The Charge-It Blog

  • Alyssa N. Ammirato

    ‘Groundhog Day’ money mistakes I kept making

    In my own version of the movie “Groundhog Day,” I made the same financial mistakes over and over and over again. But also like Bill Murray’s TV weatherman character, by making several small changes over time, I eventually improved my finances and broke the cycle of fiscal fumbles.

    You can too.

    Here are three mistakes I kept repeating and the changes I made that gave me a fresh start:

    1. Budgets are for real life. After a few months of overspending in my budget categories, I realized I needed to be realistic about things I’m going to do and spend money on in the next 30 days. Super strict budgets don’t factor in that I sometimes forget to bring my coupons to the supermarket and I occasionally order a second drink. A budget has to be realistic. Now I build some flexibility in my

    2. Having the money (or the credit) doesn’t mean I can afford it. Sure, I have room on my credit card to buy a $400 pair of boots. And for years, I thought that meant I could afford them. Credit card balances ebbed and flowed for months before I realized I couldn’t afford to continue charging unless I met one of my most important financial goals: earning membership in the $0 Balance Club. Now I pay off my credit card bills every month.

    3. Don’t rely on your plastic in a financial emergency.  In my debt payoff journey, I was afraid to put any extra money anywhere except toward my credit card balances. Why should I sacrifice that extra debt payment to a savings account? I didn’t see a need for an emergency fund, and I couldn’t anticipate an emergency that I couldn’t handle with my trusty credit card. And besides, using credit as an emergency fund just creates more debt. Now I’m saving for a rainy day with a savings account.

    Now with a realistic budget to guide me, by managing my credit smartly and with an emergency fund that’s growing, I’ve broken my bad money habits. On this Groundhog Day, ask yourself, “What are the credit and money mistakes you make time and time again?” Make some changes, and you, too, will improve your financial future.

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  • Jeff Herman

    Pay at pump with plastic for a chance at lottery prize

    Dreaming of what you would do if you won a big lottery jackpot, but don’t want to stand in the stretch-around-the-corner lines you keep seeing on TV newscasts?

    In California, Missouri and North Carolina, you can skip the line and buy tickets with your plastic at Play at the Pump gas stations. It’ll cost you a $1 service fee — which may be worth it if you’re trying to grab tickets on a lunch or dinner break.

    It’s not an option for me here in Texas, so I have no dog in this race. I buy my Powerball and Mega Millions tickets the old-fashioned way — with cash. pay-at-the-pump-lottery-blog_small

    Sean Watson, though, who claimed a $226,196 jackpot in 2015 after a Play at the Pump purchase in North Carolina, likes the option. “I’m always on the go. It’s convenient,” he said in a lottery news release.

    It’s also techy. You can have your numbers texted to you, and your debit or credit card transaction — not your usual paper lottery ticket — is your key to lucky town.  If you opt to have your numbers printed on your gas receipt, the receipt has no redemption value even if it’s a winner.

    A text alert will let you know if you’re a winner (no time wasted checking numbers online after a drawing). Winnings under $600 are put back on your payment card in one to two days; if you win more, you’ll need to claim your prize at a lottery office.

    Here’s how Play at the Pump works: The lottery purchase is presented as an option on-screen at the pump after you swipe your payment card and before you fill up. Powerball and Mega Millions tickets can be purchased in increments of $5, $6, $10 and $20. It can save time, but it will cost you a $1 convenience fee for each transaction. And you can’t pick your own numbers. This is strictly for quick-pick players.

    Also, state rules cover lottery sales, so while California allows either credit or debit cards to buy lottery tickets, in Missouri and North Carolina, only your debit card will work. And you can’t buy tickets with cash with Play at the Pump.

    Years ago, I remember driving from St. Louis to Sauget, Illinois, to stand in a long line to purchase a few lottery tickets. Would I choose the play at the pump option if it was available here in Texas? Probably not. Maybe I’m old school, but holding a winning ticket in my hand would be a bigger thrill — as long as I don’t lose it!

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  • Tom O'Connell

    The world record credit card holder’s tips and tricks

    With nearly 1,500 credit cards, Walter Cavanagh earned the nickname “Mr. Plastic Fantastic” after landing in the Guinness World Records book for having more active credit cards than any other human being.

    Any swagger he walks with isn’t caused by all those cards, since he doesn’t carry around the 38-pound billfold where he keeps most of them, choosing instead to carry just one card with him on a daily basis.

    At last count, Cavanagh, back in the news in recent days, had 1,497 valid cards and a total credit limit of $1.7 million. But the 73-year-old is also, perhaps, the most responsible cardholder on the planet, paying off the full balance every month on the one card he does use.

    “Never use a card to buy anything you can’t pay off in a couple of months,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “If you don’t have the discipline, you shouldn’t have the cards.”

    Cavanagh recounts that it all began with a contest. stacks-of-credit-cards_small

    In the late 1960s, the Santa Clara, California, man and a friend made a bet: Let’s see who can amass the greater number of credit accounts over the next year. The stakes? The loser would buy dinner (maybe using one of the cards?). Cavanagh, who had just returned stateside after a stint in the Peace Corps, scored 143 cards to his friend’s 138.

