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5 tips on how to protect yourself from credit card debt

A few years ago, I got into credit card debt.  I can still remember the frustration I went through, barely being able to pay the minimum amount due for my credit card.  Giving away a chunk of my paycheck every month to pay my credit card debt but could not seem to make a dent into the very huge balance.  I was foolish then.  I got my first job.  I also got my first credit card.  As they say, the fool and his money are soon parted.

1) If you realized you’ve dug yourself a hole, stop digging.

Stop using your credit card.   Leave it at home.   When I realized I was heavily in debt with my credit card.  I no longer wanted to use it.  Unfortunately, I had no choice but to use it in case of emergency.  Unfortunately for me, every month seemed like an emergency.  For a few times, I even had to use my credit card for cash advance from an ATM to pay for my house rent.  It was depressing just going to the bank to do a cash advance.   When I glanced at the hefty cash advance fee, I could only swallow my pride and promised myself never to let this happen again.

That experience left a bitter memory to me even up to this day.  Today, I don’t use a credit card.   I could easily apply for one if I want to, but I don’t want to ever experience that painful feeling of being a slave of the bank again.

2) Use a debit card instead

If you cannot use your credit card, how should you pay then?  The simple answer is, debit card.  The next best thing to use for paying your grocery, or gas, or even shopping to the mall is a debit card.   Using a debit card is like carrying a huge amount of cash (or at least enough to pay for what you are buying) WITHOUT the extra weight.   Debit card is as good as cash.  No cold hard cash to carry around. It is safe.  It is convenient.

The good thing about debit cards is that you don’t have to worry about not paying your balance each month.  You won’t be charged any interest like credit cards.  But watch out!  When you go over your checking account’s minimum balance, you can be charged a fee.

Another drawback of using your debit card is that it is very hard to dispute a transaction you made.   The bank assumes that since you manually entered your PIN (Personal Identification Number) when using your debit card, it is really YOU who is doing the transaction. In which case, you have to take responsibility for any purchase on your debit card.  So be careful.  Better keep your receipts and counter check it against the transactions on yout debit card statement.  And NEVER tell your PIN to anyone.

3) Use cash

In some parts of Asia, most people are still using cash.   You can go out with nothing but cash on hand, no credit card, no debit card.  In fact, in some cases, it might be the ONLY choice you have.

Sometimes even if you can use your credit card to make a purchase,  it could still be an inconvenience compared to cash.  Some merchants charge an additional 1 to 2% fee or require a minimum purchase amount in order to use the credit card.  It’s ironic, isn’t it?  Shouldn’t it be more convenient and cheaper to use credit card instead of cash?  Since you’re basically paying with electronic money (which is just an idea) and not a physical money like bills or coins, the cost should be considerably less.  I guess the only convenience you can get for using the credit card is not having to worry about being robbed with a gun.

4) Setup an auto-payment scheme for your credit card

Ok. So you’ve stopped using your credit card and most of the time, you’re trouble free.  But sometimes, you REALLY, REALLY need to use it.  Hence, you have a balance at the end of the month.  What if you forget to pay the balance?  Then your balance would accrue interest.  What if you did not use your credit card for a few months and didn’t know you had a balance before?  Then you’re in bigger trouble as the balance is being compounded and your credit rating may also be hit very badly.

So, a wise thing to setup is a credit card auto-payment feature.   You can call up your local bank and ask to have your credit card auto-paid using your current/checking/savings account.  Of course, you still need to make sure that your account has sufficient balance to pay-off the credit card.  Otherwise, you might run into more problems.

Using your credit card, is OK, as long as you are able to pay the whole balance at the end of the month.  This way, you only pay for money you actually used, with NO interest.  That’s what I call INTEREST FREE. 🙂

5) Cut up your unused credit cards – More is NOT necessarily better.

