By Lisa Gerstner | Updated January 2015
Plus, how to use it wisely and earn the lowest interest rates.
If you’re smart about when and how you use it, a credit card can help you build a solid credit history and boost your credit score. That will help you get a lower rate when you apply for a mortgage or other loan.
See Also: Our Special Report for Starting Out
Qualifying for your first credit card can be a pain because you may not have much of a credit record. Check with your bank or credit union, which may offer its customers a break. Or apply for a retail credit card, such as the Target REDcard or the Chevron/Texaco gas card. Retail cards are often easier to get than other cards, although they typically come with high annual percentage rates and low spending limits. A third option: a secured credit card, which requires you to make a cash deposit. On-time student-loan payments also help you build a good credit history.
It’s easy to rack up a big balance quickly, and if you don’t pay off the full balance each billing cycle, you’ll owe interest. Pay only the minimum and you’ll be paying for a while. For example, if you charge $2,000 on a credit card with a 22% interest rate and make a $60 payment every month, it will take more than four years to pay it off—and you'll fork over $1,119 in interest. You may find that the best way to control your cash flow is to use a debit card or prepaid debit card—once you spend the money, it’s gone.
Many credit cards carry perks such as extended warranties and purchase protection, which may get you a repair, replacement or reimbursement for an item you bought with the card that is damaged or stolen within a certain period after purchase. And some rewards cards offer up to 5% or 6% cash back on certain purchases, such as groceries or gas. (You’ll need a solid credit history to qualify for the best rewards cards.) The Discover It card, for one, pays 5% cash back in categories that rotate quarterly and 1% on all other purchases. Compare annual percentage rates and fees, such as annual and late-payment fees.
Know the Score
Credit scores are based on information from your credit history, and they’re a shorthand way for lenders to judge your creditworthiness. There are many credit scores, but lenders commonly
use the FICO score when you apply for credit. You often have to pay to see your FICO score—and the version that you buy may not be the same one a lender views. The VantageScore is another gauge that lenders use, though it hasn’t been as widely adopted as the FICO score. The latest version of the VantageScore operates on the same scale as the FICO score (300 to 850), but it’s calculated with a different formula.
Don’t get caught up trying to track every score. To get an idea of where your credit stands and how you can improve it, use free tools such as Credit.com. which provides two credit scores based on information from the credit bureau Experian. CreditKarma.com offers free scores based on TransUnion information (it also has an app).
To protect your credit score, always make your payment by the due date, even if it’s the minimum. Missing just one payment can ding your score. You should also keep the balance on your credit card low compared with the card’s maximum limit. Ideally, your charges won’t exceed about 20% of the card’s limit. And don’t apply for several credit cards in a short time. That can tug down your score. Credit.com and Credit Karma both provide insight on how each portion of your score stacks up.
Check Your Credit Reports
At www.annualcreditreport.com. you can get a free credit report annually from each of the major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Your reports list your credit accounts, including loans and credit cards, and provide information such as your record of on-time payments, the age of each account, and inquiries from lenders to check your report. Credit reports also point out any delinquencies, such as a bankruptcy or an account that went into debt collection. You can request all three of your free reports at once or stagger them throughout the year, ordering a report every four months.
If information on any of the reports is incorrect, you’ll have to correct it with each bureau that has the erroneous information. The procedure is spelled out on each bureau’s Web site.
You can use free credit-monitoring tools to get e-mail alerts of changes in your credit reports. Credit Karma will monitor your TransUnion report free, and Credit Sesame does the same for your Experian report. If you get a notification that, say, a new credit account has been opened but you didn’t open it, you can investigate further in case someone has stolen your identity.