    Guinness World Records soon came calling, and Cavanagh decided that to keep the “Mr. Plastic Fantastic” title he earned in 1971 he’d have to keep applying for credit. He got cards from the usual suspects — oil companies, banks, airlines — but also from the first casino hotel in Reno, Nevada, a men’s big-and-tall clothing shop, shoe stores, and at least one ice cream parlor.

    Though some experts advise that having too many accounts can hurt your chances of being approved for more, Cavanagh has said that he’s been turned down just once, in the 1970s, by the five-and-dime retailer J.J. Newberry’s, which shuttered in 2001.

    So how many cards are too many? That’s open to debate, but it’s generally best to have at least two cards, one as a backup, CreditCardGuide columnist Erica Sandberg says. In case of card theft or fraud, it’s just good to have a second card.

    FICO high scorers, meanwhile, have an average of four to five credit cards, which include both open and closed credit cards, as well as bank and department store cards.

    One more tip from Mr. Plastic Fantastic? Cavanagh, in a Daily Mail piece, says, “I have a nearly perfect credit score. I only use one card and I pay it off at the end of the month. But you should see the length of my credit report!”

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  • Dawn Papandrea

    Don’t let this drive-thru card scam happen to you

    Picture this: You pull up to a drive-thru window to order your favorite coffee, hand over your credit card and then the cashier steals your card numbers to make a fraudulent $212 purchase later that day. What would you do?

    One California woman returned to the drive-thru to confront her card thief. She caught it all on video using her cellphone, and then she posted it on YouTube. (Be warned, there is some profanity.)

    While it’s better to leave face-to-face criminal accusations to authorities for safety reasons, the media attention this story has received may deter the next clerk or cashier who tries to pull such a stunt. But that’s not the most important lesson to be taken from this story.


    Here are four ways to protect your credit information at the drive-thru, or really any time you hand over your card for a purchase:

    1. Use credit, not debit. In this case, the fraudster used the customer’s credit card number to make a purchase topping $200 at a supermarket. If that had been her debit card, that amount could be tied up while the bank investigates. And your liability with a debit card increases if it’s not reported within a few days. Credit card companies, on the other hand, can hold you responsible only for a maximum of $50 (although most issuers have zero liability), even if the false charge is not reported in a timely manner. hands-akimbo-coffee-cup_small

    2. Consider other ways to pay. Many drive-thrus, such as Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, now have loyalty programs that allow you to pay from the company’s smartphone app. This way, there is a third-party buffer between you and your payment method. The same applies if you’re using Apple Pay, Samsung Pay or Android Pay. Or, you can just go old school and keep a few small bills in your car to cover impromptu drive-thru stops — especially for times when the card reader is not directly in your line of vision.

    3. Monitor your accounts. As the woman in this scenario illustrated, it’s important to regularly keep tabs on your credit statements — especially if you have a gut feeling that someone was up to no good with your information. The sooner you spot a phony charge, the quicker you can report it so your card issuer can investigate and remove it. Better yet, automate these spot-checks by setting up alerts. This allows you to receive notifications (text, email, etc.) every time your account is used in ways that you specify. You can choose to be alerted for purchases over $100, for instance. If you do spy something shady, report it to the financial institution right away, and consider whether other steps need to be taken (such as filing a police report, putting a fraud alert on your credit reports, etc.).

    4. Don’t let your card leave your sight (if possible). Sometimes you don’t have a choice, such as when you hand the bill to a restaurant server and you’re not sitting near the checkout terminal. But, in general, keeping your eyes on your card can help protect your information. If you’re a thief, who would you rather target: The person who’s watching you carefully, or the person playing on his cellphone or who’s distracted by the people she’s with during a transaction? Don’t make yourself an easier target for someone trying to steal your information by not paying attention.

    As convenient as using plastic can be, relying on it for those quick lattes can end up burning you later on if you’re not careful. In this case, at least, it’s the thief who ended up in hot water.

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  • Jeff Herman

    QUIZ: How much do you know about managing credit?

    Managing credit responsibly — paying bills on time and in full — takes care. Increasing your credit score — the key to renting an apartment, getting a car loan, evening landing some jobs — takes skill and time.

    At CreditCardGuide, we strive to help you make smarter credit and financial decisions.
    That’s what this quiz is all about. The questions are based on some of the Credit Card Guide stories during 2015.

    How well will you do? If you score 100 percent, you’re doing great! If you get a couple of answers wrong, don’t worry, give yourself some credit for wielding your cards responsibly. If you miss more than you get correct, remember that building a credit history takes time.

    Keep turning to for help in managing credit, avoiding debt and living richer.


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  • Alyssa N. Ammirato

    Resolve now to be smarter about your money in 2016

    Start the new year on a stronger financial footing. While making your resolutions to eat healthier and exercise more, add a few (or all) of these finance-focused goals to your list to make your financial life better in 2016.

