Have you ever been tempted to sign up for a store credit card at your favorite retailer?
The cashier may tell you that you can get instant credit approval and save big on your purchase, but money expert Clark Howard says you should think twice.
Store credit cards often offer a short-term benefit such as a period of 0% financing or cash back on purchases. But they also can be a long-term nuisance to your financial well-being because of potential pitfalls created by retroactive interest policies and exorbitantly high interest rates.
Clark wants you to stop and think ahead before succumbing to that temptation.
“At the register, they ask if I’d like to save a certain percentage on my purchase today or if I’d like their 0% offer. And I say ‘NO!’. They look at you like, ‘What is wrong with you?’, but it’s usually the right decision.”
I asked Clark’s advice about the different types of store credit card offers. He gave his wisdom on the differences between in-house store credit cards and co-branded cards as well as some of the pros and cons of store credit cards.
This article was updated in November 2023 and I review it every 12 months. Detailed notes on all updates can be found here.
Why Clark Howard Doesn’t Like In-House Store Credit Cards
Clark is not against using a credit card if you pay your bills in full each month or have a plan to pay the balance off quickly. But he is against putting yourself in a situation where you may owe large amounts of interest or fees on top of your purchase price.
Unfortunately, in-house store credit cards can often lead you down the latter path.
Here are a few reasons Clark would prefer that you stay away from the offers you receive in the marketplace.
1. The Interest Can Come Back to Haunt You
In-store cards often offer “same-as-cash” 0% financing for a set period, such as six, 12 or 18 months. But there’s a catch.
Clark notes that many of these cards can retroactively charge interest if you fail to pay the balance in full by the end of the 0% period.
“With a lot of the store plans, the interest is retroactive to Day One if you haven’t zeroed your balance out by the end of the 0% period. Even if it doesn’t retroactively charge, what you pay moving forward with those is usually a very high boomerang charge.”
You can expect the non-promotional interest rate for an in-store card to hover above the national average APR, which was 20.72% as of November 2023.
2. It Can Lead to Making a Purchase You Can’t Afford
The temptation to overspend is one of Clark’s biggest pet peeves with in-store credit cards. He points out that easy access to store-specific credit may lead consumers to make purchases they wouldn’t have if they’d been required to pay cash.
“I hate for people to buy on 0% plans because what tends to happen is that people buy on those with money they don’t have. And they expect they’re going to have this interest holiday, but then the clock catches up on them and they can’t pay that off.”
Clark says you should ask yourself this harsh but important question before making a major purchase on credit: “If you’re buying something you can’t afford that day, why is it that you think you’ll be able to afford it 12 or 18 months later?”
3. They’re Useless for Purchases at Other Retailers
Most in-house store credit cards are merely lines of credit that are valid only within the shopping ecosystem that issued you the card.
For example, most versions of the Target RedCard work for purchases at your local Target superstore or Target.com, but it won’t be a valid form of payment at the Walmart or McDonald’s down the street.
To enjoy store rewards and maintain spending power at other retailers, you may want to instead consider a co-branded store credit card that carries a Visa or Mastercard backing.
What You Need To Know About Store Credit Cards
If Clark’s advice hasn’t spooked you from considering a store credit card, there are some additional things you should know about them before you proceed.
1. The Difference Between Co-Branded and In-House Store Credit Cards
You can break down the store credit cards into two main categories: in-house store credit and co-branded credit cards.
In-house store credit cards are designed solely for purchases at a specific retailer. If you apply for one of these, it will have no spending power beyond that particular store and its app or website. Clark’s advice above applies to this type of card.
A co-branded card is a credit card that gives discounts and benefits for a specific store but also can be used as a normal credit card at other retailers.
Clark is a fan of co-branded credit cards — in the right situation. He carries a few of them in his wallet to enhance the purchases he makes most often, such as those on his frequent visits to Costco.
2. A Super Responsible Borrower COULD Reap the Rewards
Just because Clark strongly advises avoiding the headaches associated with in-house store credit cards, that doesn’t mean there can’t still be success stories. But that requires discipline both in spending restraint and timely bill payment.
If you are the type of consumer who is carrying no debt and you have the cash to pay for your store card purchase, it’s plausible that you could sign up for an in-store card to get a big discount and then successfully eliminate the debt before any interest comes due.
Before taking this risk, you need to do an honest assessment of your ability to repay the debt and whether or not the reward for which you’re applying is truly worth the risk.
3. Consistent 5% Cash Back Is Enough To Wade Into the Water
As much as Clark hates risking long-term debt issues with in-house store credit cards, he also recognizes a good deal when he sees it.
At that level of return, it even has Clark’s attention:
“5% is enough. What retailers did for so long was say, ‘Would you like to save 15% on this purchase?’ and you get that 15% off one time. After that, there was no comparative advantage. But when you look at Target with the 5% off every time, that’s substantial money. And you’re being subsidized by everyone else who shops there.”
Remember, you must spend within your means and pay your bill in full each month for that 5% cash back to be worth your trouble.
In summary, here are some things that Clark wants you to remember when you’re faced with the store credit card pitch at the store:
- Retroactive interest could hurt you if you accept a 0% offer and don’t pay the balance in full on time.
- Store cards can tempt you to spend money you don’t have. Always ask yourself if the purchase is necessary and if you can pay it off quickly.
- Use 5% back on recurring purchases as the standard for an in-house store credit card. Anything less isn’t worth the trouble.
- Consider opting for a co-branded credit card instead. Clark says these are not “junk credit” and can be used to earn rewards at other retailers.
Bottom Line: If you’re going to add a store credit card to your life, you may want to consider going the co-branded route over the in-house option. Co-branded cards give you perks from your favorite store without the limitations on spending at other retailers. If you do opt for an in-house store credit card, consider one that gives you a consistent reward like 5% off every purchase, and always pay the balance in full.
Do you have experience with a store credit card? We’d love to hear about it in the Clark.com community.
- November 2023: Updated information on APR for store credit cards. Added a reference to the Michaels store credit card. Removed data from an old study. Updated the name of the Amazon Prime Visa.