For this episode of Motley Fool Answers, hosts Robert Brokamp and Alison Southwick are joined by Austin Smith from our new personal finance-focused website, The Ascent. They discuss a trio of credit card trends that you should be aware of, and how you can make the most of them -- or avoid getting burned by them.
In this segment, they talk about trend No. 3: Credit card companies have been a bit too successful at luring customers with benefits like access to airlines' private lounges. As a result, those former sanctuaries from the teeming masses are suffused with the teeming masses -- and their bratty kids. And the other ancillary travel benefits are getting dialed back, too. How should this affect your choice of a credit card? Austin has some thoughts. Plus, he has some advice about the best ways to open and use new credit cards.
A full transcript follows the video.
This video was recorded on July 10, 2018.
Alison Southwick: What is the third trend that we're going to talk about today?
Austin Smith: The third trend we're going to talk about is kind of derivative of the second, which is the changing ancillary features of credit cards in favor of putting all of your benefits in one basket. That is the travel benefits-ish trend.
It used to be that credit cards, particularly travel cards, would have all sorts of perks like lounge access at airports, access to pre-check or global entry, which gets you through security faster. What we're finding is that the popularity of a lot of these cards -- particular Chase Sapphire, to name the biggest offender in this space -- has given those benefits to so many people over the last few years that it's eroded the value of it.
Southwick: Oh, yeah, there was the New York Times article. Did you see this?
Smith: I think it was Wall Street Journal.
Southwick: Oh, was it Wall Street Journal? Basically, all these people who used to have the executive lounges at the airports all to themselves were like, "What are all these hoi polloi doing here?"
Smith: "What's the bourgeoisie doing in here?"
Southwick: Basically, they were complaining about little toddlers running around throwing trail mix everywhere, naked.
Robert Brokamp: The credit card commoners!
Southwick: [laughs] It was!
Engdahl: I did that. I brought my kids to the lounge. I was like, "Look at this cool thing! Free food! Help yourselves, kids!"
Smith: OK, we're going to modify this third trend to be the Rick Issue Trend.
Engdahl: They were spinning around in those cool chairs.
Southwick: Meanwhile, international first-class traveler in the next chair is just fuming at you. But you didn't care. Nope. [laughs]
Smith: Him and his five guests.
Southwick: [laughs] Everybody! Kids, strangers, "Come on in!"
Engdahl: I didn't notice/ I was stretched out on one of those couches, taking a snooze.
Brokamp: [laughs] "Someone watch my children, I need a nap."
Smith: Our tip for how to play this trend is actually just to avoid Rick and his friends altogether by no longer going to the airport lounges.
Southwick: News you can use, here on Motley Fool Answers -- avoid Rick.
Smith: But seriously, as so many people have signed up for these benefits, it's eroded the value of what used to be a really premium perk. We advocate that people, again, anchor on the one pillar benefit for you. If it's cash back, find the best cash back card. Don't anchor too much on these ancillary benefits, because they're not as valuable as they used to be.
For example, TSA pre-check used to get you through in about five minutes. Now, with so many people having access to the program, it's closer to 15 or 20. Given that the average TSA line is about 30 minutes, you're really not gaining as much as you used to. Airport lounges have reacted to this inflow of Rick and all his friends, so now you're not getting full meals anymore.
Southwick: [laughs] They just have a picture up in front that says, "No Rick." "Would you like the Rick or No-Rick section?" "I'll take the No-Rick section."
Brokamp: I'll take the Rick section, because I like Rick and his children.
Smith: They pulled back a lot on the volume of benefits. Your meals aren't as large, you aren't getting as many drinks, they might cap the dollar amount that you're getting in that lounge -- which really restricts the value of those benefits to begin with. So, don't chase the ancillary benefits, we say.
