Whether you love shopping or loathe it, hunting for a great credit card is one of those shopping expeditions that is well worth it. The deal you snag now on a new card can pay off handsomely in coming years. But before you jump in and start comparing credit card interest rates, fees or rewards, there’s one step you won’t want to overlook: reviewing your credit reports and scores.
This first step is crucial because the information in your credit reports — and the scores that are calculated as a result — will be critical in determining which cards you get and how much you pay for them.
But be forewarned: Card issuers don’t disclose specific details about their credit score requirements up front. And the credit scores they use are most likely “customized,” which means they are not the same scores that you will see when you request them yourself.
[Related Article: Can You Really Get Your Credit Score for Free?]
Why, then, should you bother to review your credit reports and scores before you get a credit card if you won’t see what lenders see? There are three good reasons:
Spotting Credit Report Mistakes
The first is that if you do find a mistake on your credit reports that may be affecting your credit scores, you’ll want to dispute it and wait for a correction before you apply. Otherwise you could pay more for your next piece of plastic. In a recent study of the credit report dispute process, the FTC found that 5.2% of participants experienced a change in their score such that their credit risk tier decreased; meaning they may have qualified for a better rate. (In that case they were looking at auto loan rates, but the same principal applies to credit cards.)
Where Do You Stand?
The second is that you want to get your credit scores to see what credit “tier” you fall into. In other words, is your credit excellent, good, fair or poor? The answer to that question will help you avoid applying for credit cards that you aren’t likely to be approved for. Again, most credit card issuers don’t reveal their credit score minimum requirements, but they may state what type of customer they are looking for when it comes to a particular program. For example, a search for credit cards on Credit.com shows that many of the cards offering the lowest rates or most generous reward programs are geared to customers with excellent credit, but there are some available to applicants with good credit. There are also cards geared specifically to consumers with poor credit who are trying to get their credit scores back on track.
Shop With Confidence
The third reason to check your credit scores is so you are prepared to take advantage of great credit offers when they come along. For example, let’s say you see an offer online or in your mailbox promising a big cash-back offer if you qualify. If you already know your credit is in good shape, you’ll be able to take advantage of the offers when you see them rather than worry that you might hurt your credit scores by applying.
Two particular factors you’ll want to look at when checking your credit scores and credit profile are the “age” of your credit history and “inquiries.” In Credit.com’s Credit Report Card, for example, if you score “A”s for both of those factors, then applying for a new card should be no big deal. But if you earned a B- or below, then you’ll want to be more cautious about opening new credit cards and take your time between applications.
Ultimately, shopping for a new credit card is more like shopping for a car than a new pair of jeans. You’ll have to do your homework to snag the best deal. But the payoff will be there every time you pull out that card in future shopping trips. Remember that you can get your credit reports for free once a year from each of the three major credit reporting agencies through AnnualCreditReport.com. You can also monitor your credit score and review and easy-to-understand breakdown of the information in your credit report for free using a service like Credit.com’s Credit Report Card.