We Americans use our credit cards about 300 million times every week, according to a book called "On an Average Day." We charge more than $10 billion worth of merchandise with them.
Unless my math is way off, that comes out to a staggering 15 billion credit-card purchases a year -- and a total bill of around half a trillion dollars.
What does this have to do with the environment? Well, now you can actually use a little of that charge power to support environmental groups.
VISA and MasterCard have a service called "affinity cards," which makes it possible for organizations like the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation and about 75 others to work with banks to offer their own credit cards. Every time you use the card, a part of what you spend goes directly to the sponsoring group. It's a painless, effective way to donate money to help protect the planet.
To understand the affinity card program, you have to know how bank credit cards normally work. Let's say you buy something from a store with a VISA or MasterCard:
1. The store automatically pays 2 percent to 3 percent of your purchase to its bank as a processing fee.
2. The store's bank keeps a small part of that 2 percent to 3 percent and gives the rest to your bank for having issued the card in the first place.
3. Your bank receives this money in addition to the interest and service charges you're already paying. So it can afford to use some of it for promotional purposes. And that's where the "donation" comes from.
Why would a bank give money away? It's a volume discount. Banks figure that if you're a member of the Sierra Club, for instance, you'll use the Sierra Club card frequently -- and generate more income for them. So they're willing to give as much as 0.5 percent of your total bill to the sponsoring group. This small percentage can really add up.
If you're a member or supporter of a large environmental organization, see if it has an affinity card program.
For a list of the environmental organizations already sponsoring affinity cards, write to: Corporate Relations, VISA USA, P.O. Box 8999, San Francisco, Calif. 94128; and MasterCard International Inc., Attn. Stephen Drees, 888 Seventh Ave., New York, N.Y. 10106.