Good Debt vs Bad Debt: Key Characteristics

Not all debt is bad! The specific definitions of good debt vs bad debt will vary from person to person. For people who plan to retire very early and live on a limited income or for people who know that they have a hard time paying their bills either for lack of money or organization skills, most debt is likely to be problematic.  For other people, taking on debt is less of an issue.

One of my followers was thinking of expanding his business and was concerned that taking on debt would be harmful. As part of helping him with his thinking, I identified general characteristics that distinguish good debt vs bad debt. He ended up selling his business instead of expanding it, but I am sharing my insights in this post. These characteristics may not apply to your particular situation, so be sure to think about them in the context of your own situation and temperament.

Characteristics of Bad Debt

Here are five characteristics of debts that I would consider bad.

You Don’t Understand the Terms

Loans and other sources of borrowing, such as credit cards, all have different terms. It is important that you understand the terms of your debt. For example, some loans, mortgages in particular, have adjustable rates. That is, the interest rate that you pay on your loan will change as a benchmark interest rate changes. If the benchmark interest rate increases, your loan payments will also increase.

Credit cards also can have interest rates that change. A teaser rate is an interest rate that applies to credit card debt for the first several months to a year. After that initial period, the interest rate charged on credit card debt can be very high.

Another example of a loan provision that can be problematic is a balloon payment. Some loans, including some mortgages in the US and many mortgages in Canada, have balloon payment provisions. For the initial period of time (often five years for Canadian mortgages), you make payments on your loan as if you were re-paying the loan over 30 years. However, at the end of the fifth year, the entire balance of the loan is due. The Canadian mortgage I reviewed requires the lender to re-finance the loan at the end of the fifth year, but at an interest rate that reflects the then-current interest rate environment and your then-current credit rating. In effect, that loan has an adjustable interest rate that depends not only on a benchmark interest rate but also changes in your credit score.

I consider any debt for which you don’t fully understand the terms, best avoided by reading the entirety of the loan document, as bad debt.

You Can’t Afford the Payments

When you enter into a loan agreement, you will be provided with the amount and timing of loan payments. With credit cards, the payments are usually due monthly and are a function of how much you charge and the card’s interest rate. Any debt that has payments that don’t fit in your budget is bad debt.   I would even take it one step further and say that any debt that has payments so high that you aren’t able to save for emergencies, large purchases and retirement is bad debt.

High Interest Rate

Some types of debt, such as credit cards and payday loans, have very high interest rates. The definition of a high interest rate depends on the economic conditions. Currently (around 2020), I would say any interest rate of more than 8% to 10% is high. By comparison, when I was young in the early 1980s, the interest rate on a 10-year US Government bond was more than 15% and mortgage rates were even higher.

If you have debt with high interest rates, you will be better off re-paying them as quickly as possible as you can’t earn a high enough investment return on any excess savings to cover the interest cost. That is, the investment return you can earn on the money, especially after tax, is going to be less than the interest rate you pay on the debt. In that case, it doesn’t make financial sense to invest any excess cash but rather you will be better off by using any excess cash to pay off the debt.

Depreciating Collateral

In many cases, debt is used to purchase something large, such as a boat, a home or a car. When you make a large purchase, the item you bought is considered collateral and the lender can take the collateral if you don’t make your loan payments.

The value of some items goes down (depreciates) faster than the principal of the loan. If you default on your payments when that happens, the lender is allowed to make you pay the difference. Determining whether your purchase is something that will retain its value or will depreciate quickly is a good test of whether it is financially responsible to use debt to make the purchase. If not, I would consider the purchase a poor use of debt.

No Long-Term Benefit

Many other purchases for which debt, such as credit cards and payday loans, is used have no long-term benefit. For example, if you buy a knick-knack for your home with a credit card and don’t pay the balance when the credit card is due, you will be paying interest for something that has no long-term benefit to you. I consider using debt for items or experiences with no long-term benefit to be bad.

There is a gray area. If you use debt to buy clothes that are required for your job, the clothes themselves don’t have a long-term benefit, but they could be considered as creating the ability to go to work and earn money.   As such, while I would normally consider clothes as a poor use of debt, I can see how work clothes that allow you to increase your income might need to be financed for a month or two on a credit card.

Characteristics of Good Debt (vs Bad Debt)

The first requirement of good debt is that it doesn’t have any of the characteristics of bad debt. That is, good debt:

  • Has terms you fully understand.
  • Fits in your budget, especially if your budget also includes saving for retirement, large purchases and an emergency fund.
  • Is one that has a reasonable interest rate.
  • Isn’t backed by depreciating collateral.
  • Is used for something with long-term benefit.

