Americans are dissatisfied, resentful and apathetic -- about their credit cards! Those are the findings of a recent survey which found more than half of Americans are unhappy with the plastic in their wallet, but not really doing anything about it.
(There are) ... contradictions between how the public thinks about credit cards and how they actually use them, said Elisabeth Demarse of CreditCards.com, the comparison site which sponsored the study. The survey, carried out by GFK Roper Public Affairs and Media for CreditCards.com, found that most cardholders ignore offers they get in the mail and don't bother comparison shopping online for new cards either, even though they're not happy with the card they have.
That's a shame, because competition in the credit card market has pushed issuers to put some good deals on the table. It pays to shop around, regularly review the cards you have, and substitute better cards for the ones you are sick of. Even if your bank doesn't want you to.
Most folks probably don't bother switching cards because they don't want to deal with the pages of fine print that come with every card offer, or they're afraid of traps that aren't disclosed with the offers. Or, perhaps they fear that switching cards will hurt their credit rating. Those are all valid concerns, but do it anyway. Here's how.
-- Ignore this if you're getting ready to buy a house. Switching up your credit cards can have temporary, but negative, effects on your credit scores, so don't start making credit card moves in the months leading up to a mortgage application. Get the mortgage first, and then play your card games.
-- Do some soul searching. Figure out how you use your cards and how you might use them in the future. Be honest about whether you are likely to keep carrying balances or pay them off. Figure out if you have the skill and the discipline to be a real credit card player, like those folks who max out their zero percent offers and then invest the money until the zero percent offer is about to end. Decide whether you can personally manage multiple credit cards without losing track of them. And, be honest about your credit-worthiness. If you've had credit problems in the past, review your cards and your credit score every six months. That might be long enough to raise your score and the quality of card offers you see.
-- Look at the mail and online. Some tempting offers will come to you in a letter. And several Web sites list credit cards and highlight their best deals. Some to check are creditcards.com, indexcreditcards.com, and cardtrak.com.
-- Choose cards that fit your profile. If you're very disciplined and willing to take on several cards, sign up for two or three that give generous rebates. The Costco American Express card, for example, is currently offering some cardholders 5 percent back on gasoline and 3 percent back on restaurant meals. The Citibank Dividend Platinum Select MasterCard is offering six months of 5 percent rebates at gas stations, supermarkets, drug stores and some utilities and 2 percent back on those categories after six months. Many other cards offer 1 percent back on everything.
If, on the other hand, you are stuck with a balance you can't burn, look for one of those juicy zero percent offers, and transfer the balance there.
If you're a serious shopper, note that several card companies and issuers have started offering additional rebates from merchants if you shop through their online portal. Look for rewards that you'll really use.
-- Read all that small print. One trap that is catching some consumers now is that several issuers have stopped capping the balance transfer fee on those zero offers. With a 3 percent balance transfer fee on the entire amount transferred, you really have to make sure you're getting zero percent for a full year to make it worthwhile, but a limit on that fee is better, and no fee is best of all. Many cash-back cards also cap the amount of cash back you can get in a year; that's why big spenders will find it worthwhile to use more than one card.
-- Cancel the cards you don't want. You may have to apply for more than one card at the same time to get the best deal, because issuers won't tell you how big your credit limit is going to be until you apply. Don't keep all those cards open. Keep your longest standing card open; that will help your credit score. Cancel relatively new ones that you're not using or that aren't as great as they used to be. And prepare to do all of this again in a year, because the deals, and your needs, are changing, and the card issuers will want your business then as badly as they want it now.