First credit card rules of the road
Your first card can be an opportunity to build good credit or create disaster
Erica Sandberg is a prominent personal finance authority and author of "Expecting Money: The Essential Financial Plan for New and Growing Families." She writes "Opening Credits," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues for people who are new to credit, for CreditCards.com.
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Dear Opening Credits,
Hello Erica! I'm a 21-year-old
college student with a part-time job and a roommate. I was just approved for my
first credit card. At first, I was really excited, this being my next big step
into adulthood and all. Now I'm just scared. I've seen and heard horror stories
about credit cards turning ugly, and although I'm very financially responsible,
I feel as though using a credit card is like playing a game with difficult and
rigid rules. My questions are: 1) how should I go about making payments? My mom
says to make a payment immediately after making a purchase, and I feel as
though that defeats the purpose of a credit card, and 2) should I make minimum
payments on big purchases or pay the entire balance off as I don't buy things
without first having the money in my checking account. I've had friends tell me
to make the minimum payments, but paying 20 percent in interest rates seems not
only stupid, but unacceptable, and 3) if I go a month without making a
purchases on my card, will my score be affected? -- Alexandria
There most certainly are reasons to be
wary of credit cards! They include the ability to overcharge and wind up in
horrible debt, then experience credit damage that can last for years. If you
charge with that new card of yours incorrectly, the horror stories you heard of
may indeed come true. So don't use them that way.
You are also right in that there are
guidelines to the credit card game. To win, you must know, respect and
follow them. So here are the answers to your questions:
the right payment option. You actually have a couple of good
ways to pay. One is to charge what you want for the month, then wait and pay by
the due date. The advantage: You give yourself about 30 days to scramble up the
money. But as mom rightly pointed out, the other way is to pay for each charge
as soon as you make it. This method can help you establish a habit of never
charging more than you can afford. Try both types for a few payment cycles to
see what works best for you.
carry a balance when you have a plan. Never
send just the minimum requested payment! It's almost always best to pay in
full. When you don't, interest will be added to the balances and debt can get
out of hand. However, if you want to buy something expensive and then spread
the cost in a few installments (never more than six months, as credit cards are
not for long-term financing) that can make sense. Just develop a controlled
payoff plan and stick to it.
your card regularly. Just having a credit card isn't enough
to create a credit history. You'll need to take it out and charge with it at
least a couple of times a month. When you do that and then pay off what you
buy, you'll be proving to other banks and businesses that you're a responsible
borrower. The effect: Your credit score will climb and the interest rates on
future cards and loans will be more favorable.
Those aren't the only tips for sound
credit management. Here are a couple more that are equally important:
your credit safe and private. Do not let anyone
use your credit card, and make sure you always know where it is.
your statements often. Make a routine of checking your credit
card statements. Log on to your credit card company's website to read over your
charging history. This way you'll always know what your balance is and will be
able to spot errors or evidence of fraud quickly.
that simple, Alexandria: Play by these rules and you'll come out the victor.
See related: Keep that first credit card after you've paid off your debts
Erica Sandberg is a nationally renowned personal finance authority. She’s host of several financial web shows, and a frequent guest for media outlets such as Fox, Forbes, Nightly Business Report and NPR. Erica previously was affiliated with Consumer Credit Counseling Service and was KRON-TV’s on-air credit expert. Her book, "Expecting Money: The Essential Financial Plan for New and Growing Families," was published in 2008 by Kaplan Press.
Send your question to Erica.
Published: April 18, 2012