There are many ways in which a debt can create a long-term benefit. I’ve mentioned buying clothes required for a job that allows you to earn money, in particular a lot more money than the cost of paying off the debt.

Your Primary Residence

Most people borrow, using a mortgage, to purchase a home.   The market values of homes generally increase over long periods of time, though there are periods of times when the market values of homes decrease. In addition, there are a lot of carrying costs of owning a home, such as insurance, property taxes, maintenance and repairs. However, by owning a home, you don’t have to pay rent which, in theory, covers all of the costs of home ownership.

I think that buying a house is a good use of debt as long as the mortgage meets all of the criteria identified above. Although not specifically related to the use of debt, you might want to think carefully about buying a home (with or without debt) if you plan to live in it for only a short period of time. The transactions costs of buying and selling a home are high and you increase the likelihood that the value of the house will decrease if you own it for only a few years.

Your Car

Using debt to buy a car is also quite common. If you are using the debt to cover the cost of your only mode of transportation and you need it to get to work, it can be a good use of debt. Again, you’ll want to check that it has the other characteristics of good debt identified above.   Using debt to buy a car that is more expensive than you need or leads to loan payments that are higher than you can afford is not as good a use of debt.

Your Education

Many people use student loans to pay for college. From an economic perspective, student loans can be either good or bad. The criteria for evaluating the student loans are:

  • Will the increase in your wages will cover your loan payments?
  • Will you earn enough after graduation to allow the loan payments to fit in your budget?

For example, let’s say you can earn $30,000 a year if you don’t go to college and $40,000 if you get a degree. If you borrowed $50,000 a year for four years at 5% with a 10-year term, your payments would be more than $25,000 per year.

First Criterion

Over the term of the loan, your increase in wages ($10,000 per year) is less than your loan payments. Over your working life time, the return on your investment in your student loans is about 3.5%. The return on investment is positive, so the use of debt could be justified using the first criterion.

Second Criterion

It might be very difficult to cover the $25,000 of annual student loan payments on annual wages of $40,000 a year. If you are willing and able to live on $15,000 a year until your student loans are re-paid, they could be considered a good investment economically.

A smaller amount of debt or a larger increase in salary will improve the economic benefit of student loans. If you are considering student loans to finance your education, you’ll want to look at their economic costs and benefits carefully.

Your Business

When you start your own business, you often need to invest in one or more of equipment, inventory or a place to run your business.  Many people borrow money to make these initial investments. Starting a profitable business can be a very good use of debt, as it provides you the opportunity to increase your net worth. However, 30% of businesses fail in the first year and 50% fail in five years, according to the Small Business Administration, as reported by Investopedia. If you borrow money to start a small business and it fails, you will often still be liable for re-paying the debt, depending on whether you had to personally guarantee the loan or if the business was able to procure the loan.

Investing

There are at least a couple of ways you can use “debt” to invest.

Don’t Pre-Pay Your Debt

The most common way to use debt to invest is to invest extra money rather than using the money to pre-pay your mortgage or other debt. Whether it is good or bad to use this “debt” to increase your investing depends on several factors and your financial situation:

  • The longer the term on your debt, the better the choice is to invest instead of pre-paying your debt. If your loan payments only extend over a year or two, it is more likely that your investments will lose money making you worse off than if you pre-paid your loan. Over long periods of time, your investment returns are more likely to be positive.
  • The lower the interest rate on your debt, the better the choice it is to invest instead of pre-pay your debt. If the interest rate on your debt is higher than you can expect to earn on the investments you would buy (after considering income taxes), you will almost always be better off pre-paying your loan. If your interest rate is low, e.g., less than 3% or 4%, you are more likely to earn more in investment returns than the interest cost on your debt.
  • You have another source of income to make your loan payments if your investments decrease in value. For example, if you were planning to retire in the next few years, pre-paying your debt is more likely to be a better decision than investing. On the other hand, if you plan to have other sources of income besides your investments for the next 10 or more years, you might be better off investing rather than pre-paying your debt.

Investing on Margin

Another way you can use debt to invest is to buy your investments on margin. Under this approach, you borrow money from the brokerage (or similar) firm to buy your investments using your existing invested assets as collateral. In many cases, you can borrow up to 50% of the value of your existing assets. So, if you have $100,000 of stocks, you could borrow $50,000 to make additional investments.

