Can AAFES help you build good credit? The Army Air Force Exchange Service offers customers two credit card options that could help expand a thin credit file, or help shore up a credit report that needs a history of reliable, on-time payments.
Building good credit with AAFES is possible, but without a clear understanding of how credit works and how it affects your credit scores, adding a credit card could create more trouble than it will help. You can definitely avoid that situation with a few simple steps, which we’ll address below.
There is one simple trick (for real in this particular case) to remember when trying to build up good credit using AAFES. Keep reading!
AAFES Credit Programs And You
Those who have never been in a Base Exchange, Post Exchange, or other AAFES operation may wonder what the fuss is about. AAFES operates stores on military bases around the world including a Base or Post Exchange, clothing sales, dry cleaning, motor vehicles, and food court operations.
These retail outlets feature zero sales tax, sometimes more competitive prices on computer gear and home entertainment, and potentially easier credit terms and conditions for those who need it.
AAFES does not operate the military commissary system (that belongs to the Defense Commissary Agency or DeCA), and it doesn’t operate travel and tour offices at military bases (that’s the job of the agency known as Morale Welfare and Recreation or MWR for short).
AAFES offers credit options for those who wish to shop online at its official site or in person at one of approximately 3,000 locations worldwide. Shopping at these facilities is tax-free, which is one financial perk, and AAFES offers two credit card options under the Exchange Credit Program (ECP).
ECP was created in 1979 and is funded by AAFES. The program serves roughly two million cardholders and offers the MILITARY STAR program (which is rendered in all caps by ECP in its official correspondence).
The original goal of the MILITARY STAR program was to help servicemembers avoid predatory lending and to give them access to shopping options that may otherwise be limited based on location, income, or other factors.
But this credit card program doesn’t just provide credit options; it also supports MWR programs. According to the AAFES official site, the Exchange Credit Program has “returned $639 million to these programs over the last 10 years.”
STAR card transactions are processed “in-house” according to the official site, which means that card holders avoid merchant fees and bank fees that may be associated with credit card use (especially overseas).
Using AAFES To Help You Build Better Credit With One Simple Trick
You know those goofy internet advertisements that tell you to “lose weight with one simple trick” or “get cheaper car insurance with one simple trick”? In this particular case, there really IS one simple trick you can do to boost your credit by using AAFES.
Here’s the trick: pay on time, EVERY time with no exceptions. That is accomplished by setting up an auto payment, allotment, or other automatic deduction to pay your AAFES MILITARY STAR card account every month. Make your monthly payments as “fire-and-forget” as humanly possible.
Because late and missed payments are one of the top three reasons why consumer credit suffers. Late and missed payments lower your FICO scores and thanks to mobile apps and other internet technology you can take steps to make nearly all your monthly financial obligations auto-deducted.
It saves you from late fees, boosts your credit, and makes you a much better candidate for loan approval when it comes time to purchase a house or a car.
But Wait, There’s Another Trick You Can Use To Repair Your Credit
Credit repair is a lot easier when you understand that late and missed payments basically crush your credit score. But “late and missed” aren’t the only factors you need to be concerned with–the amount of your credit card balances are also very important.
Ideally, you want to carry about 30% of your maximum MILITARY STAR balance every month. But you will also need to do this with your other credit accounts, too.
This is known as credit utilization and the basic “one weird trick” issue here is carrying lower balances on as many of your credit accounts as possible. Lower balances translate into a perception of more responsible credit use.
Balances carried forward higher than 30% of your limit won’t automatically lower your FICO scores, but patterns of credit use that involve using more of your credit limit (especially when those habits are visible across multiple accounts) CAN hurt your credit score.
This can also hurt your chances at certain kinds of loan approval if your lender detects a pattern that might indicate you are a great credit risk.
How Not To Use Your STAR Card
If you want to use the ECP and MILITARY STAR account to improve your credit, you will need to observe credit best practices on ALL credit accounts, not just your STAR card. But you will definitely want to pay attention specifically to your AAFES spending and credit use to make sure you don’t set yourself up for failure later down the line.
There are some do’s and don’ts to observe that can help you get more out of your STAR card and your efforts to improve your credit.
- If you have thin credit or no credit history, apply for a MILITARY STAR card and set up auto-deductions, allotments, or other automatic payment options to keep your balance paid on time.
- Don’t fire-and-forget your auto payments. Periodically check your balances, make sure you are still paying at LEAST the minimum due each month on all accounts. This is crucial for several reasons, the least of which being that if you use your card more frequently than you should, your minimum monthly payments may increase without you realizing it. This can happen during TDYs, deployments, PCS moves, or any other time you have major life issues to deal with.
- Avoid using your STAR card to purchase items that have limited long-term value. Buying a laptop on credit is a good investment if you find a sale and you can save a bit of money. But purchasing perishable goods on credit is a bad move–they will be used up and gone long before you pay your card balance off. This policy serves to help keep your credit card balances lower and save you money on interest rates.
- If you are trying to repair credit, avoid shifting money between credit cards. Balance transfers and other moves may provide you some short-term relief, but if you need long-term solutions, it’s better to directly attack your credit card debt by paying down principal balances aggressively rather than playing a shell-game between different cards. Sometimes it cannot be avoided, but if you can directly address your credit card debt, do it.
- If you fall behind on your STAR card payments or any other type of credit, reach out to your creditors IMMEDIATELY instead of waiting for things to get worse first. Those who are in financial trouble have the most options when they ask for help right away. The longer you wait and the deeper into financial trouble you get, the fewer options open to you.
Should You Close A MILITARY STAR Card Account?
Some borrowers may make spending mistakes with their STAR cards and spend some time digging themselves out of a financial hole they’ve made for themselves.
There’s a sort of timeless credit mistake some new troops make once they hit their first duty station; they are no longer in a strict regimented training environment, some of these new troops are earning more than they’ve made before, and then they are offered credit in the form of a STAR card.
Some of these troops will use their credit to buy elaborate gaming systems, home stereo gear or home theater equipment, new clothes, etc. For a certain percentage of these people, the monthly debt can be daunting.
The key in such cases is to get out of the debt, pay consistently on time, and work the credit card balance down to a more reasonable level with an affordable monthly payment. But in these cases, many people feel the temptation to close the problem account once they have paid their debt.
Painful memories and/or guilt from a financial free-for-all before reality came settling in has that effect on consumers–close the offending account and promise yourself to do better next time.
But closing your credit accounts can actually HURT your credit score. The age of your credit counts toward your FICO score, and even if you had past trouble with a STAR card or other types of credit, once you have successfully made 12 months or more of on-time payments on all financial obligations, you will see improvements in your credit report.
Do you have thin credit, bad or marginal credit, or have a history of credit problems? Don’t close an old account, even if it’s a STAR card you don’t use much anymore. Get some credit repair advice from a financial planner, an on-base money management seminar, or a reputable consumer finance agency such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News