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A Shocking Number of People Lend Their Credit Cards to Family and Friends

And surprise! It never goes well

This is the kind of personal finance advice it pains me to give because it seems so obvious as to be unnecessary, but alas, I feel that I must: Don’t share your credit card with someone.

Don’t share it with anyone, actually.

And while you’d obviously never hand your credit card to a complete stranger, don’t share it with a friend or family member either — unless you’re prepared to pay off those charges yourself and never be reimbursed for them.

This “goes without saying” advice apparently needs to be said, as a startling 36 million Americans have reportedly had a bad experience lending their credit card to someone they know, according to a new study commissioned by CreditCards.com, a site run by financial literacy publisher Bankrate.

Some interesting takeaways from the study include:

  • Nearly half (49 percent) of all current and former credit card holders confess to lending out their credit card to someone they know at some point or another.
  • More than a third (35 percent) of those people report it ending with an unfavorable outcome. (What a fucking shock.)
  • 14 percent report not getting paid back.
  • 10 percent say they never got the card back at all.
  • The most common problem with people lending out their credit card (about 19 percent) is the recipient spending more than they said they would. (Again, shocking, I know.)

The only surprising part about this study is how prevalent the practice of lending out personal credit cards is, because, with very few exceptions, it’s an absolutely terrible idea.

Think of it in terms of lending a loved one cold hard cash. There’s an old adage that you should never lend money to friends or family unless you’re willing to never see that money again, and the same axiom applies to credit cards. In fact, it applies double, because unlike handing your loved one a wad of cash, there’s no hard limit on how much the person can spend when you lend them your credit card (besides the card’s actual limit, of course). Once they have it in their possession, you’ve surrendered your ability to impose any spending restrictions. It’s like the digital version of handing your friend a book of blank checks — all of which feature your signature.

Actually, no, it’s even worse than giving your friend your personal checkbook, because people have a nasty habit of spending more when dealing with credit cards than with physical currency. And the temptation to overspend is even greater when the credit card statement isn’t theirs.

This is all exacerbated by the fact that the person you’re lending your credit to is someone you’re intimately familiar with — someone you ostensibly love, in some kind of romantic, platonic, sexual or vague emotional sense. And that relationship makes it nearly impossible to demand that you be reimbursed for the money they spent. Worse yet, the person receiving the money knows, consciously or not, that their pre-existing relationship with the lender means they don’t have to pay back their debt in a timely manner.

It’s fine. We’re all friends here. They know I’m good for it. I’ll pay them back eventually.

But eventually never comes. So instead of confronting your brother-in-law about the $3,000 he “borrowed” for his multi-level marketing venture, your resentment lingers and festers, until one day the two of you get into an unrelated argument at Thanksgiving, and you blurt out, “You’re not good enough for this family, you low-life cheapskate! My sister married the wrong person! Also, you owe me three grand!” (Or something.)

As for personal experience — the scene above was a complete hypothetical — my parents lent me their credit card once. They didn’t lend it to me a second time. I was on my first solo vacation abroad, and I blew past the limit they imposed (and I agreed to). They made me get my own credit card immediately upon returning stateside. They also made me pay back the money I owed them, forcing me into a kind of indentured servitude that involved me living in their home as a 22-year-old adult and writing over to them every paycheck I received until the debt was paid. It was… not pleasant.

The best example of how you should approach lending money is the mafia-meets-interracial Romeo and Juliet film A Bronx Tale. In it, the main character Calogero keeps chasing down an acquaintance who owes him $20. That is, until his mob boss mentor wisely advises him to let it go: “He’s out of your life for $20. You got off cheap.”