by Christy Bieber | Updated July 21, 2021 - First published on Dec. 30, 2020
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How many of them do you have?
Using credit cards for your purchases can be a great decision because rewards cards let you benefit from spending you'd do anyway. But credit cards are a helpful financial tool only if you use them properly -- and unfortunately, millions of Americans haven't done that.
In fact, recent research from Northwestern Mutual shows that a whopping 61% of Americans who have credit card debt would have changed the way they used their cards in the past. Here are the three big changes that they would have made.
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The most common change Americans would have made is to limit credit card use to primarily cover necessities. More than half of those with credit card debt -- 56% total -- said they would restrict their spending on cards to the essentials, if given the chance.
This makes sense to some degree, because charging luxuries or any unnecessary purchases is a bad idea. You don't want to end up paying interest on things you didn't need -- especially when committing to ongoing monthly principal and interest payments reduces the cash available to you going forward.
Of course, the problem is that charging necessities isn't really a good idea either if you're going to carry a credit card balance. By charging anything on your card that you don't pay off in full by the end of the month, you end up making all your purchases more expensive.
Instead of switching to only charging necessities, plan to charge whatever you want on your card -- with the caveat that you need to pay off the bill when the statement comes due. Just make sure you restrict your essential and discretionary spending to an amount you can fully repay by living on a budget.
Among Americans with debt who wish they could change their past charging behavior, 37% wish they'd have understood their interest rates better. This makes a lot of sense too, as interest rates on credit cards are extremely high. That's why it's not a good idea to carry a credit card balance if you can avoid it.
If you're unhappy with the interest rate on your current credit card, your best bet is to look into lowering it. You may be able to do that by using a balance transfer card or securing a low-interest personal loan.
But if you avoid carrying a balance on your cards, it won't matter what your interest rate is since you won't be paying interest anyway.
Finally, 23% of people who carry a balance wish they'd have waited to get a credit card until they really needed one. This, too, is understandable. If you're tempted to use your card irresponsibly for luxury purchases, it makes sense to avoid that temptation by not having one.
Of course, the problem is that when you need a credit card, you may not necessarily be able to apply for and get approved for one in time. And charging on a card during a time of financial trouble is only going to make your future situation worse since you'll be taking on debt you have to pay back.
Instead of waiting to get a card as a plan for emergencies, aim to save up an emergency fund so you won't rely on credit during a time of need. That way, if you can't use a card responsibly, you won't have to get one at all.
And if you can make smart choices about using a card to only charge what you can pay off in full, there's no reason to delay getting one. You should secure the right rewards card ASAP, rack up points, miles, or cash back, and repay your debt in full each month.
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