There are some things experts say you should never put on a credit card if you can't pay the bill right away -- either because they're frivolous, or they can land you deep in debt or, in some cases, because there's a better alternative.
If you have plenty of money in your bank account, it can make sense to put just about any big purchase on your credit card because of the rewards, convenience and consumer protections that come with plastic. When you're broke, though, it's one thing to use your card for an emergency. It's quite another, however, to splurge on a mommy makeover, an island vacation or a diamond engagement ring.
Here are six credit card purchases experts say cash-strapped consumers should avoid at all costs.
1. A big tax bill. A tax bill from the IRS could make a nervous taxpayer reach for a credit card. But don't do it. "Federal income tax is right at the top of the list of things not to pay with a credit card," says David Jones, president of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies. "When people get in this type of situation, it's usually a fairly large tax bill, and it can be difficult to pay off those credit cards." In addition, you'll pay a processing fee that could be 2 percent or more of the total amount you pay by credit card.
The alternative: The IRS will set up a payment plan at a much lower interest rate than a credit card offers, experts say. "It's amazing, but the IRS actually charges less interest than anybody else. It's very low now, less than 5 percent," Jones says.
2. A gambling spree. Entrepreneur Rod Ebrahimi, who is developing an online financial application called ReadyforZero to help consumers pay down debt, says he has a friend who recently gambled away more than $3,000 taken from a credit card cash advance. "If you're sitting at a table in Vegas, they make it really easy to pull cash with your plastic. They'll process it for you, bring you some nice chips and you can keep on gambling," Ebrahimi says. "And a lot of people don't understand APRs for cash advances are much higher -- upward of 30 percent."
The alternative: If you have a gambling problem, seek counseling or other help, recommends Jones, who recently helped a client who had racked up $113,000 in credit card debt playing online poker. If gambling is more of a hobby, Ebrahimi recommends steering clear of casinos when you're short on cash -- or playing poker online without betting money.
3. College tuition. Experts say it's not smart to finance college tuition on credit cards. "College tuition can be a very significant expense," Jones says, noting that charging tuition on credit cards might make sense only if you know you'll be able to pay it off in full within three months.
The alternative: Experts recommend putting all options on the table. That includes grants, scholarships, low-interest student loans, a part-time job, attending community college for a few years or attending a less-expensive university. "It's a good idea to meet with a credit counselor to get some help understanding all of your options," Jones says. "Student loans can be a very good option, but you need to make a plan to repay them. Some people get into a huge amount of debt with student loans."
4. Plastic surgery. Reality shows such as "Extreme Makeover" make it seem routine to get nips, tucks and D-cups, but pulling out plastic to pay for it is a bad idea, experts say. "Most of it is vanity stuff, and charging that is crazy," Jones says. Carrie Coghill, a personal finance author and director of consumer education for FreeScore.com, says she increasingly sees consumers being swayed by medical spa sales pitches to charge seemingly less expensive procedures such as Botox injections and laser treatments. "It might cost $1,500 each time, but those things can really add up -- people get grabbed in, and it never ends," Coghill says. She cautions consumers to read the fine print on offers for medical credit cards, such as CareCredit, that offer a zero percent introductory rate. "The day you make a payment late, they typically will go back and charge you interest from day one," Coghill says.
The alternative: As with any luxury purchase, consumers should either save up for it -- or skip it, experts say.
5. A lavish wedding. One consumer who turned to Ebrahimi for help got into trouble by charging up $50,000 in credit card debt -- much of it on a big wedding followed by a honeymoon in Barcelona. "I think a lot of times people get caught up in the event and spend more than anticipated. It's very common to blow your budget," says Clarky Davis, a financial counselor who runs TheDebtDiva.com. Statistics show finances can cause tension between couples, so starting off married life by running up debt is a bad idea, Davis says. "When you come home from the honeymoon and have to face a monster credit card bill, it can cause a lot of stress," Davis says. "You can't focus on where you are right now because you're still paying off the past."
The alternative: Most experts recommend scaling back and focusing on meaningful, rather than material, aspects of the wedding. "The people you love could care less if there's an open bar or you're wearing a $5,000 dress," Davis says. "Stay within your means."
6. A trip for two. It's a bad idea to finance a vacation with plastic, experts say, and that goes double for paying someone else's tab, too. Monica Lichi, a nonprofit manager in Ohio, spent years paying off a Hawaiian cruise she took with an ex. "Neither of us had the money, so I said, 'Oh, I'll just put it on my credit card,'" Lichi recalls. After living it up on the trip -- they island-hopped, went ziplining and sipped fruity cocktails -- Lichi returned home to a huge bill. "The inconvenient part comes when you break up and they don't pay you back," says Lichi, who is using the online service DebtGoal.com to pay down her five-figure credit card debt.
The alternative: Well in advance, start making a monthly payment into a bank account -- the reverse of what you'd do if you paid with a card, Coghill recommends. "It feels so much better to pay in cash and not come back from vacation with a credit card hangover," she says. If you're going with a friend, an online service such as WePay.com can allow you to pool money in advance and pay expenses with a shared debit card rather than your credit card.
So, how do you stay sane with your credit cards? Experts recommend taking your time and avoiding impulsiveness, especially when money is tight. "If you're thinking about putting a vacation on a credit card, or even a pair of shoes, you should walk away, think about it and come back later," Coghill says. "If you're charging anything over $1,000, you really should be asking yourself, 'What am I doing?'"
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