The Basics of Debit and Credit Cards Explained

Smiling Girl, Happy with Credit CardsWelcome to the second edition of the Foundation Series (learn more about the Foundation series), a series of posts that discusses the very basics of personal finance and hopes to set a “foundation” for a solid financial approach to life. This edition tackles a topic that so many of us are introduced to with little preparation, debit and credit cards.

Part of the reason why we don’t get a gentle introduction is because it’s not in the interests of credit card companies to educate its customers. They introduce cards when you’re most impressionable, like the first few days of college. They give you the terms and conditions in microprint and include dozens of pages, virtually assuring that you won’t read every word. They add in counterintuitive business practices, like universal default and double cycle billing, that appear to go against all conventional wisdom about borrowing. They do this not because they’re trying to screw you, they’re doing it because their responsibility is to the shareholders of their company and the almighty dollar. They’re not trying to bankrupt you, but many aren’t going to hold your hand and, let’s be honest, we’re all adults capable of making our own decisions.

I won’t hold your hand either (sorry! :)) but here’s a brief guide that should prepare you more than a hundred pages of 4 pt. font claiming to be terms and conditions!

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 Personal Finance 

SmartyPig’s Exhorbitant Fees Help You Save

Since this writing, SmartyPig has removed many of the fees associated with their accounts and so is not as bad as this post makes them out to be.

If you read any other personal finance blogs, you probably have seen a lot of posts about this new type of savings called SmartyPig, run by West Bank. They bill themselves as a different kind of bank account and they’re sporting a pretty healthy 4.30% APY savings account, until you realize that they’re charging you some ridiculous fees!

Here are the fees from their Terms & Conditions:

  • Contributing funds to a public account via ACH, Electronic Check and Credit/Debit Card, a $4.95 processing fee per contribution will be charged to the purchaser.
  • Purchasing a physical or electronic gift card via ACH, Electronic Check and Credit/Debit Card, a $4.95 processing fee per card will be charged to the purchaser.
  • Unsuccessful attempt of transfer of funds, $25.00 per occurrence will be charged and debited to the customers ACH bank account.
  • Replacement of a lost, stolen or discarded SmartyPig MasterCard® Debit Card is $20.
  • Requesting funds on a check in lieu of placing funds from a Savings Goal on the SmartyPig MasterCard® Debit Card or Retail Gift Card will incur a $25 processing fee. To complete this transaction, the Primary Account Holder must contact SmartyPig Customer Support. Not available to minors. Waived when required by law.
  • Overdrawn accounts will be charged a $27 fee per overdrawn item
  • I’m not going to rehash the point and purpose behind SmartyPig, for that you can hit up one of the posts above, but to the untrained it eye it sounds a whole lot like you’re paying a lot for the opportunity ($5 each time someone contributes, how does that motivate saving?) to help someone save. Not only that, but the end product isn’t even an ACH deposit into the saver’s account, it’s a debit or gift card (minus $4.95)! (if you want an ACH transfer of funds, that’s $25 please)

    This seems like a raw deal, is anyone else seeing this differently? (though do enter those contests for a free $100)

     Personal Finance 

    How Online Bill Payment Adds Months To Your Life

    Back in the days of personal checks and monthly bills, “doing the bills” was an arduous task that took hours and hours. Back in the days of check registers and balancing a checkbook, “doing the bills” was like accounting-lite. With the advent of online checking and electronic bill payment systems, there isn’t any logical reason why you should be spending an hour or two each month dealing with bills. By setting up your bill payment details and conducting your transactions entirely online, you can add months to your life.

    Thank about this… imagine you spend three hours a month dealing with bills. Three hours a month equates to a day and a half a year. That’s basically one weekend a year (unless you do your bills at work!) you lose because you are “doing the bills.” Now consider that you’ll be doing bills for most of your adult life. If you figure you live past 75, you’re talking about over a year’s worth of weekends lost just to “do the bills.” I think that when you put it in those terms, it’s quite easy to make the jump and trust online bill payment as a means to recapture your weekends.

    Personally, I auto-pay as much as I can. My cell phone bill and my cable/internet bill are charged to a credit card while my mortgage and my water bill are all automatically debited from my checking account. I’m implicitly trust those entities because they’re established organizations (Sprint, Verizon, BB&T and my county government) that I would trust my banking information to. If I didn’t, sending them a check would be just as dangerous as giving them the electronic account details (I lose nothing privacy-wise by giving that information to them versus a personal check).

    If I could auto-pay the balance of my credit cards, I would. I can’t do that because the credit card company doesn’t offer it because that would mean I’d never miss a payment. I’d never miss a payment and I’d always pay off in full, something I do anyway but at least this way there’s a probability I’ll miss it (and I have in the past, I’ve missed one payment but had the fee waived).

     Banking, Credit, Debt 

    Pay Day Loans Have Equally Bad Financial Friends

    Pay day loan shops (and cash checking and other similar short term loan shops) are often singled out as places that prey on consumers in a tight spot. While I don’t dispute that, I want to point out other places that also prey on consumers in a tight spot that don’t often get the spotlight.

