While skimming through the latest Google News, I came across an article from Belleville, Illinois regarding a new bail policy in place for St. Clair County. Apparently, the county jail began accepting credit cards for bail payments four months ago.
According to a CBS news report, the new policy has been a big hit and apparently made it easier for those arrested to make bail. The county sheriff notes the prison population has been reduced by 30 to 40 inmates per day because of the change.
Is there anything credit cards can't buy?
After reading the Belleville article, it occurred to me that we are quickly approaching a point in which credit cards will be universally accepted as a payment method. Last fall, I wrote about the 10 things credit cards can't buy, but it wouldn't surprise me if that list becomes a relic in a relatively short time.
Already, many vending machines, toll roads and parking meters have been set up to accept credit cards. U.S. residents have been able to pay their income tax bill with credit cards for a while, and now our Canadian neighbors are getting the chance to do so as well.
With the development of apps such as Square, any small business owner can turn their smart phone into a credit card reader. That means consumers may have the chance to charge everything from Girl Scout cookies to a stack of old vinyl records at the flea market.
Don't let the convenience go to your head
Certainly, charging everything can be convenient. Not only do you not have to hassle with cash or checks, but at the end of each month, you get a handy statement that tells you exactly where you are spending your money. The best credit cards will even break down your spending into categories and let you run handy reports.
However, it's not all good news. If you are charging $1.50 for a bag of Doritos each morning and getting a $2 bottle of Coke out of the vending machine each afternoon, it may not click right away that you are blowing more than $100 a month on chips and soda -- and not just any chips and soda but highly overpriced vending machine chips and soda.
The answer isn't to cut up the credit cards and return to cash, but rather to make smart use of your cards. The best way to do that is to avoid making impulse purchases. Have a plan for where you will spend your money and stick to it.
If you decide on a whim you want a blu ray player, there is no reason to run out and charge one today. Instead, look at you budget and make sure you'll have the money to pay it off when the bill arrives. Maybe you'll have to wait a month or two before you have enough money saved to justify the purchase, but that's ok. I can virtually guarantee blu ray players will still be for sale months from now.
Likewise, if you are going to pay off Uncle Sam with your credit card, try searching for zero apr credit cards first. Or at the very least, use a cash back card or rewards card so you get something out of the deal.
So go ahead, use your credit cards. They are convenient and when combined with sound money management practices, they can be a powerful financial tool. Plus, they may be useful if you ever find yourself in a tight spot in St. Clair County, Illinois.