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15 Credit Card Do’s and Don’ts from Top Personal Finance Experts

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Credit cards are a double-edged sword. When used properly, you can not only buy things you want and need, but you can also build your credit profile and earn cash or rewards at the same time.

But on the other hand, it can be easy to dig yourself into a financial hole if you're not careful.

We wanted to know the do's and don'ts of finding, using and getting the most out of credit cards, so we asked a dozen personal finance specialists to share their expert advice and insider insights. Here's what they said:

DO…

Consider starting with a secured card if you are a 100% credit card newbie.

"A secured card is a great option for those wanting to get familiar with a credit card and are starting from a low credit score. You provide a deposit which serves as your balance and security should you default on payments. Treat it as a debit card and only spend money that you actually have to pay down in full each month. This will build good habits and boost your credit score."

Jennifer McDermott
Consumer Advocate Advisor
finder.com

DO...

Be realistic.

"When applying for a credit card, obviously your goal is to be approved. In order to reach that goal, know your credit score beforehand so you know which cards you'll qualify for. You can find that out by visiting a website like Credit Karma... The smartest perks to look for will depend on what you expect from the card. If you'll be carrying a balance, focus on the APR. If rewards are your cup of tea, look for the cards with the best cash back rewards programs and understand that you should take said rewards in the form of statement credits only."

David Bakke
Personal Finance Expert
MoneyCrashers.com

FYI, if you use RentTrack, not only are you assured that your rent payments are properly reported to all three bureaus to get credit for monthly payments you'd be making anyways, but you also get to see your credit score with a breakdown of all the factors affecting it.

DO…

Understand the impact of credit cards on your credit score.

"If you're choosing a credit card for the first time, choose and apply for just one card if possible. Also, don't apply for many at the same time. FICO research shows that trying to open several credit accounts in a short period represents greater credit risk. In general, there is a relationship between credit risk and the number of credit inquiries: the more inquiries one has, the more likely he or she is are to default on credit obligations.

Additionally, be sure you understand the terms "percentage utilization" (which you want to minimize) and "credit available" (which you want to maximize). If you have a credit card with a limit of $10,000, and you owe $3,500 on it, that's 35% utilization. Keeping utilization very low helps credit scores."

Freddie Huynh
Vice President of Credit Risk Analytics
Freedom Financial Network

DO…

Pick the right card for you

"Shop around for the best credit card to fit your needs. You don't want to have a plethora of cards; you want to make sure you have only one or two cards that will reward you in the best way possible for your lifestyle. For example, we go to Disney every year, so we have the Chase Disney card. Using this for our monthly bills and paying it off in full every month allows us to build up free money without ever collecting debt. There are several sites that compare cards (creditcards.com, nerdwallet.com, etc.) that can help you find the best card for your needs (travel rewards, cash rewards, 0% balance transfer, etc.)."

Debbi King
Personal Finance Expert
http://www.debbiking.com

DO…

Look for flexible rewards to maximize their benefit.

"When applying for credit cards, the best perks are the most flexible ones. Chase has Ultimate Rewards cards with points you can redeem as cash back, gift cards or transfer to their different travel partners and Capital One cash back cards can erase certain transactions from your account. Traveling in your 20's is great but sometimes you need other things, like groceries. Having a card with flexible rewards not only means you have your pick of hotels and airlines, but those points are also there if you need them for something else."

Jen Smith
Personal Finance Expert
ThePennyHoarder.com

DO…

Read the fine print.

"Do your research first and always read the small print. Ensure there are no hidden conditions that will be sprung upon you later."

Nate Masterson
Finance Manager
Maple Holistics

DO…

Get in the habit of paying each month's balance.

"Never carry a balance on an account. Charge only what you can pay off in full, and on time, every month. Making this a habit will save you interest, fees and stress over the course of a lifetime, help make sure you live within your means, and help minimize financial stress."

Freddie Huynh
Vice President of Credit Risk Analytics
Freedom Financial Network

Automate your payments.

"Not only does paying your credit card bill (and any bill, actually) on time save you money in interest fees, it also impacts your credit score, as payment history makes up the biggest chunk — 35%. Late payments can drag your score down because they send a message to potential lenders you're a credit risk. One hack I recommend to help you pay your credit card on time is to schedule an automatic payment each month for at least the minimum amount due, if not a bit more. This way, even if you forget to make a payment for the full balance, you can at least avoid late payments impacting your credit."

