When you swipe your card (or insert your EMV chip into the reader), you’ll have pretty much the same experience whether you’re using a credit card or a charge card. So why would you choose one over the other?
Turns out there are some important differences to consider before you sign up for aÂ card.
What Is A Credit Card?
When most people think of paying by plastic, they’re thinking of a credit card. If you’re “paying with Visa or Mastercard,” and you’re not paying with debit, you’re probably using a credit card. But while those two companies control the infrastructure for making credit card payments, they’re not actually the ones extending the credit.
In fact, “extending credit” is the operative phrase when it comes to credit cards. When a bank issues you a credit card, what they’re effectively doing is proffering a revolving line of credit. Unlike a loan, a line of credit can be tapped at any time, for any amount (up to a set credit limit). The “revolving” part means that, as you pay off your balance, that amount becomes available for you to use again.
Like loans, lines of credit (and credit card balances) accumulate interest over time. Credit cards do, however, have grace periods during which the balance can be paid off without accumulating interest. These can be set by law, as is the case for personal credit cards, or extended as a courtesy, as they are for business credit cards. Just be aware that business credit cards can, and often will, change the terms on you with little notice. And many business credit cards will charge an annual fee.
What Is A Charge Card?
Charge cards are a little different. Unlike credit cards, charge cards are not bank-issued. The “lender” in this case is the same as the card company. With rare exceptions, most charge cards these days are issued by American Express.
Charge cards aren’t lines of credit. Instead, you’re paying an annual fee in exchange to be able to defer your payment for 30 days. Your entire balance is due on your statement date, except in cases where you’ve made special arrangements with the issuer. If you miss a payment, you’ll face a punishing wall of fees and possibly cancellation.
The major selling point of charge cards is that they have no credit limit. Conventional wisdom would dictate that you can put as much on your card in any given month as you want, but that isn’t exactly true.
American Express has a policy called No Pre-Set Spending Limit. What this means is that Amex makes a calculation based on your payment history, credit record, and estimated resources and may put a cap on monthly spending. The company estimates that about 10 percent of their customers have a cap at any given time.
How Else Do Credit Cards and Charge Cards Differ?
The remaining differences tend to be more quantitative than qualitative. Both types of cards offer reward programs. Charge cards traditionally had an edge here, but business credit cards have recently caught up, offering comparable reward programs to all but the most elite charge cards.
Because charge cards can’t rely on interest to earn money, they tend to have higher annual fees than similar business credit cards.
When To Choose A Charge Card
No matter which type of card you choose, you should try to pay off the entirety of your balance each month. Since a charge card doesn’t easily let you carry a balance from month-to-month, you’re encouraged to maintain more disciplined spending habits than you might have with a business credit card. If you miss a charge card payment, you’ll feel the consequences right away. This is an important concept when you’re dealing with rewards cards as interest payments can easily neutralize any financial advantage you might get from the rewards.
Additionally, your payment terms will be clearer and less subject to sudden change. There’s less fine print to keep track of. You’ll always have the same number of days to pay of your balance.
Though the ability to buy as much as you want with a credit limit is overstated, you may prefer the softer limits on your spending habits.
Finally, if you like American Express’s rewards programs and perks, you’ll probably want to consider a charge card.
When To Choose A Credit Card
One of the biggest advantages offered by credit cards is that they’re accepted at far more businesses than charge cards, so if you plan to use a card as a primary means of payment, keep that in mind.
The credit card industry is more diverse, with tons of lending institutions offering their own cards and reward programs. While American Express does offer variations on its rewards programs, you won’t find the same level of diversity with charge cards as you will with credit cards.
Of course, credit cards do allow you to carry a balance, which provides a lot of flexibility in when you pay off your balance. This can be as much of a curse as a blessing, however, as it’s easy to let balances linger and accrue interest.
You should generally aim to pay your balance off during your interest-free grace period (as you would with a charge card) to get the most out of your credit card. It’s worth noting that this is easier to do with personal credit cards than with business ones as the latter can change your terms with no notice. Unfortunately, business credit cards also tend to have the better reward programs.
Both credit cards and charge cards are convenient ways to pay for expenses without carrying wads of cash or taking out complicated loans. Before you sign up for one kind or the other, take some time to analyze your spending habits and determine what type of card is best for your business.
Not sure where to start looking? Check out our personal and business credit card comparisons, as well as our charge card comparisons.
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