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“What credit card should I get?” This very simple question can lead down the proverbial rabbit hole ― and when you’re looking for the best card options, the abundance of choices might lead to analysis-paralysis instead of a studied decision.
We want to help put an end to your suffering and get you moving in the right direction. Read on to learn about the key questions to ask yourself so that you can start on your path to financial happiness.
Which credit card is best for me?
Start with the basics: ask yourself why you want a credit card. Do you want to transfer a large balance from a card with a high-interest rate to a card with a 0 percent APR to save on interest? Are you looking to earn travel rewards? Or is getting maximum cash back your key goal?
There are plenty of cards out there that can meet your needs, and the first step should always be determining exactly what you’re going to use the card for. If you don’t have any specific credit card need in mind, then start by asking yourself, “what do I spend the most money on; grocery stores, dining out, entertainment, travel, gas, etc.?” In other words, let your spending habits guide your decision on what type of card will best meet your needs.
Know your credit history and score
Once you know what you want, it’s time to look at what you will likely qualify for. Some cards are difficult to obtain and require a long credit history and top credit score. Others are designed especially for those who are just starting to build their credit profile or looking to rebuild a less-than-perfect credit card score.
If you were to ask most people whether they have good credit, the most common refrain would be “yes, of course. ” This, however, is a common misconception. So, please check your credit score to verify where you truly stand. A definitive understanding of your credit score will help you hone in on the credit card that is right for you ― one that you will qualify for!
While complimentary FICO scores are becoming a more common benefit offered by credit card providers, it is not a benefit offered by all. If you fall into the latter category, don’t worry, free credit reports are commonly available these days. And also keep in mind that you are entitled by law to one free credit report every 12 months from each of the three ― Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion ― nationwide credit-reporting companies. Of course, those very same credit bureaus are also happy to sell you your credit score if you’ve already used your freebie.
*Tip: If you’re just starting out, it’s a good idea to look for a card that includes complimentary FICO scores as part of their benefits so that you can see how your credit profile is progressing.
How to choose a credit card for building or rebuilding credit
If you’re a credit card veteran with a long history and great credit, congratulations! However, if you’re starting from scratch or have a spotty credit profile due to things like unpaid debt, late payments or bankruptcies, there are still many credit cards that can meet your needs, but don’t expect the bells and whistles that come with credit cards aimed at people with a more established credit profile.
A good place to start is with your bank or credit union ― in fact, the first card for many is often an ATM card that doubles as a credit card. Some of these are aimed at young adults, college students, or those looking to reboot their credit history. Because you’re already a customer, these cards may come with no annual fee and a reasonable APR. You can start with the basics and then graduate to a better card — one that offers you rewards or cash back — later on.
Students can also qualify for cards meant for those with little or no credit. These unsecured (a fancy finance way of saying that you don’t need any collateral) cards are offered to students as issuing institutions bank on the student’s future loyalty coupled with a steadily increasing earning potential.
Another option, a secured card (usually an option for those rebuilding credit), requires an initial deposit that you can draw from. If you make your payments every month, you should see an increase in your credit score and potentially an increase in your available credit line.
*Tip: Putting regular expenses on your new credit card and then paying off the balance each month is a great credit builder, and your monthly statement can also help you determine what you might want from future cards. Again, figuring out what credit card meets your needs starts with understanding exactly how you spend your money.
For instance, if you travel a ton, you’ll see those plane tickets, lodging, and meals reflected on your statement. Some cards even break categories down into neat graphs and charts that can be handy when deciding what rewards are most valuable to you.
If your balance is already a bit bloated, that may indicate it’s time to look at the balance transfer policy on other cards. Determine how long their introductory 0 percent APRs periods last and what your ongoing interest APR will be once that introductory period is up. Most balance transfer cards charge a one-time fee based on a percentage of the transfer, and you’ll want to take that into account when you’re calculating how much it costs to open a new account, including the annual fee.
How to pick a credit card
Once you’ve tracked your expenses for a bit on your starter card, it may be time to apply for credit cards that offer you greater value, in the form of rewards or cash back.
Some common rewards categories are travel, or cash back Other category types that may interest you based on your needs are those cards with a low interest or introductory offers that include 0 percent APR on purchases and/or balance transfers for a certain period of time (usually anywhere between 6-21 months).
