CREDIT CARD HELP: The basic fundamentals of credit cards
Picking the right card
Comparing the various types of credit cards
Card types have multiplied in recent years; find the right one for you
By Emily Starbuck Gerson and Ben Woolsey
When you look back at the history of credit cards, they started out simple and standard: Each issuer produced one card with one set of features. Today, credit cards come in multiple different levels with ranging interest rates, fees and reward programs, so before you fill out an application, it's important to know which will best suit your financial situation and lifestyle.
The following is a brief description of the most common types of credit cards available, which include:
- Balance transfer
- Low interest
- Cash back
- Reward points
- Hotel and travel points
- Retail rewards
- Gas points
- Airline miles
Standard credit cards
These credit cards are the most common and are readily available from most banks and financial groups. They are unsecured, which means you do not have to put down a security deposit to prove the money can be repaid. The way the annual percentage rate is offered or calculated for these cards can vary. Here are two examples:
- Balance transfer credit cards
Balance transfer credit cards allow consumers to transfer a high interest credit card balance onto a credit card with a low interest rate. Typical in the market today are balance transfer credit cards with an introductory annual percentage rate (APR) of 0 percent, with that introductory or "teaser" rate lasting several months up to a year. The terms of balance transfer credit cards varies between offers, so be sure to thoroughly read the terms and conditions for each card.
- Low interest credit cards
Low interest credit cards offer either a low introductory APR that jumps to a higher rate after a certain period, or a single low fixed-rate APR. Low interest cards can be very useful when consumers need make a large purchase because it allows several months to a year to pay it off with very low or no interest. Before using a low interest card, read all the terms and conditions of the introductory rate so you will not be surprised by fees or accumulated interest.
Credit cards with rewards programs
Reward credit cards allow users to earn incentives for making purchases with their credit card. Points accumulate for each dollar charged on the card, and cardholders can redeem these points for various rewards. Reward cards usually require better-than-average credit for approval. There are seven major types (not including airline miles / frequent flier cards, which we'll discuss a bit later).
- Cash back credit cards
This type of credit card allows you to earn cash rewards for making purchases. The more the card is used, the more cash rewards you receive. Most cash back cards earn users around 1 percent of total purchases, excluding interest and finance charges. Some cards offer a higher cash back percentage with increased usage; others offer a higher cash back percentage at select merchants or for particular types of purchases. Since cash back programs are costly to credit card companies, some of these cards have an annual fee that can vary from $50 to $100. This type of card is best for people who are faithful about paying off their balances each month. If used appropriately, a cash back credit card can earn the cardholder a significant amount of money over time.
- General reward points credit cards
Reward credit cards are similar to cash back cards in that cardholders can accumulate points toward a reward structure, which is based on how much the card is used over time. General reward cards offer cardholders a variety of items to cash points in for: gift cards, electronics, hotel stays, plane tickets, jewelry, pet supplies and more. Reward programs and promotional offers often change; thoroughly review a card's terms and conditions before applying.
Some general reward credit cards come with an annual fee; most have no annual fee. Reward cards are best for people who regularly pay off their balances each month. By minimizing their finance charges, individuals will reap greater benefits from the associated rewards credit card.
- Hotel or travel points credit cards
This is a genre of credit cards specific to hotels and travel. Some cards are co-branded with hotels. These credit cards allow you to earn points for all purchases, in addition to bonus points for dollars spent on stays at the respective hotel chain. You can redeem your points for free nights and upgrades at the hotel chain your card is co-branded with.
Then there are broader hotel and travel cards with which points can be redeemed for travel, theme park admission, stays at major hotel chains and more. Because these reward programs can be costly for credit card companies, many of these cards come with an annual fee. If you are not a frequent traveler, the annual fee may negate the benefit of the rewards earned.
- Retail rewards credit cards
These credit cards are co-branded with a major retailer, such as Disney or Amazon.com. Points are accumulated by making everyday purchases, though cardholders are awarded with double or triple points for making purchases from the co-branded retailer. Reward points must be redeemed for products or services from that specific retailer. Try not to carry a balancr with retail cards; their interest rates tend to be higher.
- Gas cards with points or rebates
Gas cards come in two species: general and brand-specific. General cards treat all gas companies equally, while brand-specific cards favor one gas company. A general gas rebate card, for example, may give you 1 percent cash back for general purchases but rewards you with 5 percent back for buying gas or having auto maintenance done at any company. A gas-company-specific card, in contrast, will give you a 1 or 2 percent rebate for regular purchases, but you will earn 5 percent rebate only when buying gas at that company's gas stations.
If you tend to be loyal to a certain gas company, a brand-specific card may benefit you, but if you tend to just stop at whichever station is closest, you may be best with a general gas rebate card. Additionally, it's important to remember that a gas company may be very popular in one state, but uncommon or nonexistent in other states, making brand-specific credit cards less than ideal for long road trips.
