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Once Again: Credit Cards at Fault? A Compelling Argument

This article was written by in Credit. 4 comments.


Baby with credit card and phoneThrough some discussion about placing blame for poor money management, we managed to gather several differing opinions about the source of the problem. Kids with no skills and parents who don’t teach seemed to be the biggest culprits, followed by schools without money management classes (which, when attempted, do more harm than good), and finally if at all, the credit card companies.

We have a litigious society in which people like to displace blame to corporations, who have the big packets to pay for damages, yes. And on the other hand, we have people who believe companies should promote their products however they want, and blame falls squarely on those naive enough to believe the advertisements.

An article in the latest issue of the University of Illinois Law Review says that credit cards, by design, take advantage of deficiencies in the human brain. (Link courtesy of Consumerist.) Here’s a summary of the author’s problems with credit cards:

* Banks that offer loans screen applicants thoroughly but much less rigorous screening takes place when those loans are in the form of credit cards.
* Individuals that take advantage of banks’ products, such as loans, are penalized by higher interest rates on their credit cards.
* Marketing techniques and inventives are designed to encourage debt.
* Credit card payments reduce sensitivity to price and promote impulse buying.

I am living proof that humans can break down the cognitive barrier that credit cards are designed to manipulate; if it weren’t for credit cards, I wouldn’t be earning cash back on every purchase and several recurring bills.

Yet, perhaps I do spend more because of my access to credit than I would otherwise. That may have been true several years ago. Once again, I’ll use my notebook computer as an example. Five years ago, I used credit to buy my current laptop, which recently died. Prior to the purchase, I had been doing web design work on a friend’s computer, but thanks to a day job where I was earning less than the cost of employment, I was having a little trouble locating cash.

I purchased a $1,500 computer — definitely not top of the line — on 0% credit, offered to me at the store where I was making the purchase. This provided me with a way to do web development without bugging my friends. As it happened, I also installed on this computer Moneydance, and later Microsoft Money, and managed to work my way into a better financial position after I saw the numbers were actually going down each month.

Now, when I buy my new notebook computer, it will be with a cash-back credit card, but I’ll be able to pay the entire balance off with cash when the payment is due.

The questions remain: Am I truly “beating the system” (I haven’t paid an interest charge or late fee in years) or am I still a victim of the credit card companies’ design despite my apparently intelligent use of credit? Are there any victims of credit cards or do people really have more control than this article claims?

Updated August 9, 2011 and originally published October 30, 2006. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Golbguru

I don’t see what the fuss against credit cards is about. I think people find it easier to blame the inanimate card instead of themselves.

As to you question, you are certainly not a “victim” of anything if you havent paid interest charges or late fees. And if people pay late charges it’s time for some soul-searching rather than finger-pointing. Our habits add fuel to the fire.

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avatar RSN

Credit cards are just a tool. That’s seems a little like saying ‘Those who use hammers are more likely to hit their thumb.’ Sure there’s risk, but to some degree it all depends on how proficient you are in using the tool.

It seems to me you are pretty good at using the credit card tool and so are less likely to hit yourself with it.

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avatar Credit Cards Philippines

I am also a victim of all these factors. I make a decent living, still single (engaged), young, with plenty of buying power. My credit card is always maxed out because I don’t know how to manage my own money. I never learned how. :(

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avatar Michelle-Consumers Union

Of course it’s up to consumers to make sure they spend within their means, but credit card companies utilize traps that keep consumers in spiraling debt for many, many years. For instance, did you know that the terms can change on credit cards at any given moment?
That’s just one of the credit card traps that can trip up consumers and lead to spiraling debt. Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, has put together a lighthearted animated holiday-themed satire about abusive credit card fees and practices. Check out “It’s Always Christmas Time (for VISA)� at http://www.creditcardreform.org. Be sure to take action after viewing the animation!

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