Matt Briggs
CEO
RentTrack

DON'T...

Rule out negotiating on the initial interest rate offered.

"The interest rate you receive when you apply for a credit card isn't your end-all-be-all rate. The first step in any negotiation is to gather information: your current interest rate, balance, credit score, and payment history. Next, look into credit card offers and deals with competing companies; you may want to reference these as leverage for your negotiation.

Understand that your credit card company may say "no," at least at first. They want to see you're reliable and low-risk before agreeing to lower your interest rate. Therefore, if you haven't already accumulated a positive payment history, it would benefit you to work on that before trying to negotiate."

Jeff Proctor
Personal Finance Expert
DollarSprout.com

DON'T…

Jump at 0% Annual Percentage Rate (APR) introductory rate credit cards.

"Look for cards with a solid lower rate, don't look for 0% intro APR because that will only serve to motivate you to rack up early debt. Then the 24% APR kicks in and you drown in debt. Look for a modest starting APR that stays consistent."

Michaela
Women's Behavioral Finance Expert
LadyMoney.Co

DON'T…

Pay only the monthly minimum… and keep racking up debt.

"One useful trick for repaying cards is to make two payments per month, instead of just one. For example, if you normally make one monthly payment of $100, try making two payments of $50 each. Since interest is calculated over the entire month, this will reduce your interest owed. Plus, depending on what time of the month your card reports to the credit bureaus, it may also show a lower debt level and boost your score."

Janet Alvarez
Personal finance and credit card expert
Wise Bread

DON'T…

Skip reviewing charges on your monthly statement.

"Be diligent and keep a close eye on your credit card statements. Thieves will often steal information but then not use it for months. Also make sure that you use the safety features of your card such as text alerts and email alerts when charges come through. This will alert you immediately and is much easier to notify your credit card company promptly."

Justin Lavelle
Chief Communications Director
BeenVerified.com

DON'T…

Get rewards hungry and "chase points."

"If you don't want to have a wallet full of credit cards and piled-up interest charges, stick to one or two cards you can pay off in full every month. People make the mistake of getting reward hungry and forget that if you're paying interest or late fees you've negated all the benefits of credit card rewards."

Jen Smith
Personal Finance Expert
ThePennyHoarder.com

"It's a very competitive market for credit cards so they regularly release new rewards promotions to entice consumers to sign up. However with new finder.com research revealing almost 1 in 3 Americans (29.2%) are spending solely for the sake of rewards, it's time to assessing the benefits. While credit card loyalty schemes can certainly be played to your advantage, they are only a true benefit if you are paying off your balance in full at the end of each month."

Jennifer McDermott
Consumer Advocate Advisor
finder.com

DON'T…

Put off talking to your credit card company if you get behind.

"If you're ever having trouble making payments, don't wait to talk to your credit card company. It can feel embarrassing to admit that you're credit situation is more than you can handle at the moment, but doing so can work in your favor. Many credit card companies are willing to work with cardmembers by lowering interest rates and waiving fees until you can get back on track, especially if you have a proven track record with that company (i.e. positive payment history). Before you make the call, write down your situation and come up with your requests and a proposed solution (e.g. I can pay $x monthly for now, then resume regular payments when I start my new job in three months). Many companies are willing to work with you, but you won't know until you ask."

Jeff Proctor
Personal Finance Expert
DollarSprout.com

DON'T…

Be afraid of credit cards.

"Use credit wisely, and it can help launch your financial success and stability. Many millennials have the idea that credit card debt or credit cards are a bad thing. This is totally dependent on how you feel about and handle debt. Sometimes debt is a means to an end.

Credit is important in our society. If you have no credit, that's the same as having bad credit. A good place to start is with a secured credit card and then upgrade to unsecured once you feel comfortable enough using credit responsibly.

Make sure that you pay off the entire balance on your credit cards every month. This may ensure that you don't get into trouble with credit card debt and can save you a ton on interest."

Amanda Abella
Finance expert, business coach and author
Make Money Your Honey

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