Updated on 02.21.11

Eight Minutes to Financial Success – Minute #3: Block Your Cards

Trent Hamm

This week, The Simple Dollar is running a short series on some of the key moments in my financial turnaround and how you can experience those moments as well. For a full description of this, see the first article in the series.

Once I had the credit cards out of my wallet, I found that I was forced to think about my purchases more carefully when I was out and about. However, the problem was not solved when I was at home.

The challenge, of course, was the internet. I’d visit a website, see something interesting, and then find myself quickly whipping out my card and typing in the number.

Alternately, simply having them out and easily available meant that sometimes I’d just slip one in my pocket when I was out and about, using it to buy gas and, often, to buy unnecessary things. While not having the cards in my wallet helped greatly with impromptu impulse purchases, it didn’t help when I talked myself into being impulsive before I even left the house.

It was time to move onto stiffer measures.

Block Your Cards
The goal, in the end, is to make sure that every time you purchase something on credit, you’re giving that purchase some careful thought. Removing your credit cards from your wallet is a good first step, but if they’re just sitting in a drawer and easily accessed, additional steps are needed.

My solution was simple: I blocked my card use by making their usage more difficult using various physical and emotional means.

Here are three techniques I used, all with degrees of success.

Freeze them
Just take out a freezer-safe dish (a large Ziploc freezer bag can work pretty well for this), add some ice cubes to it, then put your credit cards on top of the ice cubes. Add water until the credit cards are completely submerged, then put the container in the freezer. What you’ll end up with is a giant ice cube that has your credit cards in the middle.

In order to retrieve your cards, you’re either going to have to melt the large ice cube or you’re going to have to smash the ice cube, likely making a pretty good mess. In either case, you’re going to have to spend some time doing this, forcing you to think about the reasons for which you’re trying to get these cards out of the ice.

Hide them
Another option is to simply hide the cards in a hard-to-reach place in your home – or in a safe external place, like your safe deposit box.

For me, a great place to hide stuff is in our attic. The only way to access the attic is through a portal at the top of our bedroom closet, which is essentially impossible to access without a ladder. Thus, to get into the attic, I have to go to the garage, get a ladder, carry it up the stairs to the bedroom, set it up, climb up there, open the attic portal, get into the attic, then rummage around for the things I’m looking for.

During this process, I have plenty of time to think about why I’m retrieving the cards and, often, I can talk myself right out of it.

Wrap them in pictures
A final approach that worked for me was to use an emotional block of sorts. I simply take a 4″ by 6″ snapshot photo of my children and use it as a “wrapper” for each credit card by placing the card in the center of the back of the photo, then folding the edges so that it forms something of an “envelope” around the card.

When I do this, whenever I go to retrieve a card, I’m forced to look at the pictures of my kids, who really are the inspiration for many of the positive choices I make in my life. Their picture tells me that I should really consider making a better choice, both for their sake as well as for my own long-term viability so that I can be there for them.

Obviously, you can use whatever picture you’d like for this purpose: an image of a long term goal you have, someone you deeply love, or anything else. The key is to use an image that will make you hesitate before using that card.

The key here is to slow down your ability to just grab a credit card and use it, forcing you to think more carefully about your purchases in real time. Such a move will do nothing but help you if you’re struggling to get your spending under control.

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  1. Karen says:

    I love #3 – brilliant!! Expect to be quoted in the future :)

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I have to ask: aren’t most TSD readers long past this point? I can see this series being useful for people just starting out though.

    I’d opt for the safety deposit box if I had to resort to this measure. That way it won’t get lost.

  3. Andrea says:

    Elizabeth, not all readers have been here since the days of old. I don’t think the site could survive if it didn’t have an influx of new readers at different points in their journeys.

  4. Sandra says:

    The main problem with hiding things is that sometimes you forget where you stashed them.

  5. Jules says:

    What works for me is to not allow websites to save any of my information. It’s pretty amazing how annoying it gets to have to type and re-type the same information every time.

  6. Leah says:

    For those who like to carry cards around in their wallet (in case of emergency and the like, as mentioned in the last post in this series), I’ve heard that some people like to do the photo trick or a post-it trick around their credit cards. You just write what you’re saving for, or your motivation, on the postit around your card.

    Again, tho, I argue that this is merely a stopgap. The ultimate goal needs to be to reduce/eliminate or avoid temptation. I don’t mean to be judgmental, and I hope it doesn’t sound bad to say so. If overconsumption of anything is your problem, you need to find a way to avoid that thing. There are definitely foods I keep out of my house, and aisles I avoid at the grocery store, to help keep my weight in check. The same can be said for overspending money.

  7. Todd says:

    The instructions for freezing them in a block of ice don’t make any sense. If you put them on top of ice cubes and then pour water into the container, the ice cubes will float; you can’t “submerge” them.

