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How to Use Credit Cards: 3 Basic Tips
If you have bad credit, then you probably have a love/hate relationship with credit cards. You love spending money on them, but you hate having to pay your bill.
And while maxing out your credit cards is a great way to tank your credit score, using your cards responsibly can also be a great way to help it!
Here are three credit card tips you should follow in order to use your credit cards responsibly.
1. Don’t carry a balance.
Here’s the thing about credit cards, they’re awesome as long as you pay them off every month. That way, you can avoid interest, rack up points, and help improve your credit.
But carry a balance month to month? That’s when things start to get dicey.
“There’s a long-running myth that carrying a revolving card balance is good for your credit score,” says Monica Eaton-Cardone, co-founder and COO of Chargebacks911. “In fact, it’s exactly the opposite, and the sooner we put this myth to bed, the better.”
Justine Lavelle, Chief Communications Officer of BeenVerified.com, agrees:
“Some will say that you should carry balances on your credit cards so that it has a positive effect on your credit score. This is not a smart financial move as you will continue to pay interest on the balance you carry month to month.”
“While it’s good to wait a few days to allow a purchase to show up on your statement, maintaining a revolving balance from one month to the next costs you more in interest charges and actually damages your credibility,” says Eaton-Cardone.
“Your credit utilization ratio—the amount of debt you possess compared to your total line of credit—determines a considerable portion of your credit score. To have a revolving balance means that you’re using up more of your available credit, which creditors look at unfavorably.”
Lavelle advises that you shouldn’t “carry balances on your credit card if you can avoid it. If you do carry a balance due to a big purchase or an emergency, make sure to figure out the cost of carrying that balance every month. It may shock you and it will also motivate you to make a solid plan to get it paid off as quickly as possible.”
“Emergencies happen, and sometimes consumers simply can’t pay-off their total bill at the end of every month. However, it’s always best to keep your credit usage low enough to cover the entire balance with each billing cycle if at all possible,” says Eaton-Cardone.
2. Choose your rewards carefully.
One of the advantages that credit cards have over other kinds of loans is points and rewards. Spending money on your card can let you save on travel, groceries, or even get cash back.
The only problem is that worrying too much about your points can lead to you spending too much! It’s a tricky balance to maintain. When shopping for rewards, you’ve got to make sure you’re careful.
Benjamin Glaser, Features Editor for DealNews, says that you should “Find a rewards card that suits your purchasing habits. For example, if you’re already a big traveler (like, for business), then get a card that offers more points for travel-related purchases, like the Chase Sapphire card. If you are buying mostly gas and groceries while trying to save up for a family vacation, then the AmEx Everyday Preferred card might be better.”
When it comes to exploiting points or rewards through your card, Lavelle cautions that you must “make sure that you again do the math.”
Buying travel by using your credit card to gain points is not the most cost effective way to purchase travel, especially if you can’t pay the balance each month. Really the only way to make this a “deal” is to use the credit card to get the points, pay the card off each month to avoid interest, and then be able to redeem the points for travel without needing to add cash to the award.”
“If you don’t have large annual fees and reduce the interest, then at least the merchants you shop are the ones paying for your travel,” says Lavelle.
Glaser also recommends finding a card that has a good signing bonus:
“Don’t overspend to meet the minimum to get bonus points, but try to find a card with an easily attainable minimum. If you know your credit card bill is at least $1,300 every month, then spending $4000 in the first three months of having a new rewards card to get a bonus 20,000 points should be easy.”
“Know any additional perks that your card provides, and use them,” says Glaser. For example, lots of cards provide extended warranties when you make a purchase with the card. (It’s rarely a good idea to purchase an extended warranty, and this is more of a reason not to.)”
“Similarly, purchasing airfare and hotel bookings with your card could get you reimbursement if your trip is delayed. And before you purchase additional coverage for a rental car, see if your card provider will offer the coverage if you pay for the rental with your card,” he says.
3. Don’t get greedy!
The reason that credit cards are so dangerous is because it’s easy to forget that spending money on your card has consequences. Spending more than you can afford to pay off each month can leave you carrying a balance. And carrying a balance means that you’re paying interest.
A credit credit used properly can be a great asset. A credit card used poorly can be like an anchor, dragging your credit score down into the watery depths. And the best way to use a credit card properly is make sure you know your limits.
“As your credit history increases and you make payments on time, it is almost as if credit card companies set you up to fail by tempting you with ever increasing credit lines and tempting offers,” says Lavelle.
“Don’t fall into the trap. Carry one credit card and consider carrying only a card with a low limit so that you will not be tempted to make unwise purchase decisions. Using a card for day-to-day spending is becoming more and more common as cash is almost being phased out. It is easy to spend beyond your ability when paying with a credit card, so you may want to only carry a card that has a modest limit so this doesn’t become a problem. As with cash, a credit card with a low limit makes it easy to know when you are done. The money is gone.”
If the secret to using a credit card is to avoid interest, then always remember that there are more ways to avoid interest than just paying off your balance. As your credit improves, you might start getting card offers with low introductory rates—sometimes as low as 0%! If you have higher rates on older cards, you might be able to transfer your balances and save yourself some money.
Lavelle says that you should “Absolutely take advantage of ‘low-interest rate offers.’ Be sure to check the fine print and the cost of the ‘transfer fee’ but this is a great way to get back at the credit card company a little.”
But this plan is not without its costs or conditions.
“However, good credit and good income are required, but if you have those it is relatively easy to move balances around so that you can really limit the amount of interest you pay on balances. Just remember the ‘transfer fee’ is interest so jumping too soon or too often can ruin the cost savings plan,” says Lavelle.
If you’re someone who’s recovering from bad credit, credit cards can be a dangerous temptation. The more your bad credit improves, the more you’ll be tempted to borrow. Borrow too much and those high balances and interest payments could knock your credit right back down again.
So be careful, stick to a plan, and don’t get greedy. That’s the way to use credit cards responsibly.
Monica Eaton-Cardone (@Chargebacks911) is the COO of Chargebacks911, a company located in the Tampa Bay area dedicated to helping merchants optimize profitability through chargeback management. She co-founded the company in 2011 after operating as an eCommerce merchant. Through her own first-hand experience, Monica identified the need for proactive chargeback mitigation services in the eCommerce industry. Today, Chargebacks911 operates across the globe with offices throughout North America, Europe, and Asia.
Benjamin K. Glaser (@DealNews) is Features Editor for DealNews, covering the intersection of culture, media, and technology. He joined the company in April 2013 and is based in Brooklyn. Responsible for long-form content ranging from product-buying guides to market-trend analysis, Benjamin maintains the DealNews brand’s distinctive, reliable voice. In his free time, Benjamin loves binging on Netflix comedy series and finding the best burgers and pizza in New York.
Justin Lavelle (@BeenVerified) is a Scams Prevention Expert and the Chief Communications Officer of BeenVerified. BeenVerified is a leading source of online background checks and contact information. It helps people discover, understand and use public data in their everyday lives and can provide peace of mind by offering a fast, easy and affordable way to do background checks on potential dates. BeenVerified allows individuals to find more information about people, phone numbers, email addresses and property records.