Long before we are old enough to carry credit cards ourselves, advertisers make sure we know about the power of plastic: “It’s everywhere you want to be.” “It pays to Discover.” “What’s in your wallet?”
While using an ad campaign to choose a card is a terrible idea, the slogans have one thing right: A credit card can be a powerful thing. For teens and 20-somethings looking to pick a first card, taking the time to choose carefully can save money and offer a boost in establishing and building a credit history.
An excellent credit score will be helpful when you start to think about buying a car or getting a mortgage. Even if you do not plan to take out a large loan in the near future, your credit information can be a factor in renting an apartment, obtaining a membership at a club or getting hired for certain jobs.
Lenders use credit reports to determine how risky it is to give a borrower — that is, you — a loan. All in all, the lender just wants to know if the borrower will be able to pay back the loan. If the borrower has bad credit, then he or she probably made some major or ongoing financial mistakes and is more likely not to repay. On the other hand, if the borrower has good credit, then he or she has a history of paying back debt, and the lender will most likely grant the loan.
Credit cards are effectively short-term loans that need to be paid back within a short grace period. Getting the first credit card can be tricky. Credit card companies do not have any basis for your credit history since you have not borrowed any money in the past. So how are you supposed to establish and build your credit rating without a history?
One way is to apply for a secured credit card. Secured credit cards are backed by a deposit that you make upfront. Usually, the amount you deposit will be the same as the card’s credit limit. Everything else is like a regular unsecured credit card: You use the card to buy things; you make monthly payments; and you incur interest if you fail to pay off the full balance. A secured credit card should be only a temporary step to building credit. Try to pay off the total balance every month to show that you are financially responsible. After all, not only do you want to build a credit history, you want to build a good one.
Another effective way to start your credit history is to become an authorized user on someone else’s credit card. Many parents will designate their children as authorized users on their credit cards so that the children can build credit without the legal obligation to pay the balance every month. However, if the person whose account you are authorized to use does not handle the account properly, their mistakes could end up hurting rather than helping your credit.
Once you establish your credit history, you can shop for your first unsecured credit card. You will quickly discover that there are many to choose from. A number of factors can help narrow the search.
The most important of these is how you intend to use the card. Are you going to use it only for emergencies? If not, will you pay in full each month, or will you carry a balance on the card? Once you decide how you will use the card, follow your self-imposed rules. It is very easy, and dangerous, to continually swipe the card and tell yourself it is for a good reason. But it is crucial to be stubborn about establishing good spending habits, even — or maybe especially — early in life.
If you plan to carry a balance on your card, you must be aware of the interest rate of each card you are considering. The interest rate used by credit card companies is the annual percentage rate, or APR. There are cards with variable APRs, which are based on a certain index (such as the U.S. prime rate). There are also nonvariable APRs, which are usually fixed-rate credit cards. As a beginner, you will usually want a low-rate, nonvariable APR credit card, because knowing your interest rate will give you a sense of how much money you will need each month to pay at least the minimum amount due. A low-rate, nonvariable APR card will therefore help when you create a monthly budget.
In addition to interest rates, pay attention to a credit card’s penalties and fees. Reading the fine print in a contract can save you from owing avoidable charges. The most common fees include balance transfer fees, cash advance fees, fees for requesting a credit limit increase and online or mobile payment fees. Many cards also impose penalties for not paying your bill on time or going over your credit limit. You should hold out for a card with minimal fees and reasonable penalties. Even if other features of a particular card seem attractive, avoid the potential for exorbitant fees and penalties that could hurt your cash flow and your credit history.
Understanding your spending habits will help you determine which incentives will be important to you. Most credit cards offer rewards programs to their customers or offer cash back for certain purchases. Many cards offer 0 percent APR for the first six to 18 months that your credit card is open. These cards are great if you plan to carry a balance from month to month. Some cards even offer anywhere from 1 to 5 percent cash back on all or certain types of purchases. If you know how you plan to use your card, then certain cards’ rewards programs can save you a lot of money.
As a first-time cardholder, once you have chosen the card that is right for you, you may find it exciting to be able to swipe the piece of plastic and not have to pay in cash. But while credit cards can be useful tools, it is important to not fall into the black hole of credit card debt, which can be all too easy for an inexperienced user. Make sure to know how your credit score works and how to avoid penalties so that you will be able to make larger purchases and secure loans in the future.
Your payment history, the amount of credit you use and the number of negative marks on your credit history have the highest impact on your overall credit score. If you can, pay off your total balance on time each month, ensuring that you have a 100 percent payment history. Paying off your card every month comes with the added bonus of saving you from being charged any interest on a carried balance.
You will also want to use as low a percentage of your credit limit as you can. This ratio is called credit card utilization, and most experts recommend that you try not to go over 30 percent at any time. Credit card companies want to know that you are responsible with your spending and that you will be able to pay off your balance each month. You can either spend less each month or increase the credit limit on your card to lower the percentage used. You can also pay more than once per month.
Obviously, you should avoid any negative marks on your credit history. These can include collection accounts, bankruptcies, foreclosures, civil judgments or tax liens. Although someone applying for a first credit card typically will not have had time to worry about bankruptcies or foreclosures, keep in mind that such problems can severely damage your ability to secure credit in the future.
As a first-time credit card applicant, you may find that the length of your credit history, the total number of accounts open or closed in your name and the number of credit inquiries also have an adverse rating on your credit score. Your credit history will be short. You will not have many open or closed accounts. Your first credit inquiry will most likely be from the credit card company where you applied for your first credit card. Be patient. Building a credit history takes time, but as a young adult, staying on top of your finances, and especially your credit cards, will help you in the long run.
Credit cards can be both powerful and dangerous, but they are also a convenient part of everyday life for most of us. A first credit card offers a great opportunity to establish positive financial habits that will serve you well for a lifetime.