Growing up, the typical American doesn't get much advice about credit cards. At best, maybe you were told to beware of credit cards because they make it easy to bury yourself in debt. While you might keep your debt lower by following that advice, you'll also miss out on a valuable financial tool. With a better understanding of credit cards, you -- and not the banks -- can come out ahead.
Here are five valuable tips you may not have heard before.
1. Always have at least one cash-back or travel rewards card
No matter your opinion on credit cards, it's a mistake not to have at least one. A credit card is an excellent way to build credit, especially for those who don't have much of a credit history. When you use one, you're technically borrowing money, then paying it back. This repayment is reported to the credit bureaus, causing your FICO score (the most common type of credit score) to increase. Using a debit card, on the other hand, has no impact on your credit score.
Because it's in your best interest to have a credit card, you might as well get one that will earn you something back with every purchase. Even credit cards made for people with bad credit or no credit history often earn a small amount of cash back or reward points for every dollar spent. And once you have a good score, you'll qualify for cards with even better reward rates.
2. Put all the expenses you can on credit cards -- without changing your normal spending habits
Although this may sound like a recipe for disaster, it's really the smartest financial decision you can make. By putting all your normal expenses on your credit card, you're maximizing the cash back or points you earn. When the bill's due, you can pay it from your bank account. If you use a debit card, you're still paying from your bank account without earning anything back.
You'll only get into trouble by spending more than you usually would. When you're using a credit card, there's some temptation to buy more, because the bill's coming later. Stick to your budget and stay disciplined about what you spend.
Using your credit cards for every possible purchase also comes with the risk of increasing your credit utilization, which brings down your credit score. The magic number here is 30%. Keep your credit utilization below that, and your score will be fine. The best way to stay below that limit is to keep your spending under control and pay off your credit card balances immediately so they don't climb too high. If your credit limits aren't high enough for you to stay below the 30% threshold, then you should wait until they increase before you put too many expenses on your credit cards.
3. Pay at least the statement balance every month to avoid interest
When you pay your credit card bill, you'll be given the choice to pay three different amounts:
- The minimum payment
- The statement balance
- An amount of your choosing
If you manage your account online (a good idea, as going paperless saves trees and eliminates the possibility of a stolen credit card statement), there will also be a current balance. That's the statement balance, plus any new transactions you've made since the end of the statement period.
The statement balance is the minimum amount you must pay to avoid any interest. Considering that most credit cards have high interest rates, it's imperative to pay that amount -- always. You don't need to pay the current balance if you don't want to, although it's something to consider if you're trying to keep your credit utilization low.
Ignore the minimum payment amount entirely. If you pay only that, you'll be buried in credit card debt for years or even decades.
4. An annual fee isn't necessarily a deal breaker
If you told me a few years ago that one day I'd sign up for a credit card with a $450 annual fee, I would've thought the idea was crazy. But the card has earned me far more in points and travel credits than I've paid for it, and the airport lounge access it grants me was a lifesaver during a six-hour flight delay on a layover.
While you should always do your homework on a credit card before applying, don't let an annual fee scare you off. These cards often have excellent benefits that make the fee worth it -- if you take full advantage of them. And most annual fees are much lower than $450. Just compare what you can earn to the cost of the card to see if you should apply.
5. Credit cards are among the most secure payment methods
Something many people don't realize about credit cards is how secure they are. Thanks to consumer protections and the payment dispute process, paying by credit card is often your safest option.
Let's say your credit card gets lost or stolen, and there are unauthorized charges made before you report it missing. Your card issuer can only legally hold you liable for up to $50, and most issuers will waive the unauthorized charges entirely.
Or you may need to dispute a transaction because of a failure on the merchant's part. Maybe you buy something on eBay and it never ships, or you pay for an auto repair and the shop doesn't do the job properly. With credit card disputes, the card issuer takes the charge off your bill until the dispute is resolved. With a debit card, you need to wait until the dispute process ends in your favor to get your money back.
Credit cards certainly aren't something to take lightly. Anyone who has dealt with credit card debt can tell you how stressful and frustrating it is. But if you use your cards responsibly, you can reap all the benefits without any of the drawbacks.
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