For the longest time in my adult life, I did not have a credit card. While I did finance a car or two plus my education, credit cards seemed to baffle me. How does the APR work? How much money can I reasonably afford to charge? Can I trust myself not to go hog wild with purchases?
After getting my shopping addiction under control, I felt more comfortable with credit cards and learned responsible habits while building my credit. Go beyond credit card tips, and learn how to use your credit card wisely.
Do not borrow more than you can afford to pay back
If you are trying to be strategic about how much credit card debt you have, it’s a good rule of thumb not to borrow more than you can afford to pay back. Sure, it’s a wise idea to use your credit card to get miles, points and other benefits, but those benefits aren’t going to be very useful if you are drowning in debt to keep up.
It’s effortless to get caught up in spending more than you can afford to pay back. A swipe here and there can add up. But remember, while it may seem like it, your credit card is not free money. You are going to have to pay it back sooner than later and often with interest.
An effortless way to start accumulating points? Make a budget to see how much you can allocate towards different spending brackets. Charge what you were going to spend on gas, groceries and household items according to your budget on your credit card then turn around and pay it off. Rinse and repeat.
You may also consider building, even if small, an emergency fund. Money guru Dave Ramsey advocates for saving at least $1,000 for emergencies. By having even a small savings set aside, this will make you less reliant on charging financial hiccups on credit cards. By charging less, you are making sure you have enough to pay it back in a reasonable manner.
Pay on time, every time
It is important to make sure any credit card payments you have are paid on time every month. If you aren’t sure what your payment is going to be or when it is going to be due, it might be a good time to read the agreement you signed when you first accepted your credit card. In this agreement, you should see the APR amount, the percentage due and what happens if you pay late.
If you pay late, more often than not, you will acquire a penalty in the form of “late payment charge.” These fees can be a flat fee, a percentage of what you owe or worse, more interest on top of interest. This will also go on your credit report and make you look not savvy to future lenders you may want to borrow from later in the future.
How can you make sure you pay your payment every month? Make a note on your calendar or set up a recurring reminder on your phone to pay your bill. This way you can ensure you are paying your bills and establish healthy financial habits.
Do not max out credit cards
Part of your credit report is credit utilization. This means how much credit have you used that is available to you. If you have charged $750 on a $1,000 credit card and this is your only one, you have a 75% credit utilization. This would be considered high and a negative flag on your credit report. No one wants to be maxed out, especially without a plan to pay it off. If you are maxed out and unable to pay, late penalties will start to add up and make your situation even worse.
What if you are already maxed out? Take a deep breath, and try to figure out how to pay your credit cards on time and pay more than you owe. This amount will go towards your principal and help you slowly pay down your total. You can also negotiate any fees with your lenders if you are usually in good standing and were just having a temporary hardship, such as a job loss or hospitalization. And pay attention to debt relief scams. If the option seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Keep old accounts open
If you close a credit card, it will lower the amount of credit that is available to you. Why this might not seem like a bad idea, especially if you are trying to pay down debt, it may hurt you. Depending on the amount that may be on your other credit cards, it affects the amount of credit that is being utilized. You should want to keep the credit utilization low and closing an open line of credit may affect this. The longer you have an account open, the better it looks on your credit report.
While you don’t have to close an old account, you have other options. You can charge a pack of gum here and there to keep it open and pay it off. Or, if your account does not require any purchases to stay open, go ahead and maintain the cards in a secure place where only you can access them.
Pull your credit report
According to the FTC, you are allowed one free credit report per year. Any others will cost an additional fee, but take advantage of pulling your credit to see what is on it. This is a great financial habit, and one of the many steps to using credit cards wisely.
Because you are giving your social security number when you apply for credit cards, there may be a slight chance a third party has obtained it. There are other ways to obtain your information if people want to get it, and some go to great lengths when stealing identities for this purpose. Identity theft is a common problem, and it’s important to protect yourself. I’ve even had my identity stolen for someone to purchase goods all the way across the country!
Go over your credit report with a fine tooth comb, and make sure there are no accounts or charges that do not belong to you. If you see something that looks suspicious, call them immediately to get more information and file a possible claim to dispute it. This is also an excellent way to double check to see if anything else, such as medical bills, are not on your credit report or other collections. While it may be troublesome to get things off that don’t belong there, and time-consuming, do it anyways. And always ask for things in writing.
The bottom line
While it’s easy to get caught up in credit card debt, credit cards can be a good financial tool to have on your side. It’s important to establish healthy money habits early on, and this includes wise credit card practices. As a recap, some of the things we have mentioned are not borrowing more than you can pay back, paying on time and not maxing out your cards as well as others. It can take a while to build a healthy credit score, so hopefully by starting with good habits, it will not take as long.You also can rebuild your credit score or improve it by practicing some of the steps above. Your journey with money does not have to be shaped by your past credit card mistakes and can allow some trial and error. If you feel overwhelmed, it’s okay to take a deep breath and remember that things take time. It’s never too late to start using credit cards wisely.