If you have a small business, you might be tempted to open a small business credit card. When used properly, small business credit cards can provide you with free working capital, rewards and the ability to manage the expenses of you and your employees more easily. However, there are real risks that you need to consider.
- You are personally liable: when you apply for a small business credit card, you are signing a credit application that makes you personally liable for any spending that happens on that card. If your company fails to reimburse you or goes bankrupt, you will still be held responsible for making payments and should expect collection activity from your credit card issuer.
- Your personal credit report and credit score can be impacted: with most cards, the balance will not appear on your credit report so long as you are current. However, if you miss payments, many major credit card issuers will report the balance and delinquency to your credit report. And if the credit card issuer ever sells your debt to a collection agency, you can expect a collection item to hit your personal report as well.
- Your interest rate can be increased on your existing balance: In 2009, the CARD Act was passed. The legislation made it very difficult for credit card issuers to increase rates on existing balances. However, the law only applied to consumer cards: the interest rate on your small business account can increase at any time. If you want to use your small business credit card to borrow, you will not have certainty regarding the interest rate.
- If you give cards to your employees, you are likely personally liable. Many small business credit cards give you the option of adding credit cards for your employees. Usually that means you are adding an “authorized user” who will have the same charging privileges as you. It is like adding your husband or wife as an authorized user to your personal credit card. If your employee goes crazy at the local bar or books a flight to Tahiti, you are personally liable for the charges.
- CARD Act protections do not extend to small business credit cards. In addition to the limitations on price increases mentioned above, none of the other CARD Act protections apply to small business credit cards. I will explain all of those protections in more detail later.
Small business credit cards can still be a great tool (I use one). Just make sure you understand the risks and the alternatives. In general, a small business card can be an excellent deal if you earn points and pay your balance in full and on time, accruing no interest. In addition, the cards can be a useful way to fund very short-term borrowing needs. However, if you need to borrow a larger amount over a longer period of time, an installment loan with a fixed interest rate from a marketplace lender or local bank would likely be a better option.
If you are shopping for a loan, you can read more about the best small business loans.
I will now explain each of the potential risks in more detail below:
If you have a small business and need to borrow money, you will likely need to take provide a personal guarantee, which means you would be held personally liable for repayment of the debt. This risk is not unique to small business credit cards. If you take an SBA loan, borrow from a marketplace lender or go to your local bank, you will likely need to provide a personal guarantee. You really need to think twice before borrowing. If your business needs working capital to fund orders, make sure you pay close attention to the credit-worthiness of your customers before taking on too much debt to fund their orders. And you also need to be very honest with yourself if your business is in financial difficulty. It might be surprisingly easy to borrow money, even when your business is struggling. But if your business ultimately fails, you don’t want to create unnecessary debt that will follow you even after your business is closed.
Personal Credit Report
Most small business credit cards will not report to consumer credit reporting agencies so long as your account is current. This is important, because you do not want the balance on your small business credit card to appear as personal debt. However, if you stop paying your small business credit card (and default), you can expect the negative information to end up on your personal credit report.
Many major credit card issuers will start reporting to your personal credit report as soon as you are seriously delinquent. In general, once you are 60 days past due you can expect the negative information to hit your report. The reporting will have a big negative impact on your score. Delinquencies of 60 days or more can easily take 100 points or more from a credit score.
Even if your small business credit card does not report to the credit bureau, a default can still appear on your report. Typically, credit card companies will write off the debt at 180 days past due and sell the debt to collection agencies. At that point, the collection agency registers a collection item on your credit report. And, along the way, you could also have a legal judgment.
In a best case scenario, the debt does not appear on your report. But if you miss your payments, you can expect big derogatory marks to hit your score, in addition to the collections activity.
Your Interest Rate Can Increase
If you miss a payment, even by just one day, you should expect a big increase in the interest rate on your existing balance. Even worse, your rate could be increased even while you are current. For example, if you max out your credit card you could appear riskier to the bank. Because you appear risky, the bank could increase your interest rate.
This could have a big impact. Imagine you have a $15,000 balance at a 15% interest rate. If the rate increases to 25%, you could see an increased monthly interest charge of $125. Your debt could cost you an extra $1,500 a year with no warning and no possibility to avoid the interest rate increase.
