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Around this time last year, I almost did what was, given my profession as a credit card reporter, unthinkable: I nearly missed a credit card payment.
The culprit was a pesky annual fee that was applied directly to my monthly statement. I caught the balance just in the nick of time, but considering the damage that misstep could have done to my credit score, I wanted to make sure I never ran into a similar problem again.
Luckily, my issuer offers a litany of credit card alerts. These email, text or push notifications (via an issuer’s app) are “reason enough to select one credit card over another,” says Richard Crone, CEO of Crone Consulting LLC. They can help you monitor spending, minimize fees, reap rewards and spot fraud easily.
Issuers generally list the types of alerts they offer online. You can hop into your credit card account and adjust your settings to receive notice of particular activities or transactions. But don’t be afraid to call and ask about offerings before you apply for a specific product.
“Find out what’s available and take advantage of it so you can protect yourself and stay financially healthy,” says Beverly Harzog, author of “The Debt Escape Plan.”
Keep in mind, these alerts are generally free, but your phone’s mobile text messaging and Web access charges may apply. Ask your carrier about potential charges before signing up for notifications.
Here are four ways credit card alerts can save you money.
Never miss a payment
Missed payments can be very expensive. For starters, you’ll incur a late fee — typically around $25 to $35, Harzog says. You’ll also start accruing interest on purchases that you may have meant to pay off in full.
Plus, missed payments seriously mess up your credit. A first missed payment on a credit card bill can cause a drop of 70 to 90 points on your credit score, depending on your current score, which, in turn, can make future financing more expensive.
Before applying for a new credit card, check your credit for free at myBankrate.
To prevent this from happening, set up a payment due alert. Many issuers let you customize when this alert gets sent, so you can specify how many days’ notice you need to get the money in on time. Set up a payment received alert so you know your payment has posted. And, for some extra security, take advantage of a payment past due alert, which will let you know if you have forgotten to make your minimum payment.
If that happens “call your issuer (and) explain what has happened,” Harzog says. “If you don’t have a history of this, you have a good chance of getting a pass.”
Monitor your spending
Some alerts can be “a great money management tool,” Crone says, because they build a greater awareness of how much you are spending. Frequent chargers can use a daily or weekly balance alert, for instance, to make sure their bill isn’t getting out of control.
Alternately, you might be able to set a spend threshold for yourself and ask your issuer to notify you once your balance goes above that dollar amount. Many issuers have similar alerts built around your credit limit.
This notification can be helpful in maintaining a budget, experts say. It also lets you know “what your (credit) utilization ratio is if you’re worried about your (credit) score,” Harzog says. (Remember, a good rule of thumb is to keep your credit utilization rate — how much debt you are carrying versus how much credit has been extended to you — under at least 30 percent.)
To stay on top of transactions, set up a spending alert. You can customize these notifications, too, so you know when a purchase exceeds a certain dollar amount.
Find fraud fast
Many consumers “set (spending alerts) at zero,” Crone says, so they are notified every time a transaction occurs and can easily spot unauthorized charges. There are other notifications that you should take advantage of in order to readily learn when something is amiss.
Any alerts that “relate to patterns of card use can be very important along the lines of protecting yourself against identity theft,” says Bruce McClary, vice president of public relations and external affairs with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
For instance, you can have an alert sent every time a transaction is made outside of the U.S. or any time a transaction is made without the card present.
“Anytime the card is used to purchase something online or over the phone, an alert is sent quickly,” McClary says .
You can also be alerted if a card is used for a cash withdrawal. These credit card cash advances generally carry the costliest interest rates.
If an alert pops up for a transaction you didn’t make, call the issuer immediately to dispute the charge. Some issuers may even provide actionable alerts that give you more control over your account.
“If a questionable transaction surfaces, the alert will be sent for you to decline the transaction or accept the transaction,” Crone says. Expect these types of alerts to become more popular as issuers compete for the most valuable credit card customers.
Reap your rewards
Many credit cards allow you to earn points, miles or cash back on your purchases, which can subsequently be used to fund a vacation, subsidize a big buy or even score your dream drone.
To help cardholders keep track of their points reserves, many issuers have incorporated alerts into their rewards programs, McClary says. For instance, set up a monthly alert balance or ask to be notified after a certain amount of points is accumulated so you’re sure to use your hard-earned rewards.
If you have a revolving 5 percent cash-back credit card, elect to receive a text or email when it comes time to sign up for new categories. Plus, some issuers have alerts you can take advantage of that will let you know when a special deal or discount it is offering is about to expire.
One rule of thumb to remember: Rewards cards are best suited to consumers who never revolve a balance, given they generally have higher annual percentage rates associated with them. (You don’t want any of the points you earn to be rendered moot by interest).
Secondly, make sure the alerts you sign up for are ones that you will really use.
If you simply ask your issuer to send you every alert in its arsenal, “you might start treating it as spam and take the alerts less seriously,” McClary says. “Drill down the important ones.”