If you’re a frequent traveler, look for travel cards offered by the airlines or hotels you might use often. If you’re not committed to one brand of airline or hotel, then there are also “general purpose” travel cards that allow you to choose from a wider selection of airlines and hotels.
Take a close look at their reward structures and how they work. And, if you’re planning to travel all over the world, make sure the card doesn’t have a fee for international transactions and that your card has the chip-and-pin security features commonly used abroad (U.S. cards often use chip-and-signature, which could be an issue).
There are three main things to think about with rewards cards: 1) for what purchases can you earn rewards and at what rate (e.g., 1X, 2X, 3X, etc.); 2) how are the rewards calculated; and 3) how can the rewards be redeemed.
When looking for the best rewards credit cards, stick with companies whose products you use and note the rewards rates offered. These are usually designated as 1X, 2X, etc., indicating the ratio of reward to the amount spent. So 3x rewards will give you three points for every dollar spent. But be sure to note how much a point is worth, as it differs from reward to reward and issuer to issuer. Also look at the terms and conditions for each card as it will spell out what is excluded from these offers, which is just as important as what is included.
When looking for rewards, stick with companies whose products you use and note the rewards rates offered. These are usually designated as 1X, 2X, etc., indicating the ratio of reward to the amount spent. So 3x rewards will give you three points for every dollar spent. But be sure to note how much a point is worth, as it differs from reward to reward and issuer to issuer. Also look at the terms and conditions for each card as it will spell out what is excluded from these offers, which is just as important as what is included.
How rewards are calculated: Figuring out how credit card rewards work and how much their points are worth is complicated to be sure, and even that is something to keep in mind: if you need an advanced math degree to calculate exactly what you’re getting out of a credit card, it may not be the best option for you. It’s very important to understand what you’re signing up for when you apply for a new credit card.
How rewards can be redeemed: Each card and each issuer will have specific rules around how the rewards can be redeemed. For example, some issuers will require you to redeem the rewards through a specific list of providers. Others issuers may require you to redeem your rewards within a given period of time or they expire. So be sure to read the terms and conditions so that you know the rules before you play the game.
Cash back reward credit cards are a bit more straightforward―it’s simply an incentive where a percentage of what you spend is refunded to your card.
The cash back rewards are usually based on the types of purchases you are making (i.e., grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants, entertainment, etc.) Like rewards cards, earning cash back is usually based on a 1X, 2X, 3X system where you get 2X cash back on grocery purchases, for example, and 1X cash back on all other purchases. This is where the type of products that you spend the most money on is so important because you want to maximize the cash back based on the types of purchases that are going to bring you the highest value.
Then, there are other cards in this cash back category that offer a significantly higher cash back on rotating categories that change on a quarterly basis. These cards often come with quarterly spending caps and require you to “activate” the rewards at the beginning of the quarter.
These types of cards are best for people who are patient and can wait to make a purchase until the category is triggered by the credit card issuer. It also requires you to plan ahead. If you are not a patient planner, then this might not be the type of card that will meet your needs even if the rewards are high.
Tip: Take a look to see if the card that interests you has an annual fee. You’ll want to calculate the potential rewards and compare it to the annual fee to see if the benefits outweigh the costs. Additionally, rewards cards typically come with a higher APR (depending on your creditworthiness) and therefore it is best if you pay your monthly balance in full, as interest may cut into your travel, rewards, or cash back bonuses.
Of course, if you don’t pay the balance each month it’s time to look for a card that offers you a 0 percent APR card on balance transfers. Examine any card’s balance transfer policy carefully, look out for short introductory periods, and beware of a card that charges more than a few percent or large lump sum on the balance of a transfer from another card.
I’ve found the best card for me―that’s it, right?
Asking the right questions, determining your needs and figuring out how credit cards work is not a one-time deal! As your situation and credit score changes, your needs and wants may evolve.
Be sure to closely read your statements every month to see if your rewards are paying off, ensure you’re getting the miles or cash back you wanted, and that your shopping and travel habits are aligned with the payoff you seek.
If you’re paying down debt, make sure you are paying as much as you can and that your APR is as low as you can get it. If not, it might be time to begin the search anew to get revised options when you ask which credit card is right for me? The answer will certainly change over time.