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How to Pick the Right Credit Card for You

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Credit cards are all about you — at least, they should be. With the variety of credit card options out there, you should apply for the ones that give you a little something, whether that’s cash back, a little help paying down debt, or access to credit for the first time. Otherwise, it’s just a piece of plastic in your wallet.

Find Out Where You Stand

Whether you’re shopping for a car or a wedding dress, it’s a common piece of advice that you shouldn’t browse beyond your budget. Similarly, you shouldn’t look at credit cards that you can’t qualify for. The only way to figure out which cards are in your league is to get a look at your credit reports and credit scores: That’s part of how a credit card issuer decides whether to approve you.

Your credit card options relate to your credit history. If you have a great credit score, you’ll probably have your pick of products, including those with the best rewards. Say your credit isn’t so hot — you may not have as many options, so you want to know before you apply if the card is designed for an applicant like you. You can check your credit reports for free and see if there’s any negative information on there, like late payments or high debt levels, and you can get a breakdown of your credit scores using the free Credit Report Card, which shows you two of your credit scores and can match you with credit cards you’re most likely to qualify for based on these scores. Keep in mind that the credit card issuers may use a different scoring model when reviewing your application.

What Are Your Options?

Once you have an idea of your credit standing, it’s time to prioritize the features you’d like from a credit card. Here are some options to consider.

No Annual Fee Credit Cards

Some credit cards charge you to be a cardholder. If you’re looking at a rewards card that also has an annual fee, make sure the rewards will outweigh the fee, otherwise it may not be worth it.

Low-APR Credit Cards

If you tend to carry a balance on your credit card, you’ll want to minimize the interest you’ll have to pay. Rewards cards and store cards often carry some of the highest interest rates, so don’t go for those if you’re not in the habit of paying in full. Compare APRs (annual percentage rates) before applying for cards, and know that certain behaviors, like paying bills late, could make your interest rates go up.

Secured Credit Cards

Using a secured credit card is sometimes the only option for consumers with poor credit who want to rebuild credit. It requires a deposit, which also serves as your credit limit. You put down the deposit, pay your bill each month (as you would with a regular card) and build your payment history that way. Many issuers will allow you to “upgrade” to a regular credit card down the road if you pay on time and use the card responsibly.

Prepaid/Debit Cards

These cards provide the convenience of digital transactions and some fraud protections, like credit cards, but they don’t help you build credit. For people without bank accounts, prepaid cards make it easy to deposit paychecks and take cash out from ATMs, but with any financial product, make sure you understand the fees.

Balance Transfer Credit Cards

Say you’ve racked up some credit card debt on a card that has a high interest rate and you’re committed to paying it down. If you can qualify for a balance transfer promotion that allows you to pay no interest for a specific time period, it may be worth the transfer fee (normally around 3% of the debt you’re transferring) to save money in the long run.

Rewards Credit Cards

Sometimes it’s points, other times it’s airline miles or cash back — whatever the offer is, rewards cards incentivize spending. You can make money using a rewards card, if you’re responsible about it, but they can tempt you to spend more than you can afford. Keep in mind that rewards aren’t worth much (or anything) if you’re paying a ton in interest by carrying a balance.

The crucial step is to identify your priorities before applying for credit cards, because an application will result in a hard inquiry on your credit report. The occasional hard inquiry will have a minimal impact on your credit, but you don’t want to pick them up unnecessarily. You especially don’t want to have a lot of inquiries on your report in a short period of time, because it will hurt your credit score.

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