The drawback of buying investments on margin is that the lender can make you re-pay the loan or a portion of it as soon as the value of the assets you own (the $100,000 of stocks in my example) decreases to less than twice the amount you’ve borrowed. Unfortunately, the amount you borrowed may have decreased in value at the same time while the amount you borrowed as stayed constant. As such, buying investments on margin is considered very risky and should be done only by people who fully understand all of its ramifications.

Final Thoughts on Good Debt vs. Bad Debt

Debt, when used carefully, can greatly improve your life and your ability to earn money. However, if you take on too much bad debt, it can lead to significant financial problems. This post has provided a framework to help you decide whether any debts you have or are considering are likely to be good debt vs bad debt.

Recovery from Financial Disaster

Ever wonder how you’d handle a complete reversal of your finances? I have a friend who had a lifestyle most people would envy and lost everything, including her marriage. I didn’t meet her until after her recovery from her financial disaster. She is one of the most resilient, generous people I know and was kind enough to let me interview her about the changes in her life, the financial lessons she learned and her advice to you on how to avoid finding yourself in a similar situation.

The High Life

“My life was very plentiful with many material objects.

  • 6,000+ square foot custom designed home – 6 bedrooms, 5 bathrooms and two full kitchens
  • Photography and recording studios
  • In ground swimming pool
  • Custom designed furniture
  • Six cars
  • Trips
  • Private education for both kids
  • Entertainment

I never priced groceries, just grab and dash.  We belonged to a private country club as well.  We also had an investment property that we rented to a family member.”

Tell Me about Your Finances

“I did not think of my financial future.  I was in my mid to late 40s and I thought the gravy train would never stop.  We had many investments, 401(k) and IRA retirement accounts for us as well as the children.  My husband was a very successful stock broker, financial planner and money management specialist. We had a dual income, and mine paid for the cream on the top.”

What Happened?

“The stock market along with the real estate market became very soft in 2007.  When I began to notice that these change were imminent, I suggested that we liquidate assets into a strong cash position.  My husband dismissed my thoughts on this topic because I had never been persistent in being a co-manager of our funds.  The economy was showing its ugly powerful head and so was our 40-year marriage.

Things went from bad to worse.  We lost our home. Instead of getting money from the buyer when we sold our house, we had to come to closing with a six-figure check to pay off the mortgage balance (because we owed more than we got for the house). Otherwise, we would have had to negotiate a short sale with the holders of the loan on the house to try to get them to accept only the amount for which we sold it, but chose to close in a traditional manner due to a prideful attitude that made no sense at all.

We divorced.  The money, the investments and the lifestyle were gone.  I was 59 years old. Our children were grown and gone.  Thank God they had their educations!”

What Did You Do?

“I moved into a house with five other people to secure a reasonable rent of $600 a month.  I rolled up my sleeves and decided to re-invent myself as a strong salesperson with a steady stream of income.  As part of creating a fiscally responsible lifestyle, I consolidated my debt and made a conscious effort to understand my taxes and my expenses.  These changes allowed me to pay off the tax liability for which I was half responsible after the divorce.”

What is Your Life like Now?

“My lifestyle now is very simple.

  • I use one credit card.
  • If I can’t afford something, I don’t buy it.
  • I shop at thrift stores, make curtains, paint, have learned some electrical skills and can do just about anything.

Having made the financial changes, I now have the opportunity to travel. I have investments and simple monthly debt. My credit score is very high and I am able to contribute to my savings account and an IRA on a regular basis.”

What Advice Do You Have?

“I learned these financial lessons that might help your readers:

  • Always know your cash position whether or not you are wealthy.
  • Have a good grasp on your finances.  Knowledge is power.
  • Cash is king.
  • Know your financial position at all times.
  • Stay away from credit cards and their incredible interest rates.
  • Save and keep adding to your retirement.”

Closing Thoughts from Susie Q

You’ll notice that my friend’s financial lessons learned are similar to themes you’ve seen in posts I’ve written, especially in the post on advice we gave our kids.

Her story, though, provides real-life insights into why these actions are so important.

You’d never know if you met my friend now that she had to make such a long recovery from financial disaster. She is always upbeat, willing to lend a hand and a great motivator. In fact, she contributed to the initial costs of this blog because she was so thrilled that I am willing to share my knowledge with others to help them be financially literate. I hope I am as resilient as she is if I ever face an equally daunting challenge.

The Best Ways to Pay Off Your Debt

The Best Ways to Pay Off Your Debt

The best way to pay off your short-term and revolving debt depends on your priorities and what motivates you.  Two of the common approaches for determining the order in which to re-pay your loans discussed in financial literacy circles are the Debt Snowball and Debt Avalanche approaches.