Airline mile / frequent flier credit cards
While certain general reward credit cards allow points to be redeemed for plane tickets among other things, there is a subset of reward cards specifically for air travel. This type of card allows consumers to earn airline mile credits whenever they make purchases. Some cards are co-branded with a specific airline, while some are generic and can be redeemed for tickets with a variety of airlines. Points can be redeemed for airline travel, much like frequent flier miles.
- Airline-specific credit cards
These cards are associated with one airline. Typically, the cardholder accumulates points from both making purchases with the card and by flying on the specified airline. These cards come with other perks -- for example, some allow you to earn double points when you use the card to purchase plane tickets with that airline, get priority boarding and avoid baggage fees.
- Generic airline miles cards
These credit cards allow you to redeem your reward points for air travel through any airline, travel agent or online travel site. This is a great option for people who aren't involved in a frequent flier program and aren't loyal to any particular airline. It allows you the flexibility of redeeming your miles for whichever airline best suits the needs of your trip. With a generic airline card, you gain points for every dollar spent on the card, but because it is not associated with a particular airline, you can't gain additional points by flying.
Each airline credit card is a bit different, so be sure to read the card's terms and conditions to find out how many miles you gain for every dollar spent. Other things to look for are how many miles you need before you qualify for a free plane ticket, if there is a cap on points that can be earned annually and whether or not unused airline miles expire. Some expire in five years while others do not expire at all. Airline mile reward programs can be costly for credit card companies, so many of these cards come with an annual fee. This type of reward program is beneficial for frequent travelers or those who want to use their card to plan vacations, but the associated fee might make them impractical for other cardholders.
Bad credit and/or credit repair cards
Credit can easily go from good to bad due to poor budgeting or simply by an overlap between jobs. If your credit score is less than satisfactory, it does not mean you cannot qualify for a credit card. There are several options available to those who have had bad credit in the past and for those who are currently trying to repair their credit.
Depending on your specific situation, debt consolidation or use of introductory APRs on balance transfers may be wise choices. If you still need credit or want to start repairing your credit by proof of action, there are several credit cards designed to help rebuild poor credit histories.
- Secured credit cards
Secured credit cards require collateral for approval. A security deposit of a predetermined amount is needed in order to secure the credit card, and the security deposit generally needs to be of equal or greater value than the credit amount. Collateral can come in the form of a car, boat, jewelry, stocks or anything else of monetary value. Secured credit cards are for people with either no credit or poor credit who are trying to build or rebuild their credit history.
Cards that help rebuild credit often come with low credit lines (such as $250) and additional fees, such as an application fee, may apply. Be sure to read over any terms and conditions for these add-on services before applying. If you use the card responsibly and pay all your bills on time, you can ask for a credit line increase down the road. The extra fees and low credit lines will be worth it if a secured credit card helps you get your overall credit back on track.
- Prepaid credit cards
Prepaid cards are not credit cards at all, but are used and accepted just like them. The advantages of prepaid cards is that there are no finance charges and they help you avoid debt since all purchases are paid for beforehand. With these cards you determine the credit line by transferring however much money you'd like to have available to spend to the card. This eliminates the risk of running up credit card debt and makes the budgeting process much easier.
Although most prepaid cards do not charge finance fees, other fees may apply, including monthly fees, startup or application fees, over-limit fees, ATM fees, reload fees and more. Be sure to thoroughly look over the terms and conditions for each specific card before applying.
Specialty credit cards
These types of cards are for consumers with unique needs for their credit use, such as business professionals and students. These credit card programs are designed specifically to meet the needs of those individuals.
- Business credit cards
These cards are available for business owners and executives and have many of the same features as traditional credit cards: low introductory rates, cash back programs and airline rewards. The difference is these cards come with many additional benefits and perks exclusively for those in the business world.
Some of these bonuses include: Business expenses kept separate from personal expenses; special business rewards and savings; expense management reports; additional cards for employees; and higher credit limits.
Every credit card is a bit different and promotional offers often change, so be sure to thoroughly look over the terms and conditions for each specific card before applying.
- Student credit cards
Many college students need a credit card, but they generally have little or no credit history, which makes it difficult to get approved for a traditional card. Student credit cards are specifically designed for those enrolled in accredited four-year colleges and universities to help them build a credit history from the ground up.
Compared to consumer credit cards, student credit cards are often scaled back somewhat in terms of rewards, features and other benefits, but they can still be a valuable commodity. If used wisely, a student can take the first step toward building a solid credit history with this type of credit card. Once they've proven financial responsibility, it will be much easier to qualify for reward cards and higher credit lines.