If you're in college—or have recently graduated or started your first job—it may be time to start thinking about another American rite of passage into adulthood. Of course, I mean getting your first credit card. On average, American consumers today get their first credit card at age 20. Gone are the days when credit card companies set up tables on college campuses, enticing young adults with free swag if they applied for a card.
The Credit Card Act of 2009, which put tougher regulations in place for credit card companies, made it more difficult for anyone under the age of 21 to obtain a credit card. But establishing your credit as a young adult is still important. Not only is a credit card a major convenience, it also helps you build a credit profile, which is essential for future loans of all types at better interest rates.
Conversely, the Act was established in part because it can also land you in deep water if you misuse or abuse the privilege of a credit card. Millennials younger than 35 have on average credit card debt that's slightly higher than the national average of $5,700. That's a lot of money—especially when you consider the finance charges. So, the challenge then is learning how can you establish your credit and learn to use it wisely? The downer is that you only get one shot. If you mess it up, it takes awhile to get back on track. Before you start your credit journey, ask yourself these 14 questions, and you may find the best first credit card for your lifestyle.
14 Questions to Get Your First Credit Card
So, what's my credit score?
Finding the right credit card begins with knowing your credit score or FICO score—the three-digit number that tells financial institutions how likely you are to pay your bills on time. Your credit score gives banks and creditors a look into just how you pay your bills. Like most scores, it also reveals a number of things about how skilled and adept you are; in this case, it's a measurement of how well you manage your money.
The score is an indicator of past payment history, total outstanding debt, length of credit history, and the types of loans and credit you have, among other things. The key factors to boost your credit score are paying your bills on time and spending only a portion of your credit limit. When you apply for a credit card, the creditor will check your FICO credit score with one of three bureaus: Experian, Equifax or TransUnion. These three bureaus are the private agencies that track and report whether you pay your bills on time in the form of your credit report.
Their formula is pretty simple: The lower the number, the less likely your chances of securing credit. You can view this information in detail on your credit report (more on that soon). Of course, if you've never had a credit card before, your score may be low or even non-existent.
So what happens if you have no credit history because you've never had any payments for the credit bureaus to track? Glad you asked! In this case, other factors—such as on-time rent or utility payments and even your job history—may be used to help determine your creditworthiness. You may even be able to get a secured credit card linked to a bank account with a set limit that you can use to establish a credit history, demonstrating to lenders that you pay your bills on time.
It is very important to have a clear picture of your credit worthiness, especially when you're just staring out. Checking your credit reports at each of the three bureaus to make sure all of the information is correct is a great first step. You can obtain a free copy of each of your three credit reports annually at AnnualCreditReport.
What credit card will I be able to get?
Credit card companies divide their offerings into “tiers." A “tier one" credit card, available to those with an “Excellent" credit score of 700+, will offer the lowest interest rates and perks like cash or travel rewards. However, a first-time credit card applicant with no credit history isn't likely to qualify for such a card.
The good news: Anything greater than 620 should qualify you for a credit card if you're over 21 and working full time, although it may not have the best interest rate or rewards. Once you know your score, it might be wise to narrow down your first time credit card search to only those with likely approval rates based on your credit and income.
Will I qualify for a student card?
If you're a full-time college student, you may qualify for a credit card tailored to students. These cards have less stringent requirements to qualify; some may even take your grades into account when determining your creditworthiness.
The drawback? These first time credit cards won't give you a lot of spending power as your credit limit will be—well, limited (but with good cause). Most student credit cards give you a credit limit that's a pretty good place to start building credit. Often, once you start using the card and making monthly payments on time, you'll be offered bonuses and increases in credit limit.
Can I get a co-signer?
If you can't qualify for a card on your own and you're not a student, you may be able to get a co-signer. A co-signer is someone with a strong credit history who is willing to say, “Yes, I trust you." If you don't pay up, however, the co-signer is, ultimately, responsible for that debt.
These cards are harder to come by than they were in the past, because credit card companies have introduced more stringent qualifications—once again, as a result of the CARD Act. It's important to understand the difference between an authorized user and a co-signer. If you're an authorized user on someone else's card, your purchases and on-time payments will reflect positively on your credit report, but won't carry as much weight as using a card of your own responsibly.
When someone co-signs for a card in your name, they are vouching that you will pay the bill on time. If you don't pay it, they are responsible for the charges, and the late payments will appear on both your credit reports and affect each of your credit scores.
Can a secured credit card be converted to an unsecured card if I make on-time payments?
If you can't qualify for your first credit card on your own and can't get a co-signer, there's another solution: apply for a secured credit card.
A secured credit card is similar to a pre-paid debit card: You deposit an amount onto the card, and are allowed to charge up to that amount. Unlike a pre-paid debit card, however, there are payments to be paid—on time—and those payments are reported to the credit reporting agencies. A secured card can be a stepping stone to your first unsecured credit card.
Does this card have an annual fee?
Some credit cards have annual fees—a fee you pay each year for the privilege of using that credit card. Annual fees typically range from $25 to $75 each year, though some high-end credit cards charge annual fees of several hundred dollars.