    1. Create a budget or update an existing budget: If you don’t have a budget yet, this is the time to start one. If you have a budget, great! Take a look at it and make sure it’s still working for you. Are your categories and amounts still realistic? Can you up your savings category?

    2. Track your spending. The best way to stay accountable and in tune with your finances is to track your money. See how much you really spend on gas and groceries and observe where you’re overspending. Both iPhone and Android have spending apps that can help you keep track of your expenses. For some, a standard Excel spreadsheet or pen and paper work best. Others prefer, which automatically categorizes expenses.

    3. Make a commitment to erase debts. Is 2016 the year you’ll pay off that last student loan or otherwise become debt-free? Make a commitment to that goal now and create a plan for how much of your monthly income will go toward wiping out your debt. Here’s some help: “4 ways to recover from crushing student loan debt.”

    4. Up the savings ante. Debt-free? Nice! You can start funneling some extra cash into your savings accounts. Examine your budget and see if there’s a place you can take even $5 per month from and add that to your savings budget. And don’t forget to sock some away in an emergency fund, because you never know when you’ll be hit with an unexpected car repair or other unforeseen expense.

    5. Check your credit score and reports. If you have any plans of applying for credit or even a job in some industries, you need to be on top of your credit rating. Make it an annual tradition to pull your free credit reports at and make sure nothing is there that shouldn’t be. Not sure what to look for? Here’s some help: “Now that you have your credit report, what do you do?

    6. Explore low-risk investing. If you’ve got your debt and budget under control and are saving like crazy, this is the perfect time to start exploring low-risk investment options, such as mutual funds or index funds. Make your money work harder for you in the new year. Start now and you’ll have a small — and growing — nest egg a year from now.

    7. Set a goal. Maybe the biggest financial feat you hope to accomplish this year is to crush your debt. Or maybe you want to hit a savings benchmark or reach a certain credit score. Whatever the No. 1 thing you want to accomplish, set your goal and begin taking steps toward it.

    8. Enroll in company-matching benefit options. If your employer offers a retirement plan with contribution matching, enroll in the program so you’re not passing up what amounts to free money. Take an inventory of your company’s benefits — such as discounted memberships at gyms or wholesale clubs — and be sure you’re taking advantage of all the savings opportunities available.

    9. Maximize your tax return and file early. Why wait until the last weeks — or hours — before the April 15 deadline, running to your accountant’s office in a cold sweat and toting a box of receipts? As soon as you can, round up your W-2s and other tax documents and file at your leisure. You’re much less likely to make mistakes when you give yourself time to check everything

    10. Assess your personal goals. The most important financial resolution you can make is to set realistic goals. Don’t pick an arbitrary number and decide that’s how much you’ll save. Set a debt-reduction or savings goal that’s challenging yet reachable — and then get started.

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  • Alyssa N. Ammirato

    Salvation Army tests ‘red kettle’-like card readers

    While the Salvation Army’s bell ringers and red kettles, hallmarks of the holiday season, aren’t going anywhere, the organization is testing much smaller red Salvation Army devices that accept plastic.

    The organization’s Western Territory has rolled out New York startup DipJar’s card-readers at three Salvation Army thrift stores, “and they are doing very well,” says Maria Todaro, corporate relations manager for the territory. As a result, Salvation Army DipJars now are being placed at Los Angeles and Denver sites including hotels, restaurants and other locations that are unable to support the traditional bell ringer and red kettle campaign.

    When someone dips a credit or debit card, the card reader lights up and makes a “chime-type” noise to confirm the donation, says Todaro. After the two-month test, Todaro says the organization is looking into getting a custom Salvation Army bell sound for its DipJars.

    Donations are encrypted, transmitted and shown on a dashboard where the Salvation Army can track them.

    The DipJar donations “are all new money” for the Salvation Army, DipJar CEO Ryder Kessler says. And the real-time data from the devices let the organization know which sites are the most successful donation locations.

    “At its core, DipJar is about cashless generosity,” Kessler says. DipJar amounts are preset — $1 for most locations — so donors always know how much they’re giving via dipping. All DipJar transactions will appear on card statements with the tag “DPJ” along with additional information about the recipient.

    DipJar collects “a small processing fee” from the amount donated for the transactions.

    Since the first DipJar began collecting donations in 2012, the startup has grown to have about 600 of the devices in use nationwide. Other nonprofits using DipJars include the Children’s Miracle Network, the SeriousFun Children’s Network, the New York Public Library, Fresh Arts in Houston.

    About half of the DipJars currently deployed are collecting donations; the others are predominantly being used for countertop tips at places such as coffee shops and restaurants. Some example chains that have DipJars include Modern Market in Colorado and Texas, Filter Coffee in Washington, D.C., and The Bean in New York City.

    The Salvation Army partnership is a big step for DipJar. Results of the test at Western Territory sites could mean an expansion into other regions. The Salvation Army is “an iconic brand that people really trust and want to support,” Kessler says.

    And, of course, the charitable card readers are a big step for people who might not have spare change or a few bills to drop in a red kettle but do have plastic in their wallet.

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