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Is it Genius or Irresponsible to Memorize My Credit Card Number?

Julia Glum
Is it Genius or Irresponsible to Memorize My Credit Card Number?

MONEY recently launched Dollar Scholar, a personal finance newsletter written by a 27-year-old who’s still figuring it out: me.

Every week, I’ll talk to experts about a money question I have, whether that’s “Are online banks sketchy? or “How many credit cards do I need?” As I learn, I’ll share simple ways to improve your financial life… and post some funny memes.

This is (part of) the 11th issue. Check it out below, then subscribe to get future editions of Dollar Scholar every Wednesday.

It’s officially fall, which *cracks knuckles* means it’s time to buy sweaters. Like any good millennial, I intend to overhaul my wardrobe by avoiding any human contact and instead shopping online. Issue #7 taught me not to store my payment info in Chrome for security reasons, but I’m dreading having to locate my wallet every time I want to check out with a cable-knit.

So I’ve been wondering… should I memorize my credit card number?

When I researched it on the internet, I found opinions split. On reddit, some users say they’ve memorized as many as six credit cards simply by using them frequently. Others argue that it’s useless, as most stores won’t accept recited numbers in lieu of cards anyway. At least one blogger says he’s too afraid of getting kidnapped and then having his number tortured out of him. (An extreme case, but my brain also works this way, so I appreciate his input.)

Stephen Fratamico, who runs a website about learning strategies, told me he memorized his number about a year ago and is happy he did. He used the major system, or number-letter system, to commit the digits to memory.

It’s outlined in this post, but basically you break your number up into pairs and make words from consonants the numbers correspond with. Then you come up with a story that uses those words in order. Whenever you need your number, you remember the sentence and work backwards.

It’s kind of hard to explain, so let me attempt to give you an example. Say my credit card number is 4785 2267 6830 1641 (IT’S NOT, I got this from fakepersongenerator.com, chill out).

Following Fratamico’s instructions, I do the following steps:

  1. Break it into pairs ➞ 47, 85, 22, 67, 68, 30, 16, 41.
  2. Make words for the numbers using this agreed-upon chart ➞ 47 = 4 and 7, or the R sound with the K sound, so let’s use the word “rake.” 85 = 8 and 5, or the F sound with the L sound, so let’s use “fall.” And so on.
  3. Build a story, making each word to do an action to the next so I can identify the keywords ➞ “We needed a rake for fall, but Nana told a joke so I gave her mace, which made the dog catch a rat.” (It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make sense as long as it’s memorable!)
  4. Memorize the story.
  5. The end!

(FYI: This system works for most numbers, not just your credit or debit cards. “Use it to memorize the number of each president [ex. who was the 21st president], the number of each stop on your favorite musician’s new tour, or the ranking of the top 50 best movies ever according to IMDb,” Fratamico tells me via email.)

Fratamico said having his payment info memorized has been convenient. But I was curious about how it might affect my shopping habits, so I called Ross Steinman, a psychology professor at Widener University in Pennsylvania who researches consumer behavior.

After telling me that this is one of the strangest subjects he’s ever been asked to comment on — which I took as a compliment — Steinman said he thinks having a card number memorized could be beneficial in emergency situations. At the same time, though, it “could lead to increased purchases.”

“When we think about online shopping, often we’re engaging in impulsive-type behavior,” he says, as if he’s personally seen the 2 a.m. Amazon receipts in my inbox. “Having a cooling-off period is beneficial to slow down those purchases, and having readily available access to credit card numbers could be detrimental.”

Bottom line? If I know myself and know that I’m an overspender, I shouldn’t memorize my card number because it could help me continue overspending. Having to physically locate my card draws out the process a little, and that makes me less likely to follow through on the purchase.

“That extra step can slow [someone] down enough to say, ‘Do I really need this?'” Steinman adds. “‘Do I really need to buy this Halloween costume for my dog?'”

Photo by Peter Ardito