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If you visit most personal finance pages offering guidance on credit card usage, you’ll see a few main themes:
- Never carry a balance.
- Credit cards aren’t meant for emergencies.
- Don’t apply for too many credit cards at once.
And the list of credit card rules to never disobey likely goes on and on. Like many readers, you swear up and down that you’ll stick to these rules. Then life happens. You’re saddled with an emergency like an unexpected vet bill, a burst pipe or a flat tire ,and it’s just so easy to pull out your credit card as a temporary fix.
While using a credit card as emergency money can come with costly consequences, when done correctly, doing so can help you avoid a financial disaster. Similarly, you might have reasons to break some other credit card rules too.
1. Never carry a balance
Carrying a balance from month-to-month on a credit card may be necessary in certain financial emergencies. For instance, unexpected medical bills, emergency home repairs and job loss can all require sudden large outlays of money that many people just don’t have saved in a dedicated emergency fund. In fact, only 43 percent of Americans would be able to cover an emergency, according to Bankrate’s Annual Emergency Savings Report for 2023.
In these cases, a credit card may be the only way to pay for the expense. If carrying a balance on a credit card is your only option, use cards with low interest rates and fees to help you minimize the amount of money you spend on interest over the long term. There are a host of credit cards that offer a 0 percent APR for promotional periods, and they’re perfect cards to use in this instance.
2. Don’t apply for multiple credit cards
When you first get a credit card, it can be exciting, especially if you’re suddenly earning rewards just for your everyday spending. So, it can seem like a good idea to apply for a whole bunch of cards that can help you build credit or earn rewards quickly. However, applying for multiple credit cards in a short period of time can result in multiple hard pulls of your credit score which can drag your score down. Generally, according to FICO, each hard pull on your score can take off up to five points from your credit score.
That said, having multiple credit cards isn’t a bad thing. Applying for them all at one time is. There are so many different categories of credit cards, and learning to utilize each card’s strength can help you earn rewards you can put towards purchases, get out of debt, build credit and more.
3. Keep your credit utilization under 30%
One of the elements of your credit score that is going to constantly fluctuate with your credit card use is your credit utilization ratio. The ratio demonstrates the amount of credit you have in total versus how much you’ve used. You’ll often hear that you should limit your credit utilization to 30 percent or less. This is a good rule of thumb, as anything higher starts to affect your credit score in a negative way.
If, however, you do need to go over, your score won’t totally plummet. So, as needed, you can break this rule because it’s a part of your score you have complete control over. Yes, paying down your balances can help you lower your credit utilization, but so can increasing your credit limit and adding a new credit card to your wallet. Both of these options allow you to up the amount of credit you have available, therefore lowering your credit utilization.
4. Pay more than the minimum
You should always at least pay your minimum credit card payment each month. If you don’t, you’ll be charged late fees, which can add up quickly. And while paying your credit card balance in full is always the best way to avoid interest, this may not always be feasible in an emergency. As always, make sure you can pay your necessary bills before putting extra payments toward your credit cards.
That said, paying just slightly more than the required amount each month helps to lower the amount of interest you’ll pay over time. This can be particularly beneficial if your card comes with a high interest rate.
5. Redeem rewards for their maximum value
In a perfect world, redeeming your credit card rewards for their maximum value is the goal. For example, travel reward cards are designed to offer the most rewards for purchases such as flights and hotels, so using these rewards for travel-related expenses will provide the most benefit compared to redeeming them for cash. However, this isn’t always possible in an emergency situation.
For instance, if an urgent medical procedure is needed, using travel rewards to pay for it isn’t an option. Therefore, it’s often necessary for cardholders to forgo the optimal use of their rewards and redeem them for cash instead, if that’s where they have a large amount of savings. This won’t offer the exact same value, but in an emergency, it may be the best option available.
6. Don’t hurt your credit score
Your credit score is an important factor in determining your financial future, so maintaining a high credit score is a healthy financial goal. When used responsibly, credit cards can help you to build and maintain a good credit score over time.
There are times, however, when credit card use can hurt your score — such as when you need to put a large purchase on your card in an emergency. This ups your credit utilization ratio, potentially dropping your score. Thankfully, the minor hits you take to your score aren’t as big of a deal as you may think. You can take action that helps jump your score right back up.
The most important thing to do is to start making (or continue making) on-time payments. Your payment history accounts for 35 percent of your credit score, so it’s one of the biggest factors in deciding your score. Additionally, paying down your balance and accepting credit line increases can all help you towards boosting your score.
It’s also important to remember that it takes time for your credit score to recover. The time frame can vary depending on the severity of the issue, but it will take some time to repair your credit after a financial emergency. Don’t get discouraged and continue to practice other credit-building habits, and you’ll be just fine.
7. Don’t use credit as an emergency fund
Credit cards can be used as an alternative to emergency cash saved in an emergency fund if you don’t have it. While this won’t be your most cost-efficient option, using credit cards in emergencies can help prevent more costly options, such as payday loans, which have considerably higher interest rates and fees.
As long as you have a plan to pay down your credit card after using it for an emergency, credit cards can be a beneficial tool that you already have on hand. Just make sure it’s not your go-to option all the time.
The best credit cards for emergencies
In times of emergency, having access to a credit card can be a lifesaver — but not all credit cards are ideal for emergency use. The best credit cards for emergencies are those that offer a combination of flexibility, value and protection. Here are some of the key features to look for when choosing a credit card for emergency use:
- 0% APR: Look for a card that has an introductory 0 percent APR on purchases for at least the first year. Many of the best cards in the space offer periods of up to 21 months. This will give you time to pay down the balance before interest begins to accrue, making it an interest-free loan.
- No annual fee: Avoid cards with annual fees, especially if you’re focused on covering yourself in an emergency, as they can quickly add up and offset any rewards or benefits the card offers.
- Rewards: Look for cards that offer rewards programs or cash back tied to your spending patterns. This can help you make the most of your spending during an emergency.
- Protection: Make sure your card offers fraud protection and other protections against fraudulent activity. This can provide peace of mind if your card is ever stolen or compromised. The last thing you want to happen is to need your card in an emergency only to find out it’s maxed out on fraudulent charges.
The bottom line
In today’s world, it can be difficult to manage our finances and adhere to strict rules. Emergencies can present unforeseen circumstances that may call for bending or breaking the rules for credit cards. By understanding the regulations and pitfalls of credit cards, you can use them to your advantage if you experience an emergency.
Although there are reasons we have do’s and don’t around our credit cards, there may be circumstances where the risk of breaking them may be worth it. Just remember to use your own judgment when trying to determine if breaking the credit card rules is the right move.