Both of these methods apply when you have more than one debt that needs to be re-paid.  If you have only one debt to re-pay, the best strategy is to pay it down as quickly as possible, making the minimum payments as often as you can to avoid finance charges which will be added to your principal in addition to the interest charges on any portion of your balance you don’t pay.

In this post, I’ll describe how the two debt-repayment methods work using some illustrations.  I will then help you understand which approach might be better for you.  For more information about the fundamentals of debt, check out my posts on loans and credit cards.

What’s Included and What’s Not

The debts covered by this post include credit cards (one kind of revolving debt), personal loans, car loans and other bills that are overdue. While longer-term loans, such as mortgages, are referenced in the budgeting process, I haven’t included them in the debt re-payment examples. If you have unpaid short-term debt, you’ll want to keep up with the payments on these longer-term loans first, but don’t need to pre-pay them. For this discussion, I will assume that you intend to re-pay all of your debts to your current debtholders. That is, you haven’t dug a hole so deep you need to declare bankruptcy and you don’t feel you’ll benefit from transferring some or all of your high-interest rate loan balances to one with a lower interest (i.e., debt consolidation).

Debt Snowball

Dave Ramsay, a well-known author on financial literacy topics, proposed the Debt Snowball method for paying off your debts.  Under this method, you do the following:

  1. Identify all of your debts, including the amounts of the minimum payments.
  2. Make a budget. (See this post for more on budgeting generally or this one for the first of a step-by-step series on budgeting including a helpful spreadsheet.) Your budget should include all of your expenses excluding your short-term and revolving debts but including the payments you plan to make on your longer-term debts (e.g., car loans and mortgages).
  3. Determine the total amount left in your budget available to re-pay your debts, remembering that you need to be able to pay for the total cost of all of your current purchases before you start paying off the balances on your existing debt. If the amount available to re-pay debts is less than the total of your minimum payments, you may need to look into your options to consolidate or re-structure your debts, get them forgiven or declare bankruptcy.
  4. Otherwise, make the minimum payment on all of your debts except the smallest one.
  5. Take everything left over in your budget from step (3) and reduce it by the sum of the minimum payments in step (4). Use that balance to pay off your smallest debt. After you fully re-pay the smallest debt, you’ll apply the remainder to the next smallest debt and so on.

Debt Avalanche

The Debt Avalanche method is very similar to the Debt Snowball method, except you re-pay your debts in a different order.

The first three steps under the Debt Avalanche method are the same as the first three steps under the Debt Snowball method.  It differs from the Debt Snowball method in that you pay the minimum payment on all of your debts except the one with the highest interest rate at any given time instead of the one with the smallest balance.

Examples

I’ve created the two examples to compare the two methods.  In both examples, I have assumed that you use a different credit card or pay cash for all new purchases until your current credit card balances are re-paid.  That is, to make progress on getting out of debt, you need to not only make extra payments on your existing debts, but also not create additional debt by borrowing to pay for new purchases.  It’s tough!

Example 1

In this example, you have two debts with the balances due, interest rates and minimum payments shown in the table below.

Example 1 Balance Due Interest Rate Minimum Payment
Debt 1 $1,500 20% $30
Debt 2 500 10% 10

You have determined you have  $100 available to pay off these two debts.  The minimum payments total $40 in this example, so you have $60 available to pay off more of the principal on your debts.

Example 1: Debt Snowball

Under the Debt Snowball method, you will use the additional $60 a month you have to pay off Debt 2 first, as it has the smaller balance.  That is, you will pay the minimum payment of $30 a month on Debt 1 and $70 a month on Debt 2 for 8 months, at which point Debt 2 will be fully re-paid.  You will then apply the full $100 a month to Debt 1 for the next 17 months until it is fully re-paid

Under this approach, you will have fully re-paid both debts in 25 months and will pay $428 in interest charges.

Example 1:  Debt Avalanche

In Example 1, you will use the additional $60 a month you have to pay off Debt 1 first under the Debt Avalanche method, as it has the higher interest rate, whereas you used the additional amount to pay off Debt 2 first under the Debt Snowball method.  That is, you will pay the minimum balance of $10 a month on Debt 2 and $90 a month on Debt 1 for 20 months, at which point Debt 1 will be fully re-paid.  You will then apply the full $100 a month to Debt 2 for the next 4 months until it is fully re-paid

Under this approach, you will have fully re-paid both debts in 24 months and will pay $352 in interest charges.

Example 2

In this example, you have five debts with the balances due, interest rates and minimum payments shown in the table below.

