Picture your world without credit cards.
Imagine paying for everything using cash, never getting a single MasterCard (MA) solicitation in the mail, and never worrying about a 20% interest rate and the $39 late fee for that J.Crew (JCG) sweater you bought three months ago.
Such a simpler time did exist. General-purpose credit cards only debuted in 1966, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. That year Bank of America (BAC) rolled out its BankAmericard, which is now known as Visa (V). (Before that, in the 1900s, oil firms and department stores issued their own branded cards to be used exclusively at select places.)
Today, credit cards have gone rampant. In the U.S. 70% use plastic and the average household has five cards, according to the Federal Reserve.
Card debt, like the housing crisis, is probably the next bubble to burst. While the Federal Reserve’s latest data show overall household consumer debt dropping for the first time since at least 1952, that’s thanks primarily to folks paying down their mortgages. Credit card debt is still increasing. Our country is now close to $1 trillion in credit card debt and nearly one million Americans filed for bankruptcy between June 2007 and June 2008, based on the most recent data from U.S. courts.
Using Cash Can Be Better
But using cash over plastic can keep more money in your bank account right away, according to some experts. “If you live on cash you are going to save 20%,” says Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the National Foundation of Credit Counselors. She bases her estimate on several experiments with families. “You’re more contemplative of your purchase," says Cunningham. "It’s no accident that we have been distanced from our cash through [the use of] plastic.”
A transition from plastic to paper makes sense especially during a recession. “This economic downturn has been the splash of cold water consumers needed,” says Cunningham. “People are embracing those tried and true tested tenets of financial stability. The things their mom always told them.”
A College Student Who Lives Within His Means
One adept student is Victor Moses, a college student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, who has yet to open a credit card and is reluctant to ever sign up, even for a free mug and a cool t-shirt. The 18-year-old says he has more than $15,000 in student loans to deal with once he graduates, so a credit card tab is not something he can afford right now. “After seeing some of the messes caused by credit cards in some of my friend’s finances…I decided that until I had the finances to muster the use of a credit card comfortably I wouldn’t [open an account],” says Moses. “That doesn’t mean I am waiting on mega wealth to get a credit card, just that I won’t until it’s absolutely necessary.”
A Filmmaker Who Never Gives Herself Credit
It is not only ramen-eating college kids who are kicking plastic to the curb. Jenna Ricker, 35, expensed her award-winning film, Ben’s Plan, on her own dime. She used cash, just like she affords everything else in her life. (She stopped using a credit card ten years ago after racking up more than $10,000 in debt.) The discipline of using cash day-to-day gives her the ability to save for short goals like buying a new sofa and long-term goals, like her next film project.
You Can Give Up Plastic, Too
Now, even though they used to love it when we racked up charges, credit card issuing banks including Citigroup (C) and JP Morgan Chase (JPM) are raising interest rates, reducing their card offers and slashing our credit lines, with the hopes that we’ll either get more aggressive about paying down outstanding debt or open fewer accounts. Estimates say issuers will erase $2 trillion worth of available credit in the next 18 months. Which is all the more reasons why now is the time to embrace cash.
Although it may be anxiety provoking at first, living without a credit card is possible. “What’s better about it is that I am much more aware and responsible for my budget. I still get to travel, save money, buy clothes and furnish my apartment," says Ricker, the filmmaker. "The only difference is I do with respect to my monetary situation and not the idea that I can pay it back in the future.”
Catch more of Farnoosh’s advice on Real Simple. Real Life. on TLC, Fridays at 7 p.m.