Updated on 03.30.07

Five Minute Finances #18: Freeze Your Credit Cards – Literally

Trent Hamm

Five Minute FinancesFive Minute Finances is a series of tips on how you can save significant money or reorganize your financial life in just five minutes. These tips appear Monday, Wednesday, and Friday on The Simple Dollar.

If the one thing keeping you from cutting up your credit cards is fear that you might someday desperately need them in an emergency, this tip is for you. When I was younger, my aunt once filled an ice cream container half full with water, put it in the freezer, waited twenty four hours, pulled it out, put her credit cards in there, then filled it up with water to the top and stuck it back in the freezer. The end result was a giant ice cube with her credit cards stuck in the middle.

What? Why? She realized that she was spending far too much money with the plastic and if she kept the cards around, she would keep using them on stupid things. She also realized that there may be a big emergency some day when she would need them. So instead of cutting up her cards, she froze them.

By freezing her cards, she didn’t destroy them, but she rendered them very difficult to use. To have access to the card, she would have to unthaw a rather large ice cube – it filled up a gallon plastic bucket and thus would take some significant time to unthaw, even if you used heating methods to help. This served two purposes: one, it got the cards out of sight and out of mind, and two, it made her take some very serious pause if she ever thought about getting them out to use them.

Using this strategy and about two years of steady payments, my aunt got herself completely out of credit card debt, and this technique was a big help in the process. The best part is that it’s quite simple and a very effective psychological trick to get yourself out of the plastic mentality.

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  1. David says:

    Of course, if you write the number down first you can still buy online. That’s why I would recommend anyone in DEEP financial trouble to cancel and cut up all but 1 card for emergencies only..I know someone that froze their cards, but they had the account numbers stored in their computer so they could still buy stuff on the internet…:-(

  2. Nathan says:

    I would imagine that while it worked, it did a poor job of actually teaching any lesson. If freezing your credit cards is a tactic that really works, how about building and reinforcing the willpower to simply stop using them until necessary?

    I am always hesitant to say these types of “psychological tricks” are worthwhile because while they might work for some people in some circumstances, it doesn’t really fix the problem to begin with, and that was the ability to have a credit card without the fear of running it up unnecessarily.

  3. !wanda says:

    There’s willpower and then there’s habit. If someone gets into the habit of not using their cards to buy things, because those cards are inaccessible, it may be much easier for them to have the willpower to not use those cards later, when they’re back in the wallet.

  4. eR0CK says:

    I had a head gasket blow on my truck last year. Had I froze my credit cards, I would have been in a World of hurt.

    I think keeping one and cutting the rest is the most effective. It’s important to learn restraint anyway.

  5. DJ says:

    I had done this a few years back, and not long after I experienced some mechanical problems with my car. It took me all of maybe 60 seconds with some boiling hot water to free my credit card before heading off to the mechanic.

    After that I didn’t bother freezing them again – I gave them to my parents who live about 10 minutes drive away, and they stuck them in a drawer. It has worked much better for me now because I feel like I need to explain to them why I’m borrowing it (not that they care, as it’s my money), but it helps me to at least feel accountable to someone.

  6. TJP says:

    I like David’s suggestion a lot. I would eliminate all but 1 card, and charge all my purchases on a single bill. That way, you only have to pay one creditor each month, which keeps you better organized and more focused on investing your remaining income.

    But hey, if freezing the damn things works, go for it!

  7. !wanda says:

    As Trent pointed out some time ago, canceling cards damages your credit score because it reduces your debt/available credit ratio (drastically, if you have several cards) and can shorten your credit history. Now that it’s the internet age, if you’re at the point of freezing your cards in a block of ice, you should also clear your browser’s “private data,” particularly your “saved forms” and maybe your cache, to get rid of the account numbers in your browser’s memory. (I think that’s what you mean by “had the account numbers stored in their computer,” David- tell me if I’m wrong- because it’s pretty dumb to write those down in a file on your computer.)

  8. Sharon says:

    I wrapped my credit cards in a “paper gift wrap” so that to use them I would have to tear the paper off them in front of the clerk. A little embarrassing, but I was able to keep the cards with me without the really, really easy access…sf

  9. Casey says:

    “To have access to the card, she would have to unthaw a rather large ice cube – it filled up a gallon plastic bucket and thus would take some significant time to unthaw, even if you used heating methods to help.”

    You meant, “thaw” instead of “unthaw,” right?

    Thaw: solid to liquid
    “Unthaw”: liquid to solid

  10. Lanny says:

    Casey: I tend to agree, however the english dictionaries feel different:

    Wonderful language we have.

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