Example 2 Balance Due Interest Rate Minimum Payment
Debt 1 $1,000 10% $40
Debt 2 500 0% 25
Debt 3 10,000 20% 100
Debt 4 3,000 15% 75
Debt 5 750 5% 30

You have $500 available to pay off these debts.  In this example, the minimum payments total $270, so you have $230 available to pay off the principal on your debts in addition to the principal included in the minimum payments.

Example 2: Debt Snowball

Example 2 is a bit more complicated because there are more debts.  As a reminder, under this approach, you apply all of your extra payments ($230 in this example) to the smallest debt at each point in time.  In this example, you will make the additional payments on your debts in the following order:

Debt 2

Debt 5

Debt 1

Debt 4

Debt 3

It takes only two months to pay off Debt 2 and another four months to pay off Debt 4.  As such, you will have fully re-paid two of your debts in six months.  In total, it will take 43 months to re-pay all of your loans and you will pay $5,800 in interest.

Example 2:  Debt Avalanche

In this example, you will make the additional payments on your debts in the following order:

Debt 3

Debt 4

Debt 1

Debt 5

Debt 2

It turns out that Debt 2 is fully re-paid in 20 months even just making the minimum payments.  Debt 5 is paid off 7 months later again with only minimum payments, followed by Debt 1 2 months later.  As each of these debts is re-paid, the amounts of their minimum payments are added to the payment on Debt 3 until it is fully re-paid after 39 months.  At that point, the full $500 a month is applied towards Debt 4 which then takes only 2 additional months to fully re-pay.  In total, it will take 41 months to re-pay all of your loans and you will pay $5,094 in interest.

Comparison

Dollars and Sense – Two Examples

Looking at the two examples, we can get a sense for how much more interest you will pay if you use the Debt Snowball method instead of the Debt Avalanche method.  The table below compares the two methods under both examples.

Example 1 Example 2
Interest Paid Months of Payments Interest Paid Months of Payments
Snowball $428 25 $5,800 43
Avalanche 352 24 5,094 41
Difference 74 1 706 2

In these two examples, you pay more than 10% more interest if you use the Debt Snowball method than the Debt Avalanche method, leading to one or two additional months before your debts are fully re-paid.

Dollars and Sense – In General

The difference in the amount of additional interest depends on whether your debts are similar in size and the differences in the interest rates.  I’ll take that statement apart to help you understand it.

  • If the debt with the lower interest rate is very small, you will pay it off quickly.  As a result, there is only a very short period of time during which you are paying the higher interest on the larger loan under the Debt Snowball method.  As such, there will be very little difference in the total amount of interest paid between the two methods in that case.
  • If the debts all have about the same interest rate, it doesn’t really matter which one you re-pay first, as the interest charges on that first loan will be very similar to the interest charges on your other loans.

Dollars and Sense – Illustration

The graph below illustrates the impact of the differences in interest rates and sizes of two loans on the difference in the total interest paid.  To create this graph, I took different variations of Example 1.  That is, you have two loans with outstanding balances totaling $2,000 and the interest rate on the larger debt is 20%.

 

How to Read the Axes

The interest rate on the smaller loan was calculated as 20% minus the increment shown on the axis labeled on the right.  That is, the interest rate on the smaller loan for scenarios near the “front” of the graph was 18% or 2 percentage points lower than the 20% interest rate on the larger loan.  Near the “back” of the graph, the interest rate on the smaller loan is 0% or 20 percentage points lower than the interest rate on the larger loan.

The loan balance on the smaller loan divided by the total debt amount of $2,000 is shown on the axis that goes from left to right.  The small loan is $40 (2% of $2,000) at the far left of the graph and increases as you move to the right to $960 (48% of $2,000) on the far right.  Note that, if the small loan exceeded $1,000, it would have become the bigger loan!

The Green Curve

The green curve corresponds to the total interest paid using the Debt Snowball method minus the total interest paid using the Debt Avalanche method.  For example, at the front left, corresponding to the small loan being $40 with an 18% (=20% – 2%) interest rate, there is a $2 difference in the amount of interest paid.  At the other extreme, in the back right of the graph (0% interest rate on a small loan with a balance of $960), you will pay $167 more in interest ($308 versus $140 or more than twice as much) if you use the Debt Snowball method rather than the Debt Avalanche method.

What It Means

Interestingly, moving along only one axis – that is, only decreasing the interest rate on the small loan or only increasing the size of the smaller loan – doesn’t make very much difference.  In the back left and front right, the interest rate differences are only $15 and $22, respectively.  The savings from the Debt Avalanche method becomes most important when there is a large difference in the interest rates on the loans and the outstanding balances on the loans are similar in size.

