Michael Hlinka: Beware credit card debt this holiday
- December 17, 2009 8:46 AM |
- By Michael Hlinka
Money Talks is a business column from CBC radio.
By Michael Hlinka, CBC business columnist:
Isn't there a song that goes "it's the most wonderful time of the year"? I tend to agree. I love the Holiday Season - it's a wonderful opportunity to connect with friends and family and the older I get, the more I realize this is exactly what Holidays should be about. But it's also a time when we all tend to open our wallets just that little bit wider than usual, and pull out that plastic just a little bit faster so that we can enjoy now, but pay later.
Which is why a release from the Investor Education Fund was so timely. This not-for-profit organization offers unbiased information to the public, and one of the particularly valuable tools on its website: getsmartaboutmoney.ca is a calculator that helps you determine how long it will take to pay off your credit card bill.
And this is particularly important at this point in history. Canadians are carrying record amounts of debt, mostly to finance our purchases of real estate.
At the end of June, the ratio of money owed to total income earned was a whopping 142 per cent. The good news is that much of this borrowing has been financed with low interest rates. But that's not true of credit card debt.
This is why the Investor Education Fund recommends that when you get a credit card in the first place, make sure that it comes with a low, fixed-rate loan. Then be sure to pay on time, preferably the full amount, but at least the minimum. It's all common sense stuff - but that's not so common these days when it comes to financial literacy.
I can see the sea-change in my lifetime. My grandparents - on both sides of the family - lived happy and fulfilled lives and never had a single credit card. I have distinct memories of one of my grandfathers - who owned his own small gardening company - pulling out a wad of bills from his shirt pocket to pay for a new truck he needed for his business.
When I was in university, I didn't have a single friend who had a single credit card. Now as a community college teacher, I don't have a single student who doesn't have at least one - and often many more than one - credit card.
Not that there's anything bad about credit cards themselves. But there is something bad about getting in over your head when it comes to credit card debt. That can happen any time, but it's especially easy in the lead-up to Christmas.
So here's the correct way to think about credit cards: They're a wonderful cash management tool that allow you to use someone else's money for free. If you go out for dinner in December, you don't have to pay for it until January - and that's a pretty good deal. But the key point is this: You'd better be able to pay for it - IN FULL - in January… otherwise you're the one who's allowing others to dine today and pay tomorrow. The credit card companies have to make their money somewhere.
And anyway, it shouldn't be about where you're having dinner and how much you're spending … it really should be about who you're having it with and how much you're enjoying their company.
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