Q&A: Should I Build My Own Credit Card?

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Q: I’ve seen the ads on television for “build-your-own” credit cards. I have to admit, it sounds tempting, but I’m worried about the fine print and what damage I might be doing by doing it myself. Any words of wisdom? — T. O’Lear, Atlantic City, N.J.

A: Here at BankingMyWay, we believe anything you do to further your education on how credit cards work, and how they can work against you, is all good. Building your own credit card, like building your own deck will teach you about home construction projects, will surely teach you something you didn’t know about credit cards.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should jump right in. Certainly, Capital One (Stock Quote: COF) has a hit on its hands with the “Card Lab” program that enables customers to create their own credit card. But should American consumers even be in the business of building their own credit cards? It’s a tough call, so here are some pros and cons.

PROS

You’ll become a savvier card user with a do-it-yourself model. Like we said above; building your own card does have its own rewards, at least as far as making you a smarter card user. By taking the time to study what you want and don’t want in a card, you’ll gain more transparency and see for yourself what works and what doesn’t — for your particular needs.

You’ll pick only what you want. Credit card firms are becoming more upfront about giving you the features you want, on an à la carte basis. JPMorgan Chase (Stock Quote: JPM) allows you to choose a card that breaks down your spending by category or set your own monthly payments. Building your own card is usually all about flexibility, and choosing what features you want really fits the bill there.

You’ll be more interactive with your card provider. Membership really does have its privileges. With American Express’s (Stock Quote: AXP) Zync do-it-yourself program, you’re automatically enrolled in the “forum” program in which you can chat with Amex customer service reps online and trade ideas on how to make your card better.

CONS

No position of strength. Even if you do build your own card, the card companies still call the shots. For example, if you choose a card with a cash-back feature and a higher APY, the cash back deal will last longer than it would if you chose a card with a lower APY. In other words, you may have to give a little to get a little.

You’ll miss things in the fine print. Despite tough new credit card reform laws, card companies are still highly creative about hiding stuff they don’t want you to know about. For example, a card issuer may dangle a great rewards bonus, but make you hunt for the inevitable annual fee that comes with that bonus. So you really have to do your homework.

You may fall for style over substance. Designing your credit card can be pretty cool. You get to put your son’s Little League photo on the card, or your company logo. But don’t get carried away with the design part. Just because you can put a picture of your cat on your card doesn’t mean you should overlook the serious items, like what interest rate you’ll pay. As always, keep your eyes on the prize.

To go ahead and build your own credit card, start with the “paint-by-number" approach at sites like Discover’s (Stock Quote: DFSCardbuilder or Capital One’s Card Lab (it’s being retooled for a new rollout this year).

Above all else, take your time and definitely read the fine print — your credit rating may be riding on it.

—For the best rates on loans, bank accounts and credit cards, enter your ZIP code at BankingMyWay.com.

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