Do you live your life as if everything you do could be made public? I once heard a suggestion that you should judge every decision you make based on whether you would like to see this decision on the front page of the New York Times. That is a good theory, but I can’t say I fully live by this philosophy.
Regardless of the life decisions I make, my purchase decisions are being recorded and analyzed. Almost all of my spending, particularly my major spending, is accomplished through a credit card. I only buy what I can afford and I pay the bill in full every month, but the fact I don’t enter debt or pay interest fees is besides the point.
Based on the places I shop, credit card companies may decide that, based on studies and calculations of the American consuming public en masse, I have become a riskier consumer. If I shop at Some Discount Store, and the algorithms show that people who shop at Some Discount Store are more likely to miss payments or default on a loan, the credit card companies can increase my rates or lower my credit limit. They can change the terms of my credit agreement without missing a payment, exceeding my credit limit, or using a higher percentage of my available credit. Yes, the credit card companies can decide to categorize me in a lower “credit class” based on where I shop. The Credit CARD Act of 2009 doesn’t change this possibility.
If the credit card companies decide to place me in a lower class of consumer, they could increase my interest rates or lower my credit limit. With less credit available, my credit score could be negatively affected. A lower credit score could then have significant financial consequences; I may not qualify for as low as an interest rate on a mortgage than I would have otherwise.
So if you are concerned more about what the credit card companies think of you than you are about what your friends and family think of you, avoid raising a red flag with your banks by choosing cash for these ten purchases. These were suggested by American Public Radio’s Marketplace show.
1. Traffic tickets. If you are more likely to speed and get caught, and to pay for your ticket or court fees with credit, you are a bigger credit risk. Because people who pay for tickets on their credit card tend to default on their payments more often, the credit cards may place you in a lower category of borrowers.
2. Retreading your tires. If you choose to retread rather than replace tires, credit card companies assume you do not have the money to properly maintain your possessions. And if the issuers believe you have less money than you may have indicated when you applied for the card, they might choose to reduce your benefits.
3. Bargain stores. Marketplace points out that American Express has been accused of lowering customers’ credit limits just for shopping at Wal-Mart. That sounds like class discrimination disguised as risk management, but the issuers argue that a change in shopping behavior in a direction of bargain stores indicates concern about money, and if that concern is legitimate, a job loss might be on the horizon. Following the thread, unemployed consumers are more likely to cause a problem for credit card companies.
4. Porn. While the Marketplace article says adult entertainment is simply considered escapism, and those who wish to “escape” may do so due to financial conditions, it seems more likely that credit card simply find consumers of porn to be riskier than others. I wonder if there is any distinction between local strip clubs and high-class escort establishments.
5. Marriage counseling and therapy. If your relationship is on the rocks, divorce might be imminent. Divorce brings on financial problems of its own, such as increased debt and even bankruptcy. The credit card companies will want to cover the possibility of future losses if they believe you are likely to go through a divorce.
6. Lottery tickets. Considered a tax on the poor, lottery tickets are purchased overwhelmingly by people without much money; perhaps winning the jackpot is seen as the only way for people who may not have been given the opportunities of the middle class, or those who had the opportunity to succeed but did not take advantage of them for whatever reason, to build a successful life. Credit card companies see lottery ticket purchases as acts of desperation, and those who are desperate are greater credit risks.
I must confess that when a co-worker goes from cubicle to cubicle, collecting a dollar from each of us to play in the large-jackpot lottery, I still contribute most of the time — not in an act of blind hope but in an act of being social. My coworker doesn’t accept credit cards, though, so I stay out of the banks’ radars.
7. Cash advances. Many years ago, I did take a cash advance. This was before I knew much of anything about personal finance. I had no emergency fund and I left my low-earning non-profit job without a concrete plan. I just needed a few hundred dollars to get me by for a little bit, and I paid it back quickly. But the credit card issuer could have used this event to lower my limit, increase my interest rate, and lower my credit score.
8. Personal pampering. Marketplace suggests women refrain from charging visits to the spa on the credit card if they haven’t established a history of doing so previously.
9. Income taxes. the IRS allows you to pay your income tax bill via credit card. In fact, many people have recommended doing so if you have the cash to pay the bill in full when it comes due and if you can earn cash back or other valuable rewards by paying a large amount of money through credit. But a credit card company may interpret this method of payment as a sign that you can’t handle your financial responsibilities and may penalize you to prevent a larger loss if you default.
10. Alcohol. Drowning your financial sorrows at the bar? That is what the credit card issuers are likely to think if you start using your credit card in bars and liquor stores. Start making a habit of visiting bars and charging the drinks and you may raise a red flag.
While it’s unlikely that some Chase employee is poring over your credit card statement marking demerits for your porn, booze, gambling and spa vacations, the credit card companies have algorithms that detect these patterns automatically. Effectively, a computer program is making the “decision” that could result in your paying thousands of dollars more for your mortgage than if you just paid cash for these certain products and activities.
Updated August 22, 2011 and originally published July 10, 2009.