No Such Thing as a Free Credit Card

It is hard to remember life without credit cards.

It wasn't as bad as walking 10 miles to school, in my father's day, but it was inconvenient.

To buy an airline ticket, in the days before credit cards, cash payment caused the fewest problems. A check had to carry the numbers of three sources of identification. Renting a car? As complex as negotiating a treaty between nations.

So the card slowly evolved, bringing us into the Plastic Age.

My first two cards, however, were not plastic: One was for railroad tickets and meals in the diner car, the other to rent cars from Hertz, a small company that had just changed its name from the Omnibus Corp. Hertz sent me a card because I had a few shares of Omnibus stock - received as a gift.

One day, a friend at Citibank asked me to sign up for one of their credit cards, to help his secretary win a contest. Since it cost nothing, I bit. But, boy, was I hooked. I really don't see how I managed life before then, without a card.

Bait and Switch

One offer that always makes me mad is for a "free" card, sometimes even coupled with a rebate on all purchases; but the kicker is that this card can only be activated and kept active if I take out a sizable cash advance - at 18% a year or thereabouts. This promotion proves yet again the old adage that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

I used Citicorp's Citibank card until Provident National, a Philadelphia unit of PNC Financial Corp., gave me a card with my picture on it. I liked that. I thought it would be safer - until I found that no one looked at the picture.

Scorn for Prompt Payers

Provident National recalled my card in the early 1970s, all due to a clerical mistake on the bank's side. I received a letter in legalese, demanding: "Return the card immediately or we will prosecute." I had sent a $1,300 payment by check, but it entered the bank's computer as $130 - and caused me to be classified as a deadbeat.

Even though we settled this discrepancy, Provident never reactivated the card. Perhaps it was sloppiness; or maybe they just didn't want to bother with a customer like me, who paid his bills on time and never gave them the opportunity to earn interest.

To pay my credit card bill on time, I brag, I would cancel vacation to avoid interest charges.

The greatest offer came from Worcester Five Cents Savings Bank, later known as the Consumers Savings Bank: a free Visa card with a 2% rebate in cash on every dollar spent with the card!

It was too good to last. This savings bank quickly realized than an out-of-town card holders, like me, gives the institution no other business. So they paid off my 2% rebate and sent me packing.

Unrequested Rest Periods

My friends at Old Kent Financial Corp.'s bank in Grand Rapids, Mich., issued me a card - unrequested - after reading one of my American Banker columns about the problems with Provident Bank. I also had a card issued by Chase Manhattan, which my local bank - Summit Bancorp.'s Summit Trust - provided as a marketing agent.

My Discover card ended up in the drawer, after I discovered that the 1% bonus it promised was not in cash but in store credit at Sears, Roebuck and Co. - where I never shop!

The Chase card was next to bite the dust, after it refused to give me a charge limit above $5,000.

After a few months of ignoring Chase, they sent me a letter saying that my credit limit had been raised due to my terrific credit history.

In other words, I got more credit when it was in their interest, not mine. This liberal offer came a little late to justify continuing to cough up their $20 annual fee.

Maitre d'Cash

Next, my wife kidded me that I didn't have an American Express card like everyone else. I never felt I needed it.

My bank versions gave me everything - except the option to use credit, a few times a year, at a couple of snobby restaurants whose head waiters look down at Visa and MasterCards: "American Express only," they sneer.

Finally, one honest proprietor explained the logic. "This lets us do more of a cash business," he said. I guess I don't look like an Internal Revenue agent, or he never would have confessed.

American Express got my attention with a free trial offer that lasted several months. When the time came to pay the $55 fee, I canceled. The tons of mail I received, cajoling me to purchase goods I didn't want, did not justify the high fee.

Thanks but No Thanks

AT&T's Universal card was too good to pass up: no fee forever. The only inconvenience is the stream of calls offering me "wallet insurance," for a hefty fee, to "thank" me for using their card. Thanks like this I don't need.

Now, I am embarked on a new venture. A credit card that costs $50 a year, instead of $20, gives me free frequent-flier miles, and a free ticket for a companion - as a reward for joining. The free ticket alone will pay for five years' membership.

Sad to say, my choice of bank card will henceforth be based on the strength and popularity of an airline, rather than a bank. But that is a major point of this essay: Banks no longer have distinct images.

In the back of my mind, this is not my new Citibank card; it is my American Airlines card.

One final lesson. With all the competition to sign up card users, every provider is having a staggering increase in credit losses and card holder bankruptcy. The old banker's adage may apply here:

"If someone wants to borrow money, and doesn't haggle over the rate, watch out. It means he probably doesn't intend to pay it back."

Sure, bank credit cards are at the top of the pile in profitability - when people dip into their credit lines and pay 18% a year on all purchases. But for card holders like me, who make it a point to pay promptly, 18% of nothing is still nothing.

Mr. Nadler is a contributing editor of the American Banker and professor of finance at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.

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