Chances are you have been wooed by a credit card company at some point in your life. Whether through promises of amazing rewards, low-interest rates, or payment forgiveness, credit card companies will do almost anything to get your business. Plus, credit cards have become an everyday necessity for many people, as illustrated by the fact that the average U.S. household held over $15,000 in credit card debt in 2015.
While credit cards do have their benefits, they also have their catches, and it’s easy to miss important considerations when you’re just swiping your card left and right, day in and day out. Here are a few simple steps to help you become a more conscientious credit card customer and make sure they’re helping, not hurting, your financial life:
1. Know your credit score: One question that you should be asking yourself periodically is, “Do I know my credit score?” Even if you do not use credit cards, one of the most important factors that impacts your financial life is this number.
You are entitled to receive a free copy of your credit report once every 12 months from the three national credit reporting companies. So, why is your credit score so important? When you apply for a mortgage, credit card, or other loans, such as a car loan, your credit score is one of the most important factors lenders use to determine what interest rate you will receive. The higher your number, the better your score and the more attractive you look to banks and lenders. This means you will be eligible for lower interest rates, which can have a lasting impact on your long-term savings. If you have less interest to pay off, then you have more money to put towards other important items, like emergency savings, and of course, your retirement plan.
If you’re using credit cards, there are multiple factors that will either have a positive or negative impact on your score: making payments on time, using no more than 30% of your available credit, and the length of your credit history will all influence your credit score.
2. Consolidate: In 2014, 34% of Americans had 3 or more credit cards open. Despite what we might think about our multitasking skills, no one is as great at juggling as they think they are. The same can be said for keeping multiple credit cards in check. Trying to organize several payments and balances at once can often become overwhelming, and lead to further debt. One of the best ways to get credit card debt under control is to consolidate it all into one payment. Many credit card companies offer free balance transfers to help you focus your outstanding payments into one account. With this strategy, you will be able to transfer an existing balance onto a card that offers a lower interest rate, sometimes even as low as 0%, on the consolidated balance for a set amount of time, typically 12-18 months. One monthly payment is much more appealing than three or more. Performing a balance transfer to a card with 0% interest can be a great strategy if you’re carrying balances on multiple cards, but keep two things in mind: most cards will charge you a fee to transfer a balance, and while the intro interest rate may be lower than your current rates, it will usually go up at some point. Make sure you have a plan that won’t mean you’re paying more in fees or interest in the long-term.
3. Consider Cash: It is extremely easy to swipe your credit (and debit) card. That’s the main reason to have it, right? Convenience. But those daily swipes for your morning coffee can add up quickly without you even noticing. If you hold off on using the card for everyday purchases, and instead pay with cash, you’ll find that you become more aware of how much you are spending. Cash is tangible; you can literally see every dollar you are spending, which hopefully can help you to become more cognizant of where your money is going.
4. Stay Safe: One of the greatest risks with credit cards is that they can be hacked, your information stolen, false accounts opened, and fraudulent purchases made in your name, which can significantly impact your credit score. While in the long-run identity theft tends not to leave lasting damage, it can definitely be a pain to sort out. Whether it has happened to you or not, take precautions to ensure you protect yourself and your credit. If you’re worried about staying secure, use a credit monitoring service to do the work for you.
While credit cards can be a great tool to gain rewards and build credit, there’s also a lot to keep in mind if you want to use them successfully.
Want to learn more about credit cards?
Watch our Credit Card Basics video here.
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