Choosing your first credit card can be a daunting task and knowing where to start can be even worse. However, it doesn't necessarily have to be. One size doesn't really fit all, but we talked to a variety of professionals in the finance world to help break down your options and what you need to know before applying for your perfect card. Grab a pen because you'll definitely want to take notes!
1. Evaluate Your Current Financial Situation
First of all, ask yourself if you can really afford a credit card.
"While you may think you can just buy now and forget about it, make sure you have the money for anything you buy," Credit Karma's Chief Consumer Advocate, Bethy Hardeman told MORE. "Don't get stuck with sticker shock when you get your bill."
Secondly, know where you stand credit-wise. Most people applying for their first card don't have any credit history, which is okay! No credit is better than bad credit. (Using the Annual Credit Report website will let you check your credit score for free if you aren't sure.) However, not having any established credit makes your approach to applying a little different.
Without any credit history, most financial experts recommend either:
- Applying for a secured credit card: Unlike regular credit cards, secured credit cards require a cash deposit. This makes it so that people with little or no credit history can more easily apply and be approved. It's a low-risk way to get started and build a foundation, and after the initial deposit, it works just like any other credit card. "Look for a secured credit card that will increase your credit limit or 'upgrade' your account to a traditional card after a strong history of on-time payments," says Hardeman.
- Become an authorized user on someone else's credit card: This can be a fantastic idea to help you start building yourself a profile. You'll want to make sure you can trust whoever you are signing with, though! As long as the card issuer accurately reports the authorized user data to the credit bureau and he/she has a history of making timely payments and keeping a low balance, you should be good to go. However, it's even more vital to be responsible with a credit card in this situation because handling it poorly could result in serious damage for not one, but two people.
2. Decide What You Want Out Of It
"The oldest advice is the best advice when it comes to choosing a credit card," Matt Schulz, senior analyst at CreditCards.com, told MORE. "'Know thyself.' Before applying, give thought to how and what you want to get out of a credit card, and let that drive you through the process."
Evaluate things like:
- Rewards and bonuses: Do you just want cash back? Or would you rather collect travel miles/points? How long do these rewards last? Make sure to not let flashy rewards cards totally sway your decision. Evaluate all of the factors!
- Annual fees: Your first credit card should have a low or no-cost annual fee. It might take a little searching, but it's possible to find an excellent rewards card with no annual fees. "Annual fees can add up quickly. You don't need to spend money to build your credit," says Hardeman.
- Payment cycles: Some cards expect a payment every two weeks, while others use a 30-day cycle. Know what makes sense for you and your schedule.
- Penalties: Ask if there is a penalty for not using your card. If you only plan to use it every so often, make sure you choose a card that won't penalize you!
"Think about what you want before you get a card," says Schulz. "Shop around. There are lots and lots of offers and differences, so don't just accept the first offer."
3. Stay Away From Retail Store Cards
Sure, retail store cards might be easy to get right off the bat, but these cards often have extremely high interest rates. While they could be useful if you're just getting started and you're 100 percent confident in paying the balance in full each month, most financial experts advise against them.
"They also sometimes are issued by finance companies, which can, in some cases, have a negative effect on credit scores," Kevin Gallegos, vice president of Phoenix operations for Freedom Financial Network told MORE. "Most people are better off using a regular credit card."
4. Know The Red Flags
"Very few of us actually read the fine print," Schulz says. "However, what you don't know can cost you a lot of money in the end. Take the time to look at all of the information."
Keep a close eye out for annual fees, interest rates, and added fees that aren't obvious.
5. Be Confident With Your Credit Score
The term "credit score" has a terrifying stigma attached to it that can cause some serious anxiety for people, but it doesn't have to. These three simple things can make maintaining your credit a breeze:
- Pay your bills on time every time: The easiest way to stay on top of your credit card bills is to set up autopay (bless the internet!). "Don't settle for just paying the minimum balance," Schulz says. "That's one of the fastest ways people accumulate debt without even realizing it. It's just asking for trouble."
- Keep your balance low: Your credit card balance is the amount of money you owe to the credit card company. Pay your statement in full each month, and you can avoid having a balance and all of the interest it can accumulate.
- Don't apply for too much too often: Applying for too many credit cards in a short period of time will be recorded on your credit history and can temporarily damage your score. This is because it's interpreted as being a greater credit risk, and to the system, it looks as if you are experiencing financial difficulties.
"Learn how to manage one credit or debit card," Gallegos says. "To manage personal business, most adults need to own at least one credit card. Multiple credit cards are not necessary."
6. Budget, Budget, Budget
You've heard it before, and you'll hear it again. (And hopefully you'll be preaching it someday, too!)
"Budgeting may not sound exciting, but it is the number one, sure-fire way to avoid credit card debt," Gallegos explained to MORE. "Whether your goal is to save on weekly grocery bills, have time to train for a 10K, save for retirement, or take a vacation to Europe, write down the goals and build your budget with the goals in mind. For some, it may mean modifying that European vacation to, say, Boston's North End for a taste of Italy. But whatever happens, you'll find that you will be spending smartly and avoiding the credit card for purchases when they are not working toward your goals."