    Pay Day Loans Are Bad

    Don’t get me wrong, pay day loans are horrible products for consumers because of their high fees, high interest rates, and their propensity to become financial sinkholes. It’s the financial version of someone going in for a routine cavity filling and coming out with a lobotomy. You just need a little extra help to get you to the next pay day but end up paying for years. According to this warning by the FTC, they give an example in which “the cost of the initial loan is a $15 finance charge and 391 percent APR. If you roll-over the loan three times [42 calendar days], the finance charge would climb to $60 to borrow $100.” $15 to start and 391% APR is horrible but let’s compare to some of these other products.

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    Don’t Pay Banking Fees Ever

    Take a look at your bank’s checking account and tell me what your account maintenance fee is. If the answer isn’t $0, you’re getting ripped off big time. I just looked at the Bank of America Advantage Account (checking) and saw that the account maintenance fee was $20 a month (I bank at BoA but I don’t use that account). Twenty dollars a month! That’s $240 a year and that’s approximately $240 more than what you should be paying for banking. It’s ridiculous!

    This is how I think banking, in general, works. The borrower should be the paying the lender and in 99.9% of banking transactions, this is the case. When you borrow money from the credit cards, you pay them. When you give money to the bank, they’re basically borrowing it from you, so they should be paying you interest too. In most cases, they do, but when did the ability to transact on your balance mean a minimum charge of $240 a year? There are enough banks of there that you can find one that won’t charge you to do business with them.

    I’ve Never Paid This Fee

    In my brief history with banks, I’ve never paid a single maintenance fee. While it sounds like a great streak, it’s not by chance and it’s not at all difficult to do. JD recently just wrote about how he made the switch from a bank to a credit union, in part to avoid US Bank’s $8 a month maintenance fee. He’s been paying that fee for eighteen years! For those keeping score at home, that’s $1,728 in fees plus he said the customer service was terrible. Now, he’s at a credit union where they don’t charge him a minimum balance or account maintenance fee, which is how business should be done.

    The only fee I’ve ever paid was the hidden account maintenance fee that no one ever thinks about. My checking account gets some insultingly low 0.01% interest rate but the bank can lend it out on a mortgage for at least 6%. They can lend it out for more to other banks, to home equity loans, to car loans, to anything and make more than 0.01%; that’s the hidden account maintenance fee and the only one I’ll pay for the convenience of ATM access.

    How To Find No Fee Accounts

    So, if you’re paying more than $0 a month for banking services, my advice is to find a new bank or credit union who is willing to charge you zero. If you’re at a loss as to where to go, keep a mental note of the banks and credit unions you see on your drive into work or school. When you get to a computer, check to see if they offer accounts without fees. If they do, sign up and say good-bye to worthless fees forever.


    Foreign Currency Transaction Fees List

    I just made a trip to China and one of the interesting things I learned before I left was that a credit card will often tack on a foreign currency transaction fee if you use your card abroad – this fee is tacked onto the cost of the purchase and is used to cover the foreign currency exchange, in theory. No matter what the reason, the fee still exists and it certainly would be helpful to know which card issuer charges the most and which charges the least right? So, check out the table below:

    Card Issuer Fee
    Capital One 0%
    Discover 0%
    Wachovia 1%
    Washington Mutual 1%
    American Express 2%
    Bank of America 3%
    Citibank 3%
    JP Morgan Chase 3%
    Wells Fargo 3%
    US Bank 3%

    Visa and Mastercard automatically charge the card issuer 1% for the foreign currency transaction itself so a lot of the Visa/Mastercard cards will pass that onto the end user (which is included in the number above). Capital One is the lone exception, eating the fee, and Discover and American Express obviously aren’t on that network so don’t have that extra overhead.

    It looks like Capital One and Discover are the best for this though I’d argue that you likely want to get a Capital One card because Discover isn’t as widely accepted overseas. It’s the reason why I chose a Capital One card as the best international credit card on my trip to England.


    How I Avoid ATM Fees

    A majority of my cash is spread across two bank accounts, Emigrant Direct and my company’s federal credit union, which means the number of no-fee ATMs I have access to is very low. Emigrant Direct has none (it’s entirely online) and my company’s federal credit union only has ATMs here at work yet I have never paid a single ATM fee despite the dearth of branded ATMs because I try to plan ahead – and so can you. Here are a few of the strategies I employ… and please feel free to add any that you use that I may have missed.

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     The Home 

    Always Negotiate Mortgage Lender’s Fees

    In this second installment of my home buying autopsy series, I’ll take a look back at my dealings with my lender, Equitable Trust Mortgage. I knew that I could negotiate some of the fees with my lender but I felt pressure from the sellers to close the sale within two weeks, which by all accounts is very difficult to do. Since my only benchmark at the time were the closing costs associated with a loan from LendingTree and Equitable Trust’s closing costs were significantly lower ($500 vs. $995), I had no reason to think about shopping around.

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