Sense of Accomplishment

For many people, debt is an emotional or “mental-state” issue rather than a financial problem.  In those situations, it is more important to gain a sense of accomplishment than it is to save money on interest.  If you are one of those people  and have one or more small debts that you can fully re-pay fairly quickly (such as Debts 2 and 5 in Example 2 both of which were paid off in six months under the Debt Snowball method), using the Debt Snowball method is likely to be much more successful.

Key Points

Here are the key points from this post:

  • A budget will help you figure out how much you can afford to apply to your debts each month.
  • If you can’t cover your minimum payments, you’ll need to consider some form of consolidation, re-financing or even bankruptcy, none of which are covered in this post.
  • If you have only one debt to re-pay, the best strategy is to pay it down as quickly as possible, but making the minimum payments as often as you can to avoid finance charges.
  • You will always pay at least as much, and often more, interest when you use the Debt Snowball method as compared to the Debt Avalanche method.
  • Unless you have two or more debts that are all about the same size and have widely varying interest rates, the total interest you will pay is essentially the same regardless of the order in which you re-pay them.  As such, if the sense of accomplishment you get from paying off a few debts will help keep you motivated, using the Debt Snowball method may be the right choice for you.
  • If you have two or more debts that are all about the same size and have disparate interest rates, you will want to use the Debt Avalanche Approach.  Because the balances are all about the same, it will take about the same amount of time to re-pay the first loan regardless of which loan you choose to re-pay first!  As such, it is better to focus on the interest you will save by using the Debt Avalanche approach.

 

Credit Cards: What You Need to Know

Credit-Cards

Credit cards are a terrific convenience but also can be very costly.  Effective use of a credit card can make life easier and improve your credit score.  On the other hand, credit cards are an example of bad debt. It is easy to buy more than you can afford using a credit card, leading to high interest charges and a lower credit score.  The latter process can lead to a downward spiral as the purchases you couldn’t afford lead to ever increasing finance and interest charges on your credit card.  At the same time, your credit score goes down which increases the interest rate on other loans, if you can get them at all as discussed in this post. For a real-world example of how credit cards and lead to a financial disaster, check out this post about a friend of mine.

In this post, I’ll explain how credit cards work, including how finance and interest charges normally apply.  Every credit card is different, so you’ll want to look closely at the terms of any credit cards you currently carry or for which you plan to apply.

How They Work

When a financial institution issues you a credit card, it is offering you a loan in an amount that you can choose based on the amount of your purchases up to your credit limit.

Credit Cards from Your Perspective

From your perspective, you:

  • Pay the annual fee, if there is one.
  • Make purchases or get a cash advance. When you get a cash advance, you are borrowing cash from your credit card company instead of borrowing money to buy something.  You can get a cash advance at an ATM, among other places.
  • Pay your bill – hopefully the full amount every month, but at least the minimum payment if at all possible. If you don’t pay your bill in full, issuers will add interest charges to your next bill, as discussed below.  If you don’t pay as much as your minimum payment, they will also add finance charges.
  • Get rewards. Many credit cards provide rewards in the form of cash back or “points” that can be used for travel or other purchases.

In addition, you have the option to transfer your balance from one credit card to another.  Many people make this type of transfer when they have at least one credit card with a very high interest rate and one with a low interest rate.  By transferring the balance from the high-rate card to the low-rate card, you can reduce the amount of interest you will pay.  Most issuers charge a fee of roughly 3% of the amount transferred when you make a transfer.  If your interest rate decreases by more than 3 percentage points and you are paying off your credit card debt fairly slowly, though, your interest savings will be more in one year or a little longer than the transfer fee. As discussed below, though, the transfer could impact the interest charged on other purchases, so you’ll want to look at the whole picture before making a transfer.

Credit Cards from the Issuer’s Perspective

Income

The credit card issuer generates revenue from several sources:

  • Your annual fees.
  • Interest and financial charges you pay.
  • Fees it receives from vendors who accept their credit cards. Most issuers require vendors to pay them 2% to 4% of the amount of your purchases.  Recently, some vendors have started passing these fees on to customers.  That is, they charge customers who use credit cards more than customers who use a check or pay cash.  I ran into that when paying for many of the costs of our daughter’s wedding.  To keep the cost down, I made sure I paid any vendors who charged these fees using an electronic transfer.
  • Finance charges. If you don’t make a payment toward your credit card bill at all or the amount you pay is less than the minimum payment, issuers charge you a fee in addition to the interest charges.
  • Cash advance fees.  Many issuers charge $10 to $25 or 5% of the amount every time you get a cash advance.  I never use my credit card for a cash advance as 5% of the cash is a steep charge to access cash.  There are emergencies, though, when having cash at any price is imperative.
  • Foreign transaction fees. Many issuers charge fees when you buy something outside your home country.  I carry two Visa cards one of which charges me 3% on my purchases every time I leave the US.  For years, I carried only one credit card but I was leaving the US for a month to travel and decided I wanted a back-up card.  I went to the bank where I keep my checking account and clearly didn’t read the fine print! In hindsight, it was silly to get a back-up credit card for travel with such a high foreign transaction fee.

