What’s the Difference Between a Charge Card and a Credit Card?

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If you’re shopping around for your next credit card, chances are you might come across a charge card. It can sometimes be difficult to know the difference unless you know the telltale signs. And if you choose the wrong kind and don’t use it correctly, you could end up in a world of financial trouble.

Charge cards aren’t too much different from credit cards, but there are a few key things you need to know.

What is a charge card?

As with a credit card, you use a charge card to make purchases and pay the balance off later. Here’s the biggest difference: Unlike credit cards, which let you keep a revolving balance from month to month, a charge card requires you to pay off the balance in full by your bill’s due date. You cannot make a big purchase and pay it off over time.

Charge cards also have no preset spending limit. This doesn’t mean that it has no spending limit. Rather, your actual spending limit can change quite often depending on how much you’re using the card, if you have any late payments on your record, etc.

At MagnifyMoney, we recommend you always pay off your credit card statement balance in full each month. If that’s something you already do, you’d find using a charge card is pretty much the same as using a credit card. However, there are a few differences that might make you want to choose one type of card over the other.

Pros and cons of using a charge card

Pro: You’re required to pay off the balance in full

One of the biggest advantages of a charge card is that you are required to pay it off in full each month. If you’re the type of person who has a hard time maintaining the discipline to do this normally, using a charge card might force you to develop this good habit. And because you will pay off the balance in full each month, you’ll never pay any interest charges and you won’t rack up any debt.

Con: You’re required to pay off the balance in full

Paying off your bill in full each month is a huge advantage, but it can also be a disadvantage. Yes, it’ll keep you out of debt, and you won’t have to pay interest charges, but if you’re relying on the card as a source of emergency funds, you’ll be better served with a credit card that’ll let you carry a balance from month to month if a very expensive emergency pops up.

Pro: Many charge cards come with a smokin’ hot rewards program

For example, as of this writing, the Platinum Card® from American Express gives you $15 in Uber credits each month (plus a $20 bonus in December), a $200 airline credit each calendar year, and a 60,000-point sign-up bonus if you spend $5,000 within the first three months, among numerous other perks. There are, of course, credit cards that offer similarly attractive rewards.

Con: Charge cards often carry high fees

Again, we’ll use the Platinum Card® from American Express as an example: It carries a $550 annual fee. The cheapest card from Amex is the American Express® Green Card that has a $95 annual fee, though Amex waives it the first year. And if you make a late payment or fail to pay your bill in full? You could be slapped with a late fee of (up to $38 on the aforementioned Platinum Card), and it’ll go down as a negative mark on your credit report.

Con: There aren’t a lot of charge-card options

You may be sensing a trend — American Express is among the last major credit card issuers to offer charge cards. That means your choices of charge cards are already limited — you can choose from just three cards: American Express® Green Card, the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express, and the Platinum Card® from American Express. American Express isn’t as widely accepted as Visa or Mastercard, so you’ll want to make sure you have a backup when you’re out shopping, just in case it isn’t accepted.

Pro: A charge card helps you build credit

Charge cards can also help you build credit, and you don’t need to go into debt to do it. As long as you pay on time, the account will be listed on your credit report as an example of your positive payment history — the most important aspect of your credit score. And for newer scoring models, charge cards won’t affect your credit utilization ratio — the second most important factor in determining your credit score. That’s because American Express reports its charge cards as “open” lines of credit, as opposed to a revolving line of credit, and FICO does not factor open lines of credit into its credit utilization calculation.

But that’s not always the case. Rod Griffin, the director of public education at Experian (one of the major credit reporting agencies), said some credit scores treat open credit lines like revolving accounts. “Newer scoring systems are more likely to differentiate between the two than older credit scoring systems,” he said. “Your credit report almost certainly will not show a zero balance for the charge card if you use it and could affect your utilization rate.”

With newer scoring models that don’t factor open credit lines into your credit utilization ratio, that means making a big purchase (and paying it off at the end of the month) won’t have any effect on your credit score, nor will it lower your credit utilization ratio if you have other credit card debt. (A credit card also helps you build credit, but you may find yourself tempted to carry a balance.) Checking your credit score regularly will help you understand how your charge card use affects your credit standing.

Con: A changing spending limit can be bothersome

If you want to make a big purchase or it’s getting toward the end of the month, the only way to know for sure if you have any credit left is to log in to your account and check. Still, you shouldn’t be using your charge card willy-nilly to buy Learjets and mansions anyway, so as long as you keep your spending under control, it’s unlikely you’ll go over your limit.

The bottom line

Charge cards do have their quirks. But as long as you keep your spending within a reasonable range for your lifestyle and pay off your bill in full each month (as you should do with a normal credit card anyway), a charge card can be a useful tool in your financial arsenal.

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