What Dave Ramsey Has Wrong About Credit Card Reward Programs

This morning this article from Dave Ramsey showed up in my inbox: 3 Signs You’re Giving Your Credit Too Much Credit.

I really like Dave’s stuff and agree with a lot of what he teaches. He knows way more about money than I ever will and has helped tons of people, which is great.

That said, when it comes to the subject of credit cards (and their reward programs) I disagree with a lot of what he has to say. (Same goes for my buddy Tyler, who is working with me to put together the Free Travlr Course.)

In our opinion Dave’s article is filled with misleading statements, huge leaps of logic, and the assumption that his readers aren’t very bright.

We’ve gone through it line by line to make our case, so you can decide for yourself. Our comments are in blue.

(Note: the aim of this is not to vilify Dave, we’re not interested in that. He is right about so much financially, we just think when it comes to credit cards, and his view that no one should have them, he is wrong. You are welcome to agree, disagree, or go make a sandwich.)

3 Signs You’re Giving Your Credit Too Much Credit

by Dave Ramsey

If you can’t bring yourself to cancel that last credit card, you’re not the only one.

In a recent survey by research firm Ipsos, 76% of Americans have at least one credit card. So why can’t we just get rid of these things? Probably because we think we’re the exception to the overspending rule.

Not sure what this rule is, but we have over a dozen credit cards between the two of us. We also have budgets we stick to as a part of being financially responsible.

The reality is no one is exempt from slipping up—not even you. It’s time to break free from your credit card dependency once and for all.

Seems like a leap of logic here. “No one is exempt from slipping up” – we totally agree! You have to be responsible and aware of your spending all the time. But to go from that statement to “…break free from your credit card dependency once and for all”?

Just because you own a credit card and are not exempt from slipping up does not mean you have a credit card dependency.

Here are three warning signs you’re too attached to your plastic.

“Too attached to your plastic” is sort of a misdirection, isn’t it? Yes, credit cards can enable you to spend money you don’t have. But using a cash system does not prevent you from making bad choices, either. At the heart of it all is being responsible with money, something you can do whether you use credit cards or not.

1. You get a rush from earning rewards.

(We don’t get a rush from earning rewards, but we do get great joy from doing awesome things with our families thanks to rewards.)

Credit card reward programs are the equivalent of marketing fool’s gold.

Really? I hope you can prove that.

Companies entice customers with free flights and swanky hotel suites, but the hard truth is one-third of points and miles go unredeemed, according to the 2011 Forecast of U.S. Consumer Loyalty Program Points Value.

First of all, some folks, like us, actually use the points and miles we accrue to take those free flights and hotel rooms. And just because we have a bunch of points sitting in our accounts today doesn’t mean we aren’t saving up for something bigger tomorrow.

Secondly, that very stat tells me that two-thirds of points ARE being used to get free flights and swanky hotel suites. That is A LOT of points being redeemed for free stuff. Isn’t that a good thing?

But what if you actually use your points? Unfortunately, you’re still getting fooled.

Oh really? Please explain to me how the 15 flights I’ve taken for less than $600 in taxes and fees (total value of flights over $5300) has been me getting fooled. How is it that visiting friends across the country, taking my wife on two vacations, and taking my whole family of four to Florida AND California at an 89% discount on flights is me getting fooled.

Without realizing it, you charge items you wouldn’t normally buy from places you wouldn’t normally go just to earn double or triple points!

“Without realizing it”? Are there really people our there who make purchases “without realizing it?” (Maybe some in the audience Dave is trying to reach are in that place, I get that, but as a blanket statement I think this is overkill.)

As for us, none of our spending is unintentional. We rarely go out of our way to make purchases to get extra points, but when we do we have counted the cost and determined that it made sense.

If you’re the type of person capable of buying things “without realizing it”, then yeah, we agree with Dave that credit cards aren’t for you. But c’mon, anyone who buys something without realizing it has deeper problems than just credit cards.

It’s kind of like using a coupon to buy cat food from a specialty pet products store when all you have is a goldfish.

Another huge leap of logic.

So just because we own credit cards we are going to buy products we have zero use for? Who does this?

In our households we don’t buy cat food if we don’t own a cat. (and we don’t own a cat because we enjoy our lives…sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Just because we have a Visa and MasterCard in our wallet doesn’t mean we are morons chasing every last point without being smart.

And if overspending to earn perks isn’t bad enough, there’s also the card’s annual service fee to think about.

Agreed. And again, “think” is the key word here. Which we always do before opening any card.

Half of the cards we’ve opened waive the fee in the first year, so in many cases it’s not even an issue. But for the cards that do have an annual fee, we consider that before opening the card. If we feel like the value we will earn in the card bonus is worth the fee, then it makes sense to pay it. (Also, we keep detailed spreadsheets to track all of our cards so we make sure to never pay a recurring annual fee if we don’t want to.)

So yes, we agree that the fee is something to think about, and in some cases it actually makes sense to pay it (see: Bryan’s earlier reference to the experiences he’s been able to have with his family.)

Instead of blowing your budget to meet a minimum-spend requirement, reorganize your expenses with the envelope system and good old-fashioned cash.

According to this sentence you’ve got 2 options: 1) blow your budget to meet a minimum spend or 2) use cash. Um, can I get a third option?

Again, this seems to be written for people with little common sense and no self-control. We have NEVER had to “blow our budget” to meet minimum spends (to earn bonuses). We use wisdom before signing up for cards to make sure we can achieve the minimum spends within our budgets, and then we are diligent to put spending on cards in order to hit those minimums.

