What seniors should look for in a credit card


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When it comes to shopping around for a new credit card, retirees have eclectic tastes.

Given that most are on fixed budgets, “they tend to gravitate toward cards that are more fee-friendly and rate-friendly,” says John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at CreditSesame. “They may not have debt, and even if they do … they’re trying to carry it at the lowest cost as possible” to avoid eating into their nest eggs.

They’re also interested in earning points that can pay for their next vacation.

“With people living older and being more active, travel is increasingly an option,” says Philip Philliou of New York-based payments consulting firm Philliou Partners. “For them, traditional airline rewards cards are still very interesting.”

That’s not to say cash back or general rewards aren’t appealing to the demographic. Market research conducted by Chase, which offers a co-branded AARP card, revealed retirees generally appreciate “discounts and everyday value,” says Michael Rittler, general manager for the AARP credit card from Chase.

They also want a credit card with terms that are “clear and simple and easy to understand,” Rittler says. (In other words, they’re not fans of rewards expiration or blackout dates.) And they value good customer service — it’s one of the reasons Chase has “a dedicated queue of employees specifically for our AARP members,” Rittler says. “They get special training.”

Finally, a credit card for retirees is likely to have a high credit limit associated with it.

“Older people have lower balances relative to their credit limit, which is why they have higher credit scores relative to younger people,” Ulzheimer says. “Even if they don’t actively search for (a higher credit limit) or want that, they might get that anyway.”

The issuers’ approach

Despite all the attention millennials are getting of late, issuers are interested in wooing retirees.

“They were the first generation to be exposed to cards in the late ’50s, early ’60s,” says Richard Crone, CEO of Crone Consulting LLC, so “they are comfortable with using credit cards regularly.”

They’re also more apt, Crone says, to pay recurring expenses — like a utility or cellphone bill — with the payment method simply for the convenience it provides.

This active card use is valuable to issuers — even if the retired cardholder ultimately pays these purchases off on time — since the financial firm still makes money off the interchange fees merchants pay to accept the payment method.

Of course, hitting all the items on a prospective retiree cardholder’s checklist is a bit of a tall order. (Low interest and high rewards, for instance, don’t often go hand in hand.) This could be one the reasons why there are so few products out there currently marketed directly to this demographic.

Expect this to change soon, as issuers attempt to tap into this lucrative market share.

“It’s an evolving segment,” Philliou says. “I wouldn’t be surprised over the next year or two if we see a co-branded credit card that’s designed for the affluent aging population.”

This new wave of products could feature “benefits relating to home health care or travel tours that have an educational component for active 70-plus people,” he says.

Picking the right card

In the meantime, retirees should do their due diligence when trying to find the best credit card for their needs.

For starters, only add to your payment arsenal if you’ll be able to pay off your balances. Taking on new debts isn’t the best idea, particularly if you’re on a fixed income. Plus, any rewards you earn are likely to be negated if you have to pay interest on a balance.

Ask, “What is going to be your ability to handle the debt that you will incur?” says Sally Hurme, project adviser in education and outreach at AARP. “Are you getting this card for the convenience of paying all your bills and writing one check at the end of the month, or are you getting a credit card to try to balance your budget with minimum payments, which is a vortex of additional problems?”

If you do want the card for the perks and convenience — and your credit score can handle the inquiry — make sure you know exactly what you are signing up for.

“It’s important to read the fine print, so basically you know what the terms are,” Hurme says.

Check to see if the card offers a competitive interest rate or carries a worthwhile annual fee. If you’re rewards-focused, look for a program that offers high earning potential in a category you already spend a lot in or otherwise matches your lifestyle. For instance, “if you fly a lot, one that gives you frequent flier miles might be your best bet,” Hurme says.

Also, ask about potential rewards’ expiration dates or redemption restrictions. And make sure the card’s payment process is easy to navigate.

“Is there an easy system for paying by telephone or to get online bills?” Hurme asks. “What is the card’s reputation for customer service? Are you going to be able to talk to anybody if you have a concern?”