When is it OK to use a credit card?

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Even though your budget might be 100% on point, your retirement accounts well-funded, and you’ve got something stashed away for the kids’ college tuition, sometimes an emergency rears its ugly head.

And despite your best efforts, your only option to cover it might be to use a credit card.

Let’s face it. Once in a blue moon there may not be enough emergency fund to go around. Sometimes the water heater needs replacing right before the in-laws arrive for Thanksgiving. Doesn’t this kind of thing seem to always happen the same week your child falls off the swingset and needs an ER visit?

What is the best way to handle using your credit card for an emergency? Here are a few tips that may help you get out of a jam if you choose to use your credit card.

Take out a loan
If you’re planning on putting an emergency expense on a credit card, make sure it’s truly a last resort. If possible, try to find other ways to cover the expense first. Can you ask a friend or family member for a loan? You may consider other loan options such as a personal bank loan or a home equity loan. These options do carry interest, but the rate may be lower than the one for your credit card.

Use a low interest card
Find and keep the lowest interest rate card you can. Many credit cards may come with an introductory zero percent interest rate for a specified period. But pay attention to the interest rate that applies after the initial period. This is what you’ll be obligated to pay after the introductory period expires.

Keep a healthy credit score
If you have good to excellent credit, you may be able to secure a zero percent interest card to use specifically for the emergency. The idea is that you would plan to pay off the balance during the introductory period.

If your credit score isn’t high, work on it. Make your payments on time and strive to keep a low credit card balance.

Build your emergency fund
At one time or another, many of us have been caught off guard with an emergency. A well-stocked emergency fund is the first line of defense when those unplanned expenses come up.

Aim for an emergency fund equivalent of 6 to 12 months’ worth of expenses. If that seems overwhelming, focus on smaller goals such as saving $500 and then try hitting $1,000. With time and diligence, your emergency fund will grow, and you may not have to worry so much about needing to put emergency expenses on a credit card.

Getting through a pinch with a credit card
If you are in a pinch and absolutely must put emergency expenses on a credit card, shoot for the lowest interest rate and pay it off as quickly as you can. Meanwhile, continue to build your emergency fund so you can be prepared in the future.