There are two main differences between a charge card and a traditional credit card.
- First, charge cards have no credit limit.
- Second, charge card’s balances are due at the end of the current month, or else you instantly incur a penalty in the ballpark of 3% (which is a huge interest rate when annualized).
This means that cardholders have to plan their spending more carefully in order to make sure their balance is paid consistently.
Our 2 favorite charge cards are the Amex Premier Rewards Gold and Amex Platinum.
- The Premier Rewards Gold gets you 3x points on airfare, and 2x on gas and groceries, with an annual fee of $175 (waived the first year). You get 15k membership rewards points as a signing bonus, which can be transferred to your favorite airline or hotel programs
- The Platinum Card has a crazy $450 annual fee… but it just might be worth it, given that it has no foreign transaction fee, lounge access, and a ton of other goodies.
While American Express has been a longtime provider of charge cards, a broad emphasis on balancing budgets and maintaining good credit scores has made the cards an appealing option to a growing sector of consumers who see benefits in the discipline required to use a charge card rather than a credit or debit card. There are, however, a mix of pros and cons that should be considered before signing up for a charge card:
As has already been discussed, charge cards’ requirement that holders pay their entire balance at the end of every month, and the steep penalties incurred by those who fail to do so, enforces responsible spending habits. It also allows cardholders to avoid longer-term costs like growing interest liabilities on long-standing credit card balances and overdraft fees on debit cards.
With American Express specifically, the potential for earning Membership Rewards Points that comes with a gold or platinum charge card exceeds the ability to earn points with, for example, one of American Express’ other rewards credit cards, the Blue from Amex. An added plus here is the charge cards’ ability to transfer points between many top airline and hotel arrangements.
Charge cards can also be a strategy for improving your credit rating by forcing cardholders to build up a history of timely payments and low balances. For those who can stick to the payment schedule, a charge card can be a great way to boost an ailing credit score.
Finally, charge cards have the advantage of not coming with a set credit limit. It should be noted, though, that the issuer can cancel your card at any time if it does not appear that you will be able to pay off the charges.
While the monthly settling of balances required by a charge card can be a road to financial health for those who can stick to the schedule, failure to do so can become an expensive nuisance, generally more expensive than credit cards. For example, the Gold Card carries a $35 fee for late payment. Two unpaid billing periods in a row could land you an even stiffer penalty equal to 2.99% of the delinquent amount. A month of spending with that kind of penalty works out to a significantly higher APR than on most credit cards.
If you already have a balance to deal with, you’re better off taking advantage of the 0% introductory APRs available with many balance transfer credit cards for 18 months or more.
And as far as rewards are concerned, some of the charge cards offered by Amex and Chase are unable to match the 2% cash back rewards available through some competing cards, depending on your own spending habits. But, it’s important to consider as well that a charge card’s points may be more valuable in certain situations, like if you need to use them for a frequent flyer mile ticket.
The Result: Tie
Widely-used models for rating credit scores, like Vantage Score or FICO, don’t use charge card balances when calculating your score. On the other hand, they also ignore the credit lines from charge cards when determining you “credit utilization” rating. So, a charge card that gets paid off in a timely manner can help a credit score damaged by significant outstanding balances, but someone with small balances who wants to micro-manage their credit score might do better with a credit card.
Charge cards have become relatively rare amongst American consumers today. While the most well-known provider of the cards is American Express, Chase Ink Bold Business, and Diners Club (no longer accepting new US applicants), and some up-market retailers have also begun offering them.
In general, charge cards can seem to be the perfect way to develop fiscal discipline and improve a poor credit rating. But, the cost of failing to live up to this responsibility is high, maybe prohibitively high for those who can’t pay down their entire balance monthly.