  8. valleycat1 says:

    I agree with #7 – if you’re going to freeze the bag of water anyway, why the cubes?

    And it seems to me if you smash the cube of ice you take a big risk of shattering the frozen card.

    If you hide the cards in an inaccessible place, be sure someone else in the household knows they’re hidden there (or know where your reminder about the spot is stashed), and that they aren’t in anything that might be thrown out or given away or sold without checking.

  9. Kerry D. says:

    My husband and I wrap our cards, securely taped up, and simply keep them in our wallet. If I am willing to stand at a cash register and remove the wrappings, then it is a purchase that is likely to be important. Like when I was at the vet and discovered that they don’t accept checks anymore. I even explained why they were taped up–these days, it is even trendy to be concerned with excess spending. We hardly ever use our cards anymore. Yay!

    Now, my “amazon one click” requires me to have excellent self control. Thank goodness I can and do.

  10. Elizabeth says:

    @Andrea: I agree, but sites aren’t going to survive by only catering to new readers either :( Don’t get me wrong — I think it’s great that PF blogs are doing the “back to basics” thing for people just starting out on their journey.

  11. MattJ says:

    I gave my cards to Batman, and told him not to give them back, even if I begged.

    Once you give your cards to Batman, man… they’re gone.

  12. Diane says:

    Um…no. I have never done this and never would. I have credit cards. they are used responsibly and within my budget. If I need them, I use them. If I don’t, I don’t. Bills are paid in full every month.

    I also am not an alcoholic, and feel fine having booze in my house. I don’t tiptoe past the cabinet wondering if my dusty bottle of calvados will leap out at me and make me drink it.

  13. zoe says:

    Again you’re making it seem like credit cards are universally evil. It’s flat-out wrong to say that getting rid of credit cards is a “step on the way to financial success”

    Your post would be more helpful if you said at the beginning: “if you have problems impulse buying on credit cards, then…”

    If you did this those of us who responsibly use credit cards would know to skip the post instead of wasting our time.

  14. Gretchen says:

    My post from this morning also applies here:

    Why are you going into stores if your plan isn’t to purchase things.

    I never ever got the ice cube/freezer thing.

  15. Adam P says:

    Calm down guys. Some people would benefit from advice on how to curb credit spending, and some will not!

    I think Trent gave 3 good ways for people who are really having trouble curbing impulses to spending.

    Like some of you, I’ve never had this kind of issue; and at this point in my life/career as an accountant I’d be pretty shamed if I did.

    One thing I had to chuckle, I’ve now memorized my credit card numbers. Hiding them would be sort of useless at stopping my online shopping.

  16. Kathleen says:

    Yeah, I’ve memorized them too – along with the 3 and 4 digit security codes. Adam, I guess we’re lost causes!

  17. Kate says:

    I use the “hide them” technique for yummy sweets in my home and in my office. Out of sight, out of mind…pretty scary how quickly they are forgotten, actually. :o)

  18. Jan says:

    I hide chocolate in my house but the credit cards stay in the wallet. The speed buy button on the QVC website is a temptation though.

  19. Andrew says:

    I’m sorry, but this is just silly.
    What about a little thought and a lot of self-control?

  20. Teresa says:

    I thought the ideas were pretty good. But an even better idea is to not even have credit cards if they are a temptation.

  21. Tracy says:

    Points to whoever it was yesterday in the comments that guessed tip 3 would be freezing cards in ice.

    Unfortunately, I too have the numbers memorized. (I wonder if that’s common nowadays?)

  22. Lilly says:

    I like what Diane (#12) said “Um…no. I have never done this and never would. I have credit cards. they are used responsibly and within my budget. If I need them, I use them. If I don’t, I don’t. Bills are paid in full every month. I also am not an alcoholic, and feel fine having booze in my house. I don’t tiptoe past the cabinet wondering if my dusty bottle of calvados will leap out at me and make me drink it.”

    This is us too… we have a rewards card and I use it for everything from bills to groceries. We just don’t buy things we don’t need and/or can’t afford.

  23. Patty says:

    my husband is a card number memorizeror too. Though after a few rounds of “sorry for the inconvenience but there has been a security breech so here is your new card number” I think he lost track of the numbers. I can barely keep track of my phone number but we are both reasonable with our spending. Its faster to melt the ice cube under warm water than hitting it with a high heel like in the Shopaholic movie. Though these tips may seem silly to some of us, the act of trying these steps mean someone is trying to take control…any step forward is a good thing.

  24. Kate says:

    I would imagine that there are some people out there who stumble upon this site looking for ways to dig themselves out of a hole that was borne out of lack of self-control. Not everyone is blessed with self-control…some have to learn it. If it means doing something that someone else might not understand or scoff at, so be it.

  25. Nicole says:

    I just…don’t quite get what the point of having them is if you have to go to this much effort. It seems to defeat the purpose.

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