If you need to borrow money, you should consider a term loan from a marketplace lender or your community bank. With a term loan, you can get a fixed interest rate. For example, Funding Circle offers loans with an APR as low as 5.49% and Lending Club offers an APR as low as 7.77%. When you take a term loan, you are at least locking in the cost of your borrowing.
Before the CARD Act, the credit card industry was guilty of outrageous interest rate increases, especially using the vague language of “universal default.” That is why the CARD Act made such interest rate increases impossible. Unfortunately, small businesses never received that same protection and need to proceed with caution.
Note: you can use a personal credit card for business expenses. Because you are personally liable for the debt regardless, this could be a good option. The benefit is that the interest rate cannot be increased on your debt so long as you are current. (Remember that most interest rates are variable – so the rate could increase as the Prime rate increases, but you would not see an increase for punitive reasons). The risk is that you would be putting that balance on your personal credit report, which could impact your credit score and your ability to qualify for products like mortgages, because the underwriters would treat that debt as personal debt. If you want to find a consumer credit card, you can read our Best Credit Card Guide.
Employee Cards Can Make You Liable
Often you might want to give credit cards to employees so that they can make business purchases. Most credit card issuers will allow you to give supplementary credit cards to employees. There are two big benefits to this service. First, you can earn points or miles on purchases made by your employees. Second, you have complete visibility of the money being spent by your employees.
But there is a big risk. By giving a card to your employee, you are giving them access to your credit limit. It is just like a supplementary card that you give to your husband or wife. If your employee decides to have a big night out at a bar or a flight to Tahiti, you will be personally liable for the charges. Just be very careful before you agree to an arrangement like this.
Other CARD Act Protections
There were a number of consumer protections provided by the CARD Act that do not apply to small business cards. These include:
- Penalty Fee Restrictions: penalty fees have to be “reasonable and proportional” to the relevant violation of account terms. In general, penalty fees for consumers should be restricted to $25 for a first late payment and $35 for each subsequent late payment.
- Overlimit Fee Opt-In: issuers can only charge an overlimit fee if the customer opts in to overdraft protection.
- Payment timing: Payments must be due on the same day of every month, reducing the risk of confusion.
- Payment Allocation: When the payment amount exceeds the minimum due, issuers generally need to apply the amount above the minimum due to the balances with the highest interest rates first.
- Monthly Statements: The statement needs to show how long it would take, and how much it would cost, to pay off the debt if only the minimum due is made. In addition, the statement needs to show the payment required in order to pay off the balance in three years.
- Ability to pay: Card issuers cannot open a credit card or increase a credit line unless the ability of the consumer to repay is taken into account.
All of the protections listed above are required for consumer credit cards, but are not required for small business cards.
In many cases, credit card issuers have decided voluntarily to provide some of these protections to consumers. However, it is important to understand that these protections, when provided, are at the discretion of the bank and can be removed.
Small Business Credit Cards Can Still Provide A Valuable Service
When used properly, a small business credit card can still provide excellent value. Here are some of the benefits:
- Small business credit cards can be a great way to manage discretionary expenses, particularly when combined with services like Expensify and integrated with QuickBooks. T&E, travel and other expenses can quickly get out of hand, and creating electronic records of every transaction can help the budgeting and management process.
- A small business credit card is a free line of credit if you pay the balance in full and on time every month. In effect, you are being given a free working capital line of credit. For example, if you use Google AdWords to acquire customers, you can get 20 – 25 days (depending upon the length of the grace period) before you have to pay the bill. This can be very helpful for cash management purposes.
- For short-term borrowing needs (for example, 30 days), a small business credit card could be the least bad option. Imagine you need to borrow $15,000 for 2 months until you get paid for a job. At an 18% interest rate, it would cost you about $450 of interest to borrow the money for two months. That is a lot cheaper than most merchant advance businesses, which have interest rates well above 40%.
- You have the potential to earn rewards. It is easy to earn at least 2% on your spending, which can be serious money depending upon the spending needs of your business.
- The debt associated with your small business will not appear on your personal credit report so long as you remain current, which can help keep your credit score up.
- One of the greatest accounting risks faced by small businesses is that they co-mingle their personal and business accounts. By using a separate card, you can ensure you don’t mix up your personal and business expenses.
Just remember – if you have a longer term borrowing need, it is better to go through the process of applying for a term loan. Although the process will take a bit longer, you should be able to get a much lower, fixed interest rate.
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