Monday, May 27, 2013

Fire Breathing Toaster: Which Credit Card Rules?

by Bill Adler

The big schisms in the world aren't between Facebook and Google+, Gmail and Outlook, Netflix and Amazon Prime. Nope. They're between credit card companies. And just like Internet services, you can't use just one and be done with it.

In my ideal world I'd have just one credit card and that would be my American Express card because its frequent flyer mileage program can be used on a variety of airlines, so you're not stuck with one airline's credit card. I used to carry a Citibank MasterCard that was affiliated with American Airlines. American Airlines specializes in flights between the United States and South America, which isn't where I usually go. But I'm keeping my Citibank Mastercard because I have so many airline miles invested in it.

Then I got a health savings account that requires its own credit card when purchasing prescription drugs. That's another piece of plastic.

Enter foreign travel, stage left. Lately those crazy Europeans have added chips to their credit cards to make them more secure and to show off some bling. If you try to use a credit card that doesn't have a chip at a machine in Europe, you're out of luck. New American Express cards now comes with a chip, but a lot of places in Europe don't take American Express. Visa rules there. So I needed a Visa card with a chip.

Then there's the ATM card. Or what used to be an ATM card. Banks have converted all their ATM cards to debit cards, so you can spend more money and give the banks more overdraft fees. The ATM card has turned into another credit/debit card that you have to carry.

That's five cards, each with its own specialized purpose. Each card is needed in its own way. Credit cards have become like kitchen appliances that do only one, rather specialized thing, like those combination hotdog and bun cookers. (This appliance, if you're curious:

Compare our seemingly growing need for more and more specialized cards with the contrasting desire that many people have not to carry any credit cards at all. A recent survey found that 86 percent of Americans would rather not carry a wallet.

When I opened a PayPal account I was invited to get a PayPal Mastercard. I didn't need the card, didn't want the card, but PayPal said that I could get a Mastercard with a photo on the front that I took myself. Not that the automated checkout machine at CVS would ever care, but the card was free and it sounded like a fun idea, so now I have a Mastercard that's personalized with my favorite scenic photo.

Some couples add other cards to their mixes: A shared his-and-hers card, plus individual cards so that they can buy surprise gifts for each other. Some people are stuck with carrying a company credit card, too -- and they don't even get to keep the airline miles.

Is it too much to ask that there be a single credit card that does it all?


Bill Adler is the co-publisher of the Cleveland Park Listserv, He is the author of "Boys and Their Toys: Understanding Men by Understanding Their Relationship with Gadgets," and "Outwitting Squirrels," He tweets at @billadler. Fire Breathing Toaster is published on Mondays.


  1. A lot of people don't realize their credit score is affected every time they apply for a credit card. "It's free!" they say. Or "look at what I get!", not realizing that merely applying may knock their credit score enough to cost them a quarter point on a house loan, which will cost them TENS of THOUSANDS of dollars over the life of the loan. Or more.

    Certainly not worth that "15% off your department-store shopping bill ALL DAY LONG", or "25,000 frequent flyer miles!"

    "Well, no harm in taking advantage of THAT!" they think. Only there is.

    1. Actually, it's a myth that too many credit cards automatically hurts your credit score. Being late with payments does hurt, but having more cards may not.

      Take a look at this: and

      If you have too few cards (or worse, none at all) lenders may not be able to determine your history or ability to manage credit.

      Bottom line: Your credit isn't going to be hurt by having a handful of credit cards. Just pay your bills. If you want that shiny new card that gives you airline miles, go ahead and get it because your credit score won't be hurt.