Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Holiday Credit Card Pile-Up

By Mary Dalrymple (TMF LadyD)

First, the good news: According to a survey by Consumer Reports, more than three out of four holiday shoppers planned to buy at least some of their gifts with cash. That's not just good news -- it's great news for the average household budget.

Now, the mixed news: About half of the people surveyed plan to put some gift purchases on their credit cards. That's fine for everyone who plans to pay off their cards when the bills arrive in January. Almost 60% of us deserve an extra trip under the mistletoe for having such financial savvy.

However, about one-fourth of holiday spenders using their credit cards this month do not plan to pay off their bills until March or later. That means interest charges will pile up, especially if the charges pile onto pre-existing balances. How much will those gifts cost consumers in the end? Let's run the numbers.

First, Consumer Reports says that the average holiday credit card bill will come to $626. Using one of the handy calculators found here at The Motley Fool, I find that if I take until March to pay off that balance, I will owe $21 in interest charges, assuming my interest rate is a randomly chosen 20%. I don't know about you, but I'd rather spend $21 on a manicure and a good book than send it to my credit card company.

If I take all year to pay off that balance, my interest jumps to $70. That's a more than 10% surcharge on my original bill, wiping out all the savings I earned by shopping carefully and tracking down every holiday sale I could find.

But what if I'm more like the 17% of shoppers who plan to charge $1,000 or more on credit cards? Even if I pay off a $1,000 balance by March, I'll still pay $34 in interest. If I take until next Christmas to pay off all those gifts, I'll rack up $112 in interest charges.

Those holiday bargains don't look so cheap when they're charged to a credit card, do they?

With less than a week before Christmas, it may be too late to undo any gift charges you've already put on your credit card. If you're still shopping, however, think about paying cash or using a debit card for at least some of those holiday gifts.

If the damage has already been done, start thinking now about how you can pay off your cards when the bill arrives in January. It may require some budget-tightening in other arenas, but consider how good you'll feel when the February bill arrives.

You might even give yourself a little incentive. Calculate how much you stand to save by paying off your bills immediately, instead of spreading the payments out over a couple of months. Then make a plan for spending that small sum on yourself in February.

Alternatively, you could give yourself a bit of incentive by calculating how much interest that money would earn sitting in a savings account and working for you. A few savings accounts even pay as much as 5% interest these days.

If I save $70 in one of those accounts, instead of spending it on interest for my $626 in holiday gifts, I'll have $74 by the end of the year. That's not a lot more, but $74 in the black beats $70 in the red.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Catholic board has just one credit card


The London region's largest Catholic school board has only one corporate credit card.

That's 3,199 fewer than its public counterpart, which grabbed headlines yesterday after Ontario's Auditor General, in his annual report on government spending, suggested the board has issued an excessive number of cards.

With 3,200 such cards in circulation, nearly half the Thames Valley District school board staff -- from executives to custodians -- have them.

But at the London District Catholic school board, the only authorized credit-card user is the executive secretary to the education director, said Tim Holmes, the board's business superintendent.

"It's really just to make hotel reservations for trustees and senior executives," he said. "We only have one."

Auditor General Jim McCarter randomly chose four school boards to study, including Thames, in his report.

Without specifying which board spent which, he cited a laundry list of eye-popping purchases charged to the cards, including one teacher who spent $52,000 over two years including $4,000 on school breaks on DVDs, eyeglasses and Christmas lights.

McCarter suggested an excessive number of Thames staffers pack the cards, noting 15 per cent hadn't been used in more than a year. He recommended the cards be limited "only to employees who need them to fulfill their duties," to prevent risk of improper use.

Although the cards are issued for school-related business, such as buying classroom supplies, Thames board education director Bill Bryce said the board has allowed card use for purchases such as gifts for retiring staff, as long as the cost is quickly repaid.

But if any of the Catholic board's 2,000 employees need to get supplies or work- related items, they use a purchase-order system, said Holmes.

The employee makes the request to the board's purchasing department, which, if approved, makes out a purchase order to take to a store.

Thames trustees say their board's use of the cards dates back to the four-board merger that created the board in the 1990s, when it was considered a more cost-effective move than using petty cash.

Holmes said he'd be reluctant to go to a such a system, issuing purchasing or so-called "P-cards" to employees, but can see the rationale for it.

"I wouldn't comment on how any other board conducts its operations, but I can tell you I have been under considerable pressure since I've been here to introduce P-cards to make them available to schools and staff," he said.

"There are major advantages in using such cards," he said, citing the reduced time it takes to handle a purchase.

Staff at Thames Valley used the cards for $5 million in purchases in 2004-05, the equivalent of about $26,000 a day over the course of that school year.

Holmes said those numbers aren't shocking.

"It doesn't sound too high," he said. "All boards spend a lot of money on supplies because they are essential," he said.

In response to the auditor's report, Bryce at the Thames board said there was no misuse of public money or breach of trust, but that the board may have to rethink allowing certain card uses.

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