Oh, and then we pay our balances off every month. That’s right, EVERY month. We never carry a balance, because we are responsible and in control of our money, even though we own credit cards. Yes, it is possible!

The reward is your savings.

Savings are great, we love savings. We also love free flights, free tickets to Universal Studios, free upgrades to first class, free hotel rooms in Las Vegas, and a bunch of other rewards we’ve enjoyed over the past few years. Those rewards have been just as nice as savings too, just ask our wives.

2. You still use them for online purchases.

You’ve spent what seems like years retyping those 16 digits, security codes and expiration dates into every shopping portal on the internet. Finally, everyone from Amazon to Zappos has your information “securely” stored. And it’s so easy to pay (and buy, buy, buy) with the click of a button.

Again, this is painting a picture of someone who has zero control. I feel sorry for these people, whoever they are.

Surely it’s not doing any harm to pay for web-only purchases with credit? It could be. Credit cards can get you into some serious debt, whereas debit cards can’t. Plus, your debit card has the exact same fraud protections as credit.

Yes, credit cards can get you into debt, that is a true statement. Also a true statement: you can use a credit card like a debit card, only spending money you have. Again, it all comes down to your self-control.

Oh, and saying “debit cards can’t (get you into serious debt)” seems misleading because you still need to use wisdom with a debit card. Any idiot can use a debit card to empty his bank account buying ten years worth of cat food. Just because you have the money for a purchase doesn’t make it a wise purchase.

Wisdom in spending isn’t just about whether you’re using a credit or debit card, it’s more about sticking with a budget and being responsible with your finances.

So there’s really no excuse not to use it.  Just remember to always check your budget first, and sleep on big purchases before you buy. Things have a funny way of looking less cool in the morning.

Things we agree on! Always check your budget and always sleep on big purchases. We do both of those things (despite owning credit cards.)

3. You’re hung up on your FICO score.

As you pay down your debts, you may start to notice your credit score inch up—and you kind of like it.

Yeah, is that a bad thing?

As satisfying as it is to make headway on your debts, a high FICO score does not mean you are wealthy or even well-off.

Nobody said it did. This article just created a silly argument only to knock it down.

Your FICO score only measures your debt—how much you have, how much you use, and how often you pay it back. It’s basically an “I love debt” score.

There are actually 5 components to your FICO score, which Dave knows of course, but to call it an “I love debt” score is such an oversimplification and frankly, a demonizing of a neutral thing.

We have great credit scores and we HATE consumer debt. In fact, the only debt we have is in our mortgages. Neither of us carry any consumer debt.

So yeah, calling the FICO score an “i love debt” score is a bit of a reach.

So if you stop borrowing money (and you should!) you’ll eventually have a non-existent score. And that’s okay. Because when you quit worshipping at the altar of the almighty FICO, you’ll see it for what it really is—a worthless idol.

We don’t know anyone who worships their FICO score as an idol, that seems like a bit of an embellishment, and again, the demonizing of a neutral thing.

What we do know is that if you want to get a home loan it’s probably not a good idea to have a non-existent score. Show me a person about to buy a house and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t think their FICO score is “worthless”. (Correct us if we’re wrong about that.)

You don’t need credit cards or a credit score to win with money. But you do need a game plan.

We agree that you don’t need credit cards, but if you use them wisely they can really bring you some fantastic rewards that you can enjoy with your family. And yes, totally agree about having a game plan.

So cut up the cards, start a monthly budget, and use cash (or a debit card) to pay for everything. Because the only sure-fire way to not slip up with a credit card is to not have a credit card.

Yeah, but what about people who are smart with their money? This is like saying, “the only sure-fire way to not slip up and stab yourself to death with a steak knife is to not have a steak knife…so get rid of all your steak knives!”

Most people own steak knives because they serve a purpose and you can use them responsibly, despite the potential for danger if misused. Same goes for credit cards, in our opinion. They can serve a purpose when used responsibly.

Are they for everyone? Of course not, but if you are diligent and responsible with your finances they can be a great tool to add value to your life.

Rocket science, we know.

Classic little jab to throw in at the end. Make people feel stupid if they didn’t track with everything in the article. (and if you’re critical of the snark used in commenting on this article, note the snark used in writing it.)

Listen, if you are this fictional reader who spends money without realizing it, who clicks “buy, buy, buy” just because your credit card is stored Amazon’s database, and purchases cat food without owning a cat, then yeah, maybe credit cards aren’t for you. (Also, it might be time to evaluate your life.)

But for those of us with common sense and a desire to be fiscally responsible, let’s use all the tools we have to be smart with our money. Let’s keep our brains turned on and stay responsible no matter if you use cash, debit, or credit.

For us, taking advantage of credit card sign up bonuses over the last couple of years hasn’t meant “blowing our budget”, ruining our credit score, or accidentally buying food for pets we don’t own.

But it has helped us take a ton of trips with loved ones for a fraction of the cost, and those experiences are ones we’ll cherish forever.

We do not believe that credit cards are for EVERYONE. But we disagree with this premise that credit cards are for NO ONE. They have worked very well for us, and they might for you too.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go finalize plans for our West Coast trip we’re taking next month thanks to Chase Bank, Southwest, and using credit cards wisely. Check back later for the pictures!

UPDATE: Here’s how our trip went!

PS… We all know people who have done harm to their credit and their lives by being an idiot with credit cards. Again, credit cards are not for everyone. But to wholly dismiss them and scoff at the potential they can offer if you are smart about it, to us, is sort of foolish as well.

PPS… Want to learn more about the trips we’ve taken and how we’ve used credit cards to our advantage? listen to this podcast & sign up to to be the first to know when Free Travlr launches.