut short due to illness, weather, or even a jury duty summons, many credit cards offer some reimbursement of the cost, which can save you the expense of buying travel insurance.
Cards like the Barclaycard Arrival™ World MasterCard® and Citi Prestige refund up to $1,500, while cards like the United MileagePlus from Chase will reimburse up to $10,000. If you're planning an expensive trip, use a card with a lot of coverage to book everything. There are limitations on what credit cards companies consider "covered costs" (a common exclusion is pre-existing health conditions, for example).
If you're renting a car, the rental company's agent will try to sell you on car rental insurance. Many car insurance policies extend their coverage to rental cars (though you might want some form of additional insurance if your policy doesn't include collision or comprehensive coverage).
All major credit card companies (Visa, American Express, MasterCard, and Discover) offer some form of secondary coverage, picking up some of the expenses your auto insurance policy won't pay for. If you don't own a car and have no auto insurance, then your card is your primary insurer.
To get coverage from your credit card, decline the rental company's insurance offer and pay for the rental with that card. As always, there are lots of restrictions and fine print. Many credit cards will not offer liability insurance, which is needed if you injure someone when driving. They also refuse to cover cars rented in certain countries (like Ireland or Israel) or exotic cars.
When you're booking your vacation, call your card issuer to see what protections they offer for trip cancellation and car insurance for a rental. You might still find that additional insurance is a good idea. When you're planning the trip of a lifetime, don't leave things to chance.
The insurance policy in your pocket
Your credit card offers a lot more than the convenience of not having to carry cash. Read the fine print of the card you have now, and if you're shopping for another card, look for consumer-friendly features. If something you purchased doesn't work out, you have more power to get your money back than you realized.
The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Mastercard and Visa. The Motley Fool recommends American Express and Barclays. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. The Motley Fool receives compensation from some advertisers who provide products and services that may be covered by our editorial team. It’s one way we make money. But know that our editorial integrity and transparency matters most and our ratings aren’t influenced by compensation. The statements above are The Motley Fool's alone and have not been provided or endorsed by bank advertisers. Review The Motley Fool’s ratings methodology to uncover how we pick the best credit cards.