Once you’ve paid up you credit card balance and setup the auto-payment facility with your current account so that you always pay the balance every month, you need to ask yourself whether you really need ALL the credit cards you have.  Do you really need that 8th credit card you just received in the mail?  Note that MORE may not necessarily be better.  Even if you rarely use the cards and may not even have any balance at all on those cards, it could still be hurting your credit rating as the extra credit is under utilized.

Or perhaps you only have 1 or 2 credit cards with you but another credit card is more suitable to your needs.   For example, you travel a lot, so it makes sense to get a card that offers cash back rewards for every purchase you made on petrol.

A credit card is a double-edged sword.  As with anything in life, you need to understand what you are getting and what you have to pay for.  For a credit card, this means, you GET an extra money or credit to buy what you want.  But in the end, it is still borrowed money, and you have to PAY for it one way or another.

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3 tips on how to track cash expenses effectively

For the past couple of months, I’ve been trying to track my expenses.  But my problem is, I haven’t found a nice way to track cash.  Yes, I use cash.  In this part of the world, cash is still king. 

I remember when I was assigned to the US for a 6-month stint.  While in the US, I rarely used cash.  I can count on my fingers how many times I had to reach out for my wallet and spend cash.  In most cases, I used my corporate credit card.  On other times, I used my ATM debit card.  Of course, when I buy online, I can only use paypal, or my credit card.  Once a month, I would receive my statement from both my savings account and my credit card.  If I want to check the transaction real-time, I can just login online and check my credit card and bank statements through their internet banking services.  Instantly, I would know where my money went.  Sweet.

But when I got back, I had to use cash again.  The problem in most of South East Asia is that people rarely use a credit card.  Unless I am buying a washing machine, or any other home appliance, I don’t want to use my credit card.  Besides, most stores have either a minimum order to accept your credit card, or they charge the same item for a little more when you pay using your credit card instead of cash.  So, cash it is!

Track each transaction.

I tried to track my expenses monthly through my bank statements.  But I can only see deposits, withdrawals and the occasional online internet banking transactions.  It doesn’t give me any idea how I spent the cash I withdrew the other day. Now, I’m trying to track each cash transaction I make.  How? By keeping the official receipt.  Keeping the receipt of each of my cash transactions helps me know where I am spending my money.  In my case, most of my receipts come from the office cafeteria, the local grocery or my favorite bookstore.  That’s when I realized, if I wanted to cut back on my expenses, I could probably eat my lunch in the cafeteria less often.  Perhaps, keep it to only 3 times a week instead of everyday.  In addition, I could buy a book only after I’ve completely read the last one.  Or maybe, I can buy only a few items in the grocery store, not a whole-month supply.

Write it. Picture it.

I thought of carrying a small notebook with me everyday so I can take note of each cash transaction on the spot.  But when I realized I would need to carry it with me down the office cafeteria where my officemates also are also having lunch, I hesitated.  Perhaps, I’ll just keep the receipts for now.  In the end, however, I still need to consolidate all these receipts and come up with some kind of a report.  For now, I’m using an excel spreadsheet.  I just list down the date in the receipt, the amount and a brief description.  Then I try to generate a pie chart out of this data.  In excel, this is pretty straightforward.  Just select the list of transactions, then click the Chart Wizard at the top menu.  This pie chart gives me a summary of my expenses. I can take a quick look and easily picture out where the bulk of my expenses are going.

Keep it.

The reason I wanted to track my expenses is because I didn’t know where my money is going.   If I don’t know where is it going, I wouldn’t know where to cut back.  After I found out which transactions are eating my budget, I started to cut back a little bit on them and saved a little cash.  I haven’t figured out what to do with the extra money. For now, I am just keeping it at the bank.  To my pleasant surprise, I’ve seen my savings grow month after month.  It’s one of the most liberating thing I’ve felt in some time.

It’s just 3 simple tips but it helped me gain back a little control over my money, even if only to save a few extra bucks.  How about you?  How are you tracking your cash expenses?