Most secured cards have annual fees, but you'll also find annual fees on some top tier rewards cards as well. These annual fees can be offset by the rewards you can earn. An annual fee shouldn't necessarily be a deal breaker if the card has other features that suit your needs. Once you boost your credit score, you'll have more credit card options, most likely including several that don't charge an annual fee.
What other fees are associated with this credit card?
You'll want to be aware, specifically of late fees, over-the-limit fees, and balance transfer fees and you should be able to find this information in the fine print of the credit card application. Want to avoid them? Pay the bill on time and always stay within your credit limit.
If you plan to use your card for international travel—which is a good idea because it's easier to replace a lost or stolen credit card than cash—look for a card with no foreign transaction fees. A card without foreign transaction fees can save you money on purchases you make out of the country. Think about where you want your hard-earned dollars to go, and then decide.
What is a "balance transfer?" How does it work?
When you review credit card offers, you might see something like “O% balance transfer for 12 months." Or even “No balance transfer fees." What does this mean?
As a first-time credit card user, you won't quality for these right away. You can only make a balance transfer if you have another credit card with a balance. If you do, you can transfer the balance to your new card, using one credit card to pay another.
A few facts you should know about balance transfers:
- Credit card companies sometimes charge a fee
- The interest rate on a balance transfer may be different than on purchases.
- As your credit history matures, you may find balance transfers are a good way to save money on interest if you have a credit card with a balance you can't pay off right away.
What is the "APR?" How is it calculated?
The APR, or annual percentage rate, on a credit card tells how much interest you'll pay on purchases if you carry a balance from month to month. Most credit card APRs are in the double digits. 10 to 20 percent is pretty typical and no cause for concern but you should try to avoid any card with an APR over 20 percent.
Understanding how that APR is calculated can save you confusion when you look at your monthly statement. A common mistake, especially among first-time credit card users, is thinking that interest is only charged on the balance on the statement date. The truth is, interest accrues based on average daily balance over the course of each month.
Translation: Even if you pay your existing credit card balance in full the day before your next monthly statement arrives, you won't dodge the interest charges from the previous month. The credit card company looks at your balance every day of the month, and calculates the interest based on that.
What is a "minimum payment," and how is it calculated?
The minimum payment is the minimum amount you have to pay each month if you have a balance on your card. Every card has a payment due date. Know yours well. Add a Google Calendar reminder and/or make sure you set up an automatic payment with your bank so you never miss a payment.
Why? If you don't make the minimum payment by the due date, it could be reported to the credit bureaus as a late payment, hurting your credit score. You don't want this to happen. Also, beware—not all minimum payments are calculated the same way. Once you know how your creditor calculates your minimum monthly payment (which you should), you can find out how long it will take to pay off your balance if you pay only the minimum.
What is the "minimum balance?"
If you hear someone refer to the “minimum balance," they might actually be referring to the minimum payment. There is another similar term you should know, though: Your "closing balance." The closing balance on your bill is how much money you owe when the credit card company issued your statement. You should try to pay that amount each month, since that means you are paying your card in full and avoiding interest charges.
What is the "credit limit?"
The credit limit is the maximum amount you are permitted to charge on the card in total. If you go past this amount, your purchase may be declined or you may be charged an over-the-limit fee. Like the APR, your credit limit will depend on your credit score.
Student cards, secured credit cards, and retail cards—which are all relatively easy to obtain if you meet specific criteria—may start with a credit limit of $500 or less. On a secured card, your credit limit is equal to your security deposit. Regardless of your credit limit, you do need to keep spending in check.
What rewards can I earn?
Most credit cards for first-time applicants don't offer rewards, but it's good to explore these possibilities as your credit score improves.
Retail store credit cards, however, may offer discounts or rewards points for that store, and are often a good option for consumers with no credit history. Store credit cards may not help in an emergency if you need access to cash for surprise expenses, however. But if you're unsure about your ability to manage credit, they are a good stepping stone to learn self-restraint and good credit management.
Can I use credit responsibly?
Before you take the important first step of considering any credit card, it's important to judge yourself. Consider using this handy checklist:
- Do you have the discipline required to manage a credit card?
- Are you a shopper?
- Do you like to spend?
If you answered yes to the above, you may want to get a secured credit card, since then you know you can't charge more than your deposit. If you decide you do have the discipline to use a credit card responsibly, be sure to charge no more than you can pay off in full at the end of each month, and do so on time. If you aren't sure, you may want to consider finding a budget app to help establish a budget—and then stick to it. Several options exist as an easy way to track your spending as soon as you make a purchase and include end-of-month reports that show you where your money went.
The bottom line is, if you look at your budget and anticipate you can't pay off your balances each month, you shouldn't get a credit card. Period. After all, credit is important, but you have to know how to manage it. And one of the worst habits you can get into is not paying your bill on time.
The first step to managing credit is knowing how to choose the best credit card for you after you understand the ins and outs of responsible credit card usage. So congrats—if you made it this far, you're just about there! Go get a copy of your credit report, consider your spending habits and follow our first credit card advice to start building your credit score and you'll reap the rewards of excellent credit before long.
After you've asked yourself these 14 questions, you're better-equipped for the responsibility of a credit card.