Again, the best way to play this is not to anchor too much on the value of a TSA pre-check and lounge access, which sound like they might be great on paper. Pick the biggest benefit to you, find the card that satisfies that. If you still want lounge access, there are other ways to get it that don't involve you taking a card that's otherwise imperfect for your situation.
Brokamp: Let's say someone hears all this, loves all these perks, and they say to you, "Austin, I'm going to go open up a bunch of credit cards to get all this stuff." What do you say to them?
Smith: There's a responsible and an irresponsible way to open a lot of credit cards. The responsible way is to maybe be aware of what your long-term plan is. If you plan on taking out a large loan in the next year, it's not a good time to take out a bunch of credit cards, because you'll ding your score with each extra application. If you're planning on getting a mortgage, not the best time to take out a bunch of cards.
If you're not planning on taking out a mortgage or a car loan in the next, let's say, year, don't take out more cards than you have a capacity to reasonably spend on and pay off. If your monthly spending about $2,000 a month and there are two different cards, and you think you can realize the benefits on both of them with $1,000 a month in spending, that's great. But don't take out so many cards that you have to stretch your spending to hit those bonuses. That's like spending for a sale, spending more to save more, the math doesn't end up adding up. Don't stretch your spending level.
Brokamp: That highlights, by the way, another trend that I know of. As the economy has gotten better, people are more gainfully employed, you'd think that their credit card debt would not grow. Actually, credit card debt is growing as people feel wealthier. Let me just highlight, that trend is not a good trend. Folks, just because you're getting these cards doesn't mean you should load up on them.
Smith: Of course. There's another interesting side to that, which is, we see a lot of people misusing their cards. Millennials in particular are not putting enough credit cards. They tend to be very debit card-heavy users. In some instances, we have users maybe abusing their credit card and loading up on debt and not paying it off. We always advocate to pay it off as quickly as you can, ideally every month so you avoid those interest fees. On the other side, we're seeing some people not using a credit card appropriately at all, because maybe they're so scared of debt and that situation. There's a lot of education needed across the spectrum.
Southwick: We've covered travel hacking before. We've talked about a number of these credit cards. We finally got Chase. If we could hang out in the airport lounge, we would be there right next to you with our Chase card. But, we actually were able to get free plane tickets to Orlando because of our points, and it felt so good! It felt really great! I was so happy. Anyway. That's my success story, that I've actually been taking our advice on travel hacking, a little bit. We opened up the one card and got the free plane tickets. I was more excited about it than Ron was. Ron was like, "Whatever."
Smith: If you're traveling, it's hard to beat the Chase Sapphire card. Although, if you're thinking about the travel hacking game -- I don't know if you've covered this before -- we always advocate for signing up for the Chase cards first because Chase has a 5-24 rule. If you sign up for more than five cards within 24 months across any issuer, you're automatically rejected. So, it's best to get your Chase cards in there first. And the Chase points tend to be one of the more transferable credit card points of all the issuers out there. You have a currency which you can combine with other platforms. If you want to play the travel hacking game, you're on the right first step.
Southwick: Taking baby steps. It is scary. The idea of opening up a bunch of credit cards goes against everything that I grew up believing. So, it's a little scary, but it's going fine. And people like Rick made me a believer. Thumbs up.
Engdahl: I had a really nice hotel suite in Iceland, and I would not have paid cash for that, because that place is expensive. But it was free on points!
Southwick: There you go! All these moments! Alright, how about a disclaimer? Again, where can our listeners go if they want to learn more about the research you've done into credit cards?
Smith: www.theascent.com. I would just remind people that while we are very credit card-heavy to launch -- because there are so many credit card users, it's an integral part of many people's lives, there's a lot of misuse, we're covering that heavily for the first few months, but we are going to be expanding into mortgages, insurance, savings accounts, basically any financial product you can imagine. We're going to be out there reviewing it, testing it ourselves, and giving you our honest, transparent assessment.
Southwick: Alright, there you go! So, everybody, you can head over to theascent.com, and we'll see you at the airport lounge.