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When should I be using my credit card?

By Shiloh Woolman
Published On: Jul 27 2013 05:58:21 PM CDT
credit cards file photo

iStock / Deejpilot

Dimiter Todorov paid for law school with a Visa card.

A foreign national at the time, he didn't qualify for subsidized student loans, and after he'd cobbled together as many grants and scholarships as he could find, he was still about $7,000 short on his first-year of law school tuition.

Each semester he racked up just a little bit more tuition on his credit card. When he graduated, he owed more than $10,000.

Having a five-digit balance on a 12 percent revolving loan put the fear of God into him. But by being aggressive, he was out of debt in three years.

Ten years later, he was talking to a classmate who had barely made a dent in his original $70,000 subsidized student loan. Todorov said that's when he realized that paying for law school with credit had imposed discipline that helped him put the debt behind him and limit how much interest he paid on his law-school debt.

It Comes Down To Credit Card Discipline

Financial advisors said there are all sorts of smart ways to use credit -- as long as you have the right kind of discipline.

"You can use them to help you get more money," said Minneapolis-based financial advisor Nicole Middendorf . "I could not pay now, invest in myself instead and put (money) in a Certificate Of Deposit to make more money off my own money. I'm using other people's money to make money."

For example:

Middendorf said she recently bought windows from a big-box home remodeling store on its zero-percent interest card. Now, she's paying nothing on the windows and putting the money into a 3.4 percent interest certificate of deposit instead.

So, she's making money on the interest she would've paid instead of paying it.

Also Consider Credit Card Perks

Many credit cards also offer free built-in perks that would otherwise cost you money, like trip insurance and rental-car insurance.

Peter E. Garuccio, the director of public relations for the American Bankers Association, said there are so many credit rewards now -- from cash back to free gas to airline miles -- it's easy to make a habit of piling them up without breaking the bank.

"If you're smart, there's no reason not to put every grocery trip on your credit card," Garuccio said.

If you pay it off every month, you never pay interest but you reap all the rewards.

CreditCardGuide.com lists the Discover More card and the CitiCash Returns cards among its highest-rated rewards programs, in part because the cards offer between 5 and 20 percent cash back when users shop at selected retailers.

So, if you buy a $1,000 computer at Circuit City, one of Discover More's partners, you'd qualify for 20 percent cash back -- or $200. If you pay that off when the statement comes, that's like a rebate on your purchase.

Garuccio also likes the old card-balance transfer trick for disciplined consumers.

"Moving from zero percent to zero percent is a great option for consumers," Garuccio said.

The key is to know exactly when the introductory period ends and transfer the balance before you pay interest.

But none of these tactics are for people without the discipline to pay every month. Rolling over balances and paying interest diminishes your returns.

Keep Your Head Out Of The Clouds

"You can't get a credit card and think, 'How can I one-up the neighbors?'" said Middendorf. "Become the CFO of your family finances, and if you can do that you can use credit cards to your advantage."

In fact, Middendorf said when she uses a credit card to book a flight online, she immediately writes a check to the credit card company so that her check register won't show extra cash. That keeps her from overspending.

Experian, the credit reporting company, has a top 10 list for top-notch credit scores. They include putting credit to work for you by taking advantage of programs, but also having a strict plan to repay the debt.

"Credit is not bad, it's bad if you use it badly," said Maxine Sweet, the vice president of Experian's public education unit. "You use it, don't let it use you."