Issuers’ Expenses

Credit card issuers have four primary expenses – their overhead costs (salaries, rent, etc.), the cost of the rewards they give customers, the cost of borrowing the money that they “loan” you between the time you make a charge and pay your bill, and the amount of money they have to write off because customers don’t pay their bills.

When Do You Pay Interest

If you pay your credit card bill in full every month, you don’t transfer a balance from another card and you don’t get a cash advance from your credit card, you won’t pay any interest.   When you do any of those things, you’ll get interest charges.

Interest on Unpaid Balances

You pay interest on unpaid balances from the day they are due until the day the issuer receives your payment for those charges.  Once you haven’t paid your previous bill in full by its due date, though, the issuer starts charging interest on the day you make each future purchase rather than starting on the day the bill is due until all charges have been paid in full.  I’ll provide an example of this difference below.

Interest on Cash Advances

You pay interest on cash advances from the day you withdraw the money until the day the credit card company receives your payment.  I looked at one of my credit cards and it has a higher interest rate on cash advances in addition to having interest charges from the date of the withdrawal.  The same is true with other credit cards I’ve seen on line or discussed with my friends.

Interest on Balance Transfers

Some issuers allow you to transfer the balance from one credit card to another. You might want to do this type of transfer if the interest rate on one card with a balance is significantly higher than another card you hold.  When you make this type of transfer, the issuer starts charging you interest on the day of the transfer and continues to do so until you pay the balance in full.

In addition, even if you had previously paid off the balance on the card to which you transferred your balance, you will pay interest on all new purchases starting on the date of purchase.  That is, until you have fully paid off your credit card balance including the amount transferred, you do not get a grace period between the date of purchase and the due date of your bill.  The additional interest could offset some or all of the savings you attain by reducing your interest rate when you transfer a balance.  This article from creditcards.com provides more details about some of the risks and benefits of transferring a balance.

How Is Interest Calculated

Still confused about how and when interest is calculated?  Hopefully these examples will help.  Before going into the examples, I need to explain what the interest rate or APR (annual percentage rate) really means.

A 24% APR, for example, doesn’t mean you pay 24% interest if you carry your balance for a full year.  The 24% is divided by 365 (number of days in a year) to get a daily rate.  The daily rate is multiplied by your balance on each day and added to the balance for the next day.  As such, if you didn’t pay or charge anything on your balance for a year, the interest rate on the beginning balance would not be 24%, but rather 27.1%!  I calculated 27.1% as (1+.24/365)365 – 1.  By raising the term inside the parentheses to the 365 power, I’m compounding the daily interest charge for a full year (365 days).

Example 1 – Paid Bill in Full Last Month

In the first example, I’ll show how interest is calculated if you paid your bill in full at the end of the previous billing cycle.  Here are the assumptions for this example:

  • Interest rate on charges = 18%
  • Cash advance interest rate = 24%
  • The cash advance fee is the greater of $10 or 5% of the amount of the cash advance
  • You make a $500 purchase on Day 5
  • You take a $100 cash advance on Day 8
  • Your issuers receives your payment on Day 10 of the next billing cycle (i.e., 33 days after you took the cash advance)

In this example, you don’t pay any interest on the $500 purchase during this billing cycle.

The cash advance is different.  First, you are charged the cash advance fee.  5% of your cash advance is $5 which is less than the $10 minimum, so you will be charged $10 as a cash advance fee.  In addition, you will pay interest at a 24% APR.  The interest charge is $2.19 which is calculated as:

As such, you will re-pay the issuer $112.19 for the $100 cash advance you received. This example illustrates why it is often better to tap sources of cash other than your credit card, if at all possible.

Example 2 – Didn’t Pay Bill in Full Last Month

In this example, I’ll show how interest is calculated if you didn’t pay your bill in full at the end of the previous billing cycle.  Here are the assumptions for this example:

  • Interest rate on charges = 18%
  • Unpaid balance from last month = $750
  • You make a $500 purchase on Day 5
  • Your issuer receives your payment in full on Day 10 of the next billing cycle

I haven’t included a cash advance in this example because it will cost you the same amount regardless of whether you paid your bill in full in the previous month.

