Saturday, May 28, 2011

No New Credit Cards Without Gifts

How glad I am not to be caught in the toils of the credit card companies. Another offer came in the mail today, full of talk of penalty fees and other disclosures of punitive rules if I do not pay my balance in full and on time. Frankly, I can’t see any reason to apply for this credit card. It didn’t even seem that the credit card company was making any effort to sell me on their card, other than the usual balance transfer offers. I have made use of balance transfers in the past to my advantage, but recently I decided that keeping some money liquid made more sense than borrowing it from these companies. Especially since at the middle-class level of investments where I sit, the earnings on my savings currently are pitiful.

Yes, pitiful. Less than 1%. Sometimes less than .1% Far less than the 3% or 4% a credit card would charge for a cash advance. Obviously in this economic climate it is cheaper to use my own money to finance what I want to buy. What is the point of saving when one’s money cannot earn money? Ah, I know. To have cash when I need it. Presto. The reason to keep rainy day savings in liquid form, not locked away in CDs or stocks.

This isn’t always the best strategy. If and when the Big Inflation that everyone predicts actually happens, it may make more sense to get some quick profits from CDs or other guaranteed investments. Maybe banks will hand out toasters for opening CDs, the way they did in the inflationary 1970s. Not that I need another toaster, but we all like free gifts, don’t we?

That’s my primary objection to the recent credit card offers I have received. Not only are they full of threats, but also they contain no free gifts. Oh, I can earn 1% cash back on my spending, but then I’d have to spend, wouldn’t I? Nah, not interested. Many years ago, I banked at the Bowery Savings Bank in New York. Almost every time I visited a branch, they were handing out a little gift. I still have the bright red yardstick they gave me one day. Who buys yardsticks, anyway? They’re always freebies from someone. Well, I loved the Bowery Savings Bank because they gave me those little gifts. Still do, although they have long since been swallowed up by another bank.

So, no, I don’t want your credit card. I don’t want to make myself the victim of yet another bloodthirsty credit card company whose only intention is to trip me up and charge me fee after fee. And yes, I want gifts. Real gifts.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Depressing Credit Error Situations

What do we do about news stories like this, that cite how cavalier credit reporting agencies are about our good names? They basically don’t care if they attribute someone else’s bad credit to us, and they hardly bother to make the corrections we ask for, regardless of how much documentation we supply. Innocent people often find they are unable to clear their credit reports of serious errors that conflate them with the guilty, which leads to denied employment or credit. This is bad.

A few tools to fight this nasty situation:

1. Check your credit reports religiously every few months.
2. If you spot an error, immediately take steps to have it corrected.
3. If all else fails, sue.
4. Change your name legally.

1. Check your credit reports. We’re all supposed to do this, but I am quite sure most of us don’t even get our one free annual credit report from each of the three major agencies. People with very common names should pay to check more often, or even seriously consider signing up for a credit alert service. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t recommend such a step, but common names can get mixed up far too easily. If you’ve ever had a serious problem with accuracy on your credit report, get your files locked, and do pay to have your files watched.

2. If you spot an error, get it corrected. I’m not claiming this will always be a simple process, but if you do it for little errors, you’ll have the experience to know what works and what doesn’t when a serious error occurs.

3. If all else fails, sue. If the police are coming to your door because you are being confused with a felon, you need paid legal assistance.

4. Change your name legally. I know, crazy idea, right? Not so crazy. By changing your name legally, you create a clear historical record of your ongoing financial activities, as opposed to any by your former doppelgangers. If “Jack Johnson” or “Cathy Taylor” keeps getting you into trouble because there are low-lifes with the same name, become Juwann Jacks or Caitlin Tawes. Seriously. Go a step further if you can and establish a name that doesn’t call up thousands of duplicates in an Internet phone book search like Zabasearch. You are less likely to be a victim of identity errors or theft if you change your name to an extremely unusual one.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Credit Card Fantasyland

Oh, this is scary. I heard an interview on NPR the other day in which the financial expert said she met a girl who couldn’t wait to get a credit card. Turned out the girl did not know that you have to pay back the money you spend when you buy on credit. Seriously, this was a teenager, not a five-year-old, and she did not understand the basic concept of credit.

Every time I watch one of those “we’re up to our eyeballs in debt” shows on CNBC, I get the creepy feeling that these people think the same way. They may say they want to pay off their debts, but you can see the self-will oozing out of them as they proudly admit to their insane spending habits. These usually consist of constant shopping sprees and the accumulation of vast piles of stuff, although sometimes as a change of pace it’s eating out and ATM advances. These people simply do not understand that credit is only a means of delaying paying. It’s not free money. Even creepier, the CNBC shows are about Canadians. They’re been infected by the same spending virus we have. More than one society has bought into the entitlement fantasy of materialistic accumulation via credit.

An entitlement fantasy is just that, a fantasy. We’ve all had them. They’re the daydreams in which we inherit a fortune from a relative we never met. Guilt-free money, because we didn’t even have to go to the funeral. Or we win the lottery. Effort-free money, because we didn’t have to do anything other than purchase a ticket and pose for a winner’s photo with that giant check. Most of us are aware these are fantasies. Apparently, some people are living with these fantasies as real scenarios in their heads. They live as if money grows on trees because credit cards allow them to pretend their fantasies are real. For a while. When they don't make their payments, they qualify for the new penalty APR of 29.99% that Fidelity Mastercard just instituted. Do all these crazy spenders really want to pay almost one third of the purchase price of every transaction to the bank? No. In their heart of hearts, our materialistic spenders don’t intend to pay the bank at all. Scary.