I use my iTunes account regularly for buying music, and somewhat more rarely for buying apps. But Apple doesn't have my credit card details, and I see no reason why it ever will.
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If you want to purchase digital media (whether that's music, apps, TV shows or movies) through iTunes without a credit card, you have just one alternative option: using an iTunes gift card. Though slightly less convenient, that's a sensible approach for a whole host of reasons.
As we pointed out in our roundup of items which you should never buy at full price, iTunes cards go on sale very regularly through retailers. It's a rare week when Lifehacker doesn't include a Dealhacker post highlighting a current bargain.
The best-case scenario (and one that crops up all the time) is a pair of $20 iTunes cards for $30, which equates to a 25 per cent discount. If you stock up on these cards (in appropriate quantities), then everything you purchase through the iTunes store will be discounted by 25 per cent. There are very few other contexts where you can be confident of such ongoing regular savings. That's reason enough to ditch using the credit card.
While you might well have a stockpile of iTunes gift cards purchased at bargain prices, I recommend redeeming them through the store only one at a time, not adding them to your account as soon as you acquire them. We'll explore why that makes sense over the next two sections.
It's extremely easy to purchase stuff through the iTunes store. An app for $0.99 doesn't seem worth worrying about; even an album for $16.99 represents a bargain in terms of what music has cost in the recent past. But if you're not careful, those purchases can mount up, which is bad budget practice.
If you've only got $20 of credit to spend at a time, you'll have to pause to redeem a card if you want to go on a shopping spree. That's a healthy development, and can help curb impulse shopping on apps you'll rarely use or music you'll hardly ever listen to.
If you're a major music lover or dedicated games fanatic, you can use iTunes cards to effectively regulate your budget. Work out how much you can afford each month for your hobby, and stock up on on-special cards to match those amounts.
Lowering The Risk
While the budget benefits can be helpful, the real reason to use iTunes cards rather than your credit card is a simple one: lowering the risk if your account gets hacked. If someone gains unauthorised access to your iTunes account and you only have $20 in credit there, you're not going to be liable for more than $20. If you have a credit card stored there, you're liable right up to your credit limit.
This isn't just a theoretical risk. I'm cautious about security and follow good practices with my account, but on two separate occasions, unauthorised transactions have been made with my iTunes ID. Apple handles these situations relatively well; I've had the money refunded on both occasions, and the second time Apple gave me additional credit as an apology for the inconvenience.
Nonetheless, the experience hasn't filled me with confidence that Apple has a really solid security infrastructure for its store. The fact that emails confirming purchases take 24 hours to arrive doesn't help matters. Under these circumstances, having no more than $20 in credit is a very sensible move. So that's two reasons to only redeem one card at a time: budget control and improved security.
The final reason is less practical and more philosophical. The iTunes store represents Apple's single biggest lock-in strategy for its customers. Someone looking to upgrade their phone may well be swayed to stick with iPhone over Android because of their prior investment in apps and other content. Having a credit card on file with the company only adds to the lock-in factor.
I've never owned an iPhone or a Mac and I still buy music on CD when that's an option, so I'm personally a low risk for that kind of tie-in in the first place. Regardless, I don't want any one company to have complete control of my digital life. Not Apple, not Microsoft, not Google, not Telstra, not anyone.
That doesn't mean shunning products from those companies; it just means taking a measured approach. I'm going to use them in exactly those contexts where they're useful, and I want to control the terms of the relationship as much as possible. For iTunes, that means keeping the credit card firmly in my wallet.