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Credit cards operate on a revolving line of credit, which means that they don't typically give you a set repayment term with fixed monthly payments like an installment loan does. Instead, you're given a minimum monthly payment based on your balance at the end of each statement period, and you can pay that amount or more, depending on your preference and budget.
But now, some major credit card companies are offering installment plans that allow you to pay off certain purchases over a fixed period of time. Let's take a look at how these installment plans work and whether they're right for you.
What Is a Credit Card Installment Plan?
A credit card installment plan is essentially a buy now, pay later plan or an extended payment plan that's built into your credit card. When you make an eligible purchase—the definition of which can vary by card issuer—you can put that purchase on a payment plan and pay it off over a fixed term, either with a fixed interest rate or a fixed monthly fee.
Depending on the card issuer, the size of the purchase, your creditworthiness and other factors, the fixed payment period may last anywhere from three months to four years.
The purpose of these plans is to make it easier for cardholders to pay down certain purchases by separating them from the card's balance. If you're buying a large appliance, paying for a vacation or making another large purchase, you may want to have a specific plan to pay down that expense instead of letting it get lost among the rest of your transactions.
When you see that a purchase is eligible for an installment plan, you can request a plan and learn about the details of your repayment if you choose to proceed. The payment for the credit card installment plan is typically added to your card's minimum monthly payment until it's paid in full.
As with many installment loans, though, you can pay off the purchase early if you choose. Doing so could save you money on interest or fees.
When Should You Use a Credit Card Installment Plan?
In an ideal world, you'd be able to pay off your credit card balance in full every month. But circumstances don't always make that possible, and there are some situations where it might make sense to use a credit card installment plan.
You've Made a Major Purchase
Credit card issuers typically have a minimum purchase amount that you need to meet to be eligible for an installment plan—$100, for instance.
However, it may make sense to use these plans only on larger purchases that you want to make sure to pay off within a reasonable amount of time.
You Can Save Money
In some instances, you may be able to save money with a credit card installment plan. Review the offer and compare it to your card's regular purchase APR to see whether you might be able to save.
Additionally, because the charge comes in the form of a fixed monthly fee or interest rate, you don't have to worry about fluctuating interest rates impacting your monthly payment as they do with other credit card balances carried over from month to month.
Sometimes, card issuers may even offer promotions with installment plans, giving you the chance to pay no fee at all.
You Don't Want to Wait
If you can afford to buy something outright without financing, you'll save more money than if you were to use a credit card installment plan.
But if you have a good reason for financing a large purchase instead of waiting to save up the money and you don't make it a habit, it may not have too much of a negative impact on your finances.
When You Shouldn't Use a Credit Card Installment Plan
While there are some instances in which an installment plan can give you some more flexibility and even save you some money, it's not always a good idea. Here are some situations where it might not make sense.
You Can Pay Your Balance in Full
If you can afford to pay off your purchase in full, there's likely no point in financing the purchase and paying interest or monthly fees. While credit card installment plans can potentially come with lower costs, you can still expect a relatively high cost of borrowing. Pay off the balance in full and avoid interest entirely.
You're Using a Plan to Overspend
Credit card installment plans can give you more structure with your credit card payments, but their flexibility and convenience could cause you to spend more money over time. If you're considering an installment plan to buy things you can't afford, it can get more and more difficult to keep up with your payments the more plans you use.
You're Nearing Your Credit Limit
Even after you place a purchase on an installment plan, that portion of your balance still eats up your available credit on the card. If you lock yourself into a long-term repayment plan, it may restrict your ability to use the card for other things.
Alternatives to Credit Card Installment Plans
If you're thinking about making a large purchase on your credit card and paying it off over time, there are other options available that could potentially save you some money:
- Intro 0% APR credit cards: Some credit cards offer an introductory 0% APR on purchases for a set period after you open an account. Offers can range from six months to 21 months, depending on the card. If you need some time to pay off a big-ticket item, an intro 0% APR credit card could help you avoid interest charges entirely.
- Save up your money: If you can save up enough to pay for the purchase in full within a reasonable period, it may be best to wait until you have the cash on hand to pay off your card after you use it.
- Buy now, pay later plans: If the purchase is relatively small, some buy now, pay later services offer no-interest plans that you pay off over a relatively short period, such as six weeks. Keep in mind, though, that not all merchants partner with these services, so you'll need to consider that as you shop.
- Personal loans: Personal loans tend to charge lower interest rates than credit cards on average, and if your credit score is in great shape, you could even secure a loan with a single-digit interest rate. That said, some personal loans charge much higher rates, potentially making it more expensive than a credit card installment plan.
Improve Your Credit to Create More Options
Your credit history is an important element of your financial plan, and having good credit will not only open up more financing opportunities but also make them more affordable. The less you pay for the privilege of borrowing, the more room you'll have to save for future purchases so you don't need to finance them at all.
Check your credit score to see where you stand and review your credit report to understand which factors are impacting your score. If your score is already in good shape, keep using credit responsibly to maintain your progress. However, if it needs some work, use your credit report as a guide to determine which areas to address. It can take time, but the savings and financial flexibility are worth it.