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Saved by plastic: 5 true credit card rescue tales


While not the primary purpose of plastic, your credit cards can be an invaluable lifeline in extreme situations. Here’s how five cardholders used their cards to survive some serious jams

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Credit cards can truly be lifesaving — for emergency medical and transportation crises, keeping your business afloat in tough times or even bribing yourself out of a foreign country.

Saved by plastic: 5 true credit card rescue tales

While not the primary purpose of plastic, your credit cards can be an invaluable lifeline in extreme situations. Have a look at how five cardholders used their cards to survive some serious jams:

1. Airlift to plastic surgery
A vacation to Costa Rica didn’t turn out exactly as Manhattan attorney Antoinette Banks had planned. On the last day of her trip, she went surfing in a remote beach town. Banks soon regretted that choice, because while she was in the water, a wave sent an out-of-control surfboard into her face, slicing her nose down to the bone.

After being pulled from the water, Banks had to make a quick decision: be treated at the local clinic or go to where a plastic surgeon would be on staff. The first doctor she saw advised her go to a hospital in San Jose, which was nearly a five-hour drive away. Since driving would take too long, she had to fly. “I wasn’t able to get a commercial flight because it was late in the day, so I had to take a medical ambulance,” says Banks.

The cost of the airlift was $6,500, a fee that her medical insurance would not pay upfront, but would eventually reimburse. To cover it, she used her Citi Advantage card. If she didn’t have the credit card? “I would not have been able to be treated by a plastic surgeon and would have been left with a major scar,” says Banks.

2. Traveled after terror attack
Lori Barr, a pediatric radiologist from Austin, Texas, tells of an incident where her charge card helped not only her, but dozens of people stranded during a national disaster. Barr was in San Francisco to be honored as a Fellow of the American College of Radiology. The date of her award meeting: Sept. 11, 2001.

“My husband called me very early that morning to let me know I needed to be looking for a way to get home,” recalls Barr. Because the airlines had suspended all flights after the terror attacks in New York City, every car rental company had sold out of vehicles. Desperate to return home, Barr looked up charter buses and received a quote of $8,000. She turned to her American Express card. Trusting that she could scramble up other Texans, she paid for the bus. Her gamble paid off. Forty-seven people joined her for the 26-hour journey, and they all split the tab. When the bill came in, Barr paid the balance in full.

Barr says her parents talked her into getting the card in 1984. “They raised me to not have debt, but to be prepared for emergencies. My American Express card saved my butt.”

3. Averted a Ukraine jail
Los Angeles-based Jordan Harbinger, co-founder of The Art of Charm, a personal and business coaching company, credits his card with saving him from a stint in a foreign jail.

If I didn’t have the card, I would have missed the flight and spent the night or more locked up in the Ukraine.

— Jordan Harbinger
Co-founder, The Art of Charm

“I went on vacation to the Ukraine and bought old books and antiques off the street,” says Harbinger. At the airport, though, local police confronted him. “They said I was in trouble and wouldn’t let me fill out a customs form. They saw the books and said I couldn’t take them out of the country.” Harbinger was escorted to a back room. “It was 7:15 a.m., and they were drinking. They were looking at the books, saying they were valuable, then took everything — my Palm Pilot, pens, clothes — just random articles of stuff.” As the minutes counted down to his flight, Harbinger panicked. The officers said he was going to jail.

“I said my parents were waiting for me and would be worried, and one guy said ‘OK, I want to let you go.’ Everyone agreed, but one demanded money.” Harbinger told them he could take a maximum cash advance of $2,000 from his credit union card. After he handed the money over, they drove him to the plane.

When Harbinger landed, he called the credit union to tell them what happened. “I was reimbursed within 24 hours. If I didn’t have the card, I would have missed the flight and spent the night or more locked up in the Ukraine.”

4. Kept business alive
If it wasn’t for a credit card, says Sheri Fox, owner of Trios Gallery, a craft store in Solana Beach, Calif., she may have had to close her doors forever. Fox says that the previous year was extremely difficult, and they weren’t sure if they were going to survive the summer. “We realized we had to make it through the holidays because that’s when a business like ours makes its profit,” says Fox. They needed to purchase enough new merchandise to generate revenue, but cash was limited.

If I’m stranded in an airport or across the country, and I don’t have other sources of money, I’m going to use my card.

— Jean Chatzky
The Today Show personal finance editor

“I was fortunate to have good credit,” says Fox, who found a zero percent Bank of America Cash Rewards card but, despite her begging, was only given a $5,000 limit.

Still, the money enabled her to buy many smaller gift items, and the season was lucrative. “Honestly, having a successful holiday in 2009 saved us, emotionally and financially. Times were really bad, and we were scared, but we used our limited resources wisely and tried to stay positive. Without that extra $5,000 worth of credit, I’m not sure how we would have pulled it off. “Even better, Fox says she’ll pay the entire balance off before the zero percent interest rate expires, so the loan was free.

5. Avoided sleeping by the side of the road
Gregory Meyer, community relations manager for Meriwest Credit Union in SanJose, Calif., says he has been rescued by plastic countless times. In fact, Meyer teaches credit management workshops, and uses the time his car broke down as a prime example of when to use credit in a crisis.

“I was out of town on business calls and my transmission failed,” recalls Meyer. “I towed the car to a shop, and the estimate was $1,800! I didn’t have enough in my checking, so thank goodness I had a credit card. Since this happened on a Friday, my company was not going to pay my lodgings, so it went on the credit card, too.” Meyer speculates what kind of giant mess he would have been in had he not had his cards with him. “Sleeping in my car by the side of a road does not appeal to me.”

Meyer repaid the debt within two months, so the finance charges were minimal. “This event could have been a major fiasco had it not been for the credit cards I had in my wallet.”

What is an emergency — and when and how to pay for it?
The preceding scenarios fit financial columnist and author Liz Pulliam Weston’s classification of a true emergency. Ideally, people should have plenty of cash in reserves, but, says Weston, “In a true pinch, credit cards can be an extension of your emergency fund.”

This is not to say that one should whip out plastic before analyzing other options first, even in urgent circumstances. If you have money in savings, a debit card might be better. If you have investments, you may also extract funds from your brokerage firm (as long as it’s not money you’re saving for retirement) that you can access without penalty. No other source? “Reach for the card with the lowest interest rate,” says Jean Chatzky, the Today Show’s financial editor. “If I’m stranded in an airport or across the country, and I don’t have other sources of money, I’m going to use my card.”

In the event you do charge away a calamity, be sure to delete the balance within a few months. That way, your life preserver won’t become the brick that drowns you in debt. Maintain a nice, long line of credit and a favorable relationship with your bank, too. After all, you never know when you may need to pay a crooked cop’s ransom.

See related:The pros and cons of credit union credit cards, How and when to use ’emergency’ credit cards, 7 simple ways to create an emergency savings fund, Emergency fund money critical in a crisis

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