Used wisely, small-business cards can keep business afloat

Wisely used, credit cards can be a convenient source of cash for anyone. For business owners, however, the stakes are often higher since credit cards can help small businesses stay afloat.

Small business credit card primer

Credit cards are a major source of financing for small-business owners, with 31 percent of small businesses having used credit cards in the past 12 months to help finance capital needs, according to the National Small Business Association's (NSBA) 2012 Year-End Economic Report. And of all types of loan sources for capital financing, credit cards are near the top of the list. (See Small-business credit card comparison chart.)

While any credit card can provide a business owner with a quick cash infusion, a business or commercial credit card offers entrepreneurs a lot more. "There are plenty of benefits to using a business credit card versus a personal credit card for your small business," says Alison Cahill-Rouse, a spokeswoman for Capital One. "You'll also have access to business-specific benefits, such as employee cards and spending controls, and specialty service tailored to meet small businesses' needs."

With an understanding of the ins and outs of business credit, business owners can use business credit cards as a financial tool and incorporate their perks and rewards into their business strategies.

No one doubts the importance of credit cards in the business community, which have resurged after a dramatic tightening of the business credit card market during the recession. "Cards continue to be important to small enterprises, and with the business of issuing small-business credit cards returned to profitability, supply should be sustained," reports Frank B. Martien, a partner at First Annapolis Consulting in a Dec. 2012 Federal Reserve report. "Cash flow requirements are cited as the most common credit need among small business," said Martien in the report. Martien also cited that more than 80 percent of small businesses get a credit card after five years of operation. 

Plus, according to the National Small Business Administration's "Small Business Access to Capital Survey, 37 percent of small businesses turned to credit cards to help with financing capital needs during a 12-month period from May 2011 to May 2012.

Take Crystal L. Hendrick, the owner of a marketing firm based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Hendrick used business credit cards to launch and finance her business. "I searched for various bank loan options; however, the only unsecured financial option offered to me was a credit card," Hendrick says

But business credit cards also offer other benefits that have little to do with cash:

Business credit cards ease financial management. One of the first rules of business is to keep business and personal expenses separate. "Having a small-business credit card will help you separate your business and personal expenses, which will make cost tracking easier, as well as preparing tax returns at the end of the year," says Cahill-Rouse. Not only will it be easier to determine business expenses for tax preparation, but it becomes easier for business owners to track their spending since their monthly credit card bill has all purchases outlined in one place.

Employee purchases can be monitored. Some business credit cards give business owners the flexibility to limit how much employees are able to spend on the card, as well as where they can make purchases. For example, Bank of America's WorldPoints Travel Rewards for Business Visa provides free employee cards and lets business owners set spending limits of each of them. 

Business credit cards offer higher spending limits. Business credit cards typically offer higher spending limits than consumer credit cards. For example, Wells Fargo's Business Platinum Credit Card has a $50,000 credit line available and gives business owners access to up to 99 credit cards, while Wells Fargo's Business Elite Card has a credit line available of up to $100,000 and provides up to 200 credit cards for employee use.

Business card rewards can help the bottom line.  Just as personal credit cards often offer consumers rewards to entice them to open an account, business card issuers typically offer business-friendly incentives, including discounts on office supplies, free travel and low-cost business services, such as shipping. Chase's Ink Cash business credit card, for example, offers 5 percent cash back on the first $25,000 spent each year at office supply stores and on phone, Internet and cable television services.

Card terms are geared toward businesses. Unlike consumers who typically can count on a monthly paycheck, business owners may receive a large cash infusion one month and little the next. Some business card issuers have programs designed to address that problem. American Express'  Enhanced Plum Card gives cardholders a discount for paying early or up to 60 days to pay without interest.

The down sides of business cards
Business credit cards are not a perfect solution; they are not covered by the Credit CARD Act of 2009, so issuers can legally engage in practices that have been outlawed in the consumer credit card space, such as retroactive interest rate hikes and double-cycle billing.

"All those deceptive practices that credit card companies were allowed to do to consumers prior to that law passing can legally be done with a business card," says Molly Brogan, a spokeswoman for the NSBA. While most card issuers have extended the consumer protections to their business card clients, Brogan says, business owners should stay on the lookout for potentially changing credit card terms.

Many small-business owners have also said that the terms of their business credit card agreements have worsened in recent years. According to the NSBA, 56 percent of small-business owners have cards with an interest rate higher than 15 percent, and  22 percent of small-business card users have an interest rate above 20 percent.  

Making the grade: How you can qualify
Lenders look at both the business owner's personal payment history and the business' payment history to determine the interest rate, as well as the credit limit. Lenders also may look at the business's past earnings. For example, Bank of America suggests having your Social Security number, business tax ID and business gross annual sales and net profit for the past fiscal year on hand when applying for a business credit card.

To increase your odds of getting approved for a business credit card:

Keep your credit score high. Unless your business is a separate entity with a long history of hefty profits, the card issuer will look at your personal credit to determine whether you're likely to repay your debts. The better your personal credit score, the better chance you will qualify for a business card with favorable terms.

Establish your business's credibility. Make it as easy as possible for card issuers to see that your business is a real entity, Joaber advises. He says this can be done through such actions as opening a separate business checking account and registering your business with bureaus such as Dun and Bradstreet and the Small Business Financial Exchange.

Apply for the right credit card product. Some business cards target large businesses while others are more geared to a small company or a sole proprietor. For example, Wells Fargo's Elite business card is for businesses with annual sales of more than $1 million, points out Wells Fargo spokesman Jim Seitz. If your business is smaller than that, you'd be more likely to qualify for the company's Business Platinum Credit Card, which is geared toward smaller companies.

Use business credit to build business credit. Since terms such as the interest rate and credit limit are based largely on past credit history, you may not be offered the best terms at first. However, you can use your business credit card to begin to establish a business credit history. (See Business credit scores: What they are, how to boost yours). Once you can point to responsible use of the card, ask the issuer for better terms.

Managing business credit wisely
Getting a business credit card is only the first step. Using that card strategically to run your business as efficiently as possible is just as important.

One of the first rules of business is to keep business and personal expenses separate.

-- Randy J. Elder   
Certified public accountant   

Don't use it for personal expenses.  While it may be convenient to pay for business and personal expenses at the same time, use a separate card for the two types of purchases, says Elder. You'll eliminate the advantage that business credit cards give you in terms of allowing you to track monthly expenses if you "muck up the system with personal expenses."

Use good credit sense. Many of the same rules apply to business credit cards as to personal credit cards. For example, make sure you don't go over your credit limit, and pay the balance off monthly, or as soon as possible, so you don't incur a lot of interest.

Know your liability
Business credit cards are different from personal credit cards in that they are geared toward business rather than consumer use, but a cardholder may still be liable even if the business closes its doors.

Credit card issuers typically have the business owner sign a guarantee on the credit card debt, says Ed Boltz, a Durham, N.C.-based bankruptcy attorney and the president of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys. If that's the case and you default on the money that's owed, the issuer would likely report it to commercial credit bureaus, causing a hit to your credit score

While having a business card at your disposal can offer peace of mind, continue to compare rates, rewards and perks frequently to make sure you have the card that does the most to improve your company's day-to-day operations. After all, card issuers are constantly looking for ways that they can be of service to the many small businesses that use them.

See related: Qualifying for business credit cards is personalBusiness card benefits outweigh limitations for most businesses, How to keep a small-business credit limit from being cut

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Updated: 12-13-2018