How to help the homeless with your credit card

No, you may not borrow my card, but can I buy you breakfast or lunch?

John Egan
Personal Finance Writer
Writes trendy stories about credit cards.

How to use your credit card to help the homeless

A South Carolina man found out the hard way that you should never lend your credit card to someone you don’t know: The stranger who “borrowed” the card failed to return it.

A 22-year-old man reported to police in Columbia, South Carolina, that a homeless man recently approached him at a Walgreens store seeking help. What did the 22-year-old do? He handed his Navy Federal Credit Union Visa card to the homeless guy.

Dumb move. The homeless man took off and never came back.

There’s no word on whether any charges were made on the card, but that’s beside the point.

The point I’d like to make is that you should never, ever let a complete stranger borrow your credit card. In fact, I never let anyone borrow my credit card, even my relatives or close friends.

Even lending your card to a loved one has risks

It’s usually fine to let your spouse or kids borrow your credit card. After all, you know where they live.

But entrusting your credit card to someone you can’t track down? Just don’t do it.

A 2018 poll found that nearly half of American adults have lent their credit cards to spouses, kids, friends, co-workers or other people to make purchases.

Unfortunately, 35 percent of those card lenders were burned by the decision. The borrowers overspent (19 percent), never paid back the debt (14 percent) or never gave back the card (10 percent).

See related: Charity credit cards: Donate your rewards

Give cash or buy a meal

If you really want to help someone who’s in a bind – particularly a homeless person – give them cash. Sure, that debt might not be repaid, but at least you don’t have to worry about someone running up thousands of dollars in charges on your credit card.

Here in Austin, Texas, there’s a pretty large population of homeless people, so I’ve gotten accustomed to the pleas they make and I’ve set a personal policy about the extent to which I’ll help them.

Thankfully, no homeless person has ever asked to borrow a credit card. And I’d never honor that request.

In most instances, I’ve found that homeless people only want cash. And I won’t hand it to them. Why? Because I have no idea whether they’ll spend it on food … or something else.

In rare cases, I’ve been asked to help a homeless person get some food. And in those cases, I’m much more likely to offer assistance.

Homeless, hungry and thankful

Last year, I was attending a conference in downtown Dallas and was hunting for a place to eat dinner. As I was roaming around, trying to settle on a restaurant (and avoid getting lost), a homeless man, probably in his 40s, struck up a conversation with me.

The man simply wanted some food. So I offered to buy him dinner at the restaurant where I wound up eating. And I made good on my offer, paying for his meal and mine with one of my credit cards.

The man ordered chicken wings and perhaps one other item. That was it. So, we sat and talked as we waited for his wings and my meal to be prepared.

Once the wings arrived, the man grabbed his to-go order and went on his way. He was very appreciative of someone buying him a meal.

Beggars can’t be choosers

By contrast, a homeless man on a bicycle recently approached me in the parking lot of a breakfast joint where I regularly eat. A woman on a bicycle was not far behind him.

The man asked for food on behalf of the two of them. I told him I’d buy them breakfast at the restaurant where I was planning to dine. He refused my offer, as his female companion wanted food from a restaurant across the street.

Then, the man asked for cash. I didn’t have any. So he wondered whether I’d head to the nearby Walgreens store and withdraw cash from the ATM.

I firmly but politely told him that I wouldn’t go to the ATM and get money for them. The only thing I was willing to do was buy breakfast for them at the restaurant that was just a few feet away.

No deal.

The man and woman pedaled away on their bikes, presumably in search of someone who’d purchase a meal for them at her preferred restaurant.

So, does that make me stingy? No.

Monthly deduction helps feed the needy

Rather than negotiating with a homeless person about what I will and won’t offer, I prefer to donate $50 a month to the Central Texas Food Bank.

The local food bank feeds hungry people – including those who are homeless – in a 21-county region. And in contributing money to the food bank, I am assured that it’s benefiting people in need by nourishing them.

Plus, the food bank makes it simple to be charitable. The $50-a-month donation is automatically deducted from my checking account. 

Therefore, I don’t have to weigh whether I should give $5 to a homeless person or even whether I should let a homeless person borrow one of my credit cards.

See related: What helping the homeless is teaching me about credit

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Updated: 05-24-2019