In this example, you will pay interest on your unpaid balance for the 30 days in the month plus the 10 days into the next billing cycle, for a total of 40 days. The interest on this balance totals $14.93 and is calculated as:

In addition, you pay interest on the $500 purchase for 25 days in this billing cycle plus the 10 days in the next billing cycle, for a total of 35 days.  The interest charge on this purchase is $8.70 for a total interest charge of $23.63. If you have gotten behind on your credit card balances, check on this post for strategies that will help you get caught up.

The Best Credit Card for You

As with every financial decision, picking the best credit card for you requires balancing the costs and benefits.  In large part, the best credit card for you depends on how you will use it.  The bottom line is that you want the credit card that will have the greatest net benefit or lowest net cost for you.  Here’s how you can calculate that benefit/cost.

Plusses

The plus in the equation that determines your net benefit is the value of any rewards you earn.  Some credit cards provide no rewards, so the total plusses equal 0.  Other credit cards provide rewards, such as  1% of all purchases or 5% of gas purchases plus 3% of food purchases plus 1% of everything else.

To calculate the value of the benefits, you’ll need to estimate how much you expect to charge on your credit for each category of expense.  You can then multiply those benefits by the corresponding reward percentage.  As an illustration, I’ll use the 5% for gas, 3% for food and 1% of everything else example I mentioned above.  The table below shows three different combinations of monthly expenses in those categories and the rewards you would earn.

Category Scenario 1 Scenario 2 Scenario 3
Gas 100 200 500
Food 300 500 300
Other 600 300 200
Monthly Rewards 17 23 33
Annual Rewards 204 276 396

By comparison, you would receive $10 a month or $120 a year with a credit card that provides 1% back on every purchase under all 3 scenarios.  I note that most credit cards do not give rewards for cash advances, so I have not included them in the table above.

Some rewards are harder than others to access or might be in a form that isn’t useful for you.  If that is the case with one of the credit cards you are considering, you might reduce the annual benefit by some amount, such as 50%, for the chance that you don’t use it.

Minuses

Offsetting the rewards are all of the fees and charges I mentioned above – the annual fee, cash advance fees, finance fees, foreign exchange fees and interest charges.

The table below shows the fees I’ve used for illustration for the two cards above.

Rewards 5%/3%/1% 1%
Annual fee $75 $0
Cash advance fee $10 $10
Cash advance APR 24% 18%
Purchase APR 18% 12%

To keep the examples simpler, I’ve assumed you make at least the minimum payment every month so there are no finance charges and you have no foreign transactions.

Example 1

In the first example, you have $1,000 a month in charges plus a $200 cash advance 30 days before your issuer receives your payment.  You pay your bill in full every month.

In this example, your annual costs are $243 using the higher reward card and $150 using the lower reward card.  The table below shows the net cost of using your credit card under each of the 3 scenarios above for both cards, remembering that the lower-reward card has the same rewards under all three scenarios.  A negative net cost means that you pay more in fees than you get in rewards, whereas a positive net cost means you get more in rewards than you pay in fees.

Card 5%/3%/1% 5%/3%/1% 5%/3%/1% 1%
Scenario 1 2 3 All
Rewards +240 +276 +396 +120
Costs -243 -243 -243 -150
Net Cost -3 +93 +189 -30

 

In this example, you don’t incur many fees, so the lower fees in the lower-reward credit card don’t help you.  As such, you are better off with the higher-reward credit card under all three spending scenarios.

Example 2

In the second example, you have $1,000 a month in charges plus a $200 cash advance 30 days before your issuer receives your payment.  Unfortunately, you got behind on your credit card payments so you average 60 days between the time you make each purchase and take out your cash advance and pay your bill.

Your annual costs are $652 using the higher reward card and $379 using the lower reward card.  The table below shows the net cost of using your credit card under each of the 3 scenarios above for both cards.

Card 5%/3%/1% 5%/3%/1% 5%/3%/1% 1%
Scenario 1 2 3 All
Rewards +240 +276 +396 +120
Costs -652 -652 -652 -379
Net Cost -412 -316 -220 -259

 

In this example, the lower-rewards credit card has a lower net cost than the higher-rewards card, unless you buy a lot of gas in which case you are somewhat better off using the higher-rewards card.

Summary

This comparison illustrates that high-rewards credit cards are not always the best.  To select the best credit card, you’ll want to balance the fees you are likely to pay based on your spending and payment patterns with the available rewards and their usefulness to you.