[Disclosure: Cards from our partners are mentioned below.]
I’ve had a credit card for as long as I’ve been an adult. I remember signing up for it during my first week of college, and I’ve never looked back.
I’ve been fortunate to not fall into the debt trap like so many others, and I’ve used credit cards as a tool to help me get ahead. When used properly, they’re very powerful tools that can help you rather than hurt you.
Whether it’s maximizing your rewards or just using all the benefits you didn’t know you had, here’s how to elevate your credit card game.
Make Sure You Have a High Credit Score
A key to elevating your credit card game is to elevate your credit score. Many of the best credit cards are only available to folks with good credit scores.
The first step is getting your credit score so you know where you stand. There are plenty of free resources for checking your credit score and any one of them should be able to give you the information you need. (One of those resources is Credit.com, where you can get two free credit scores that are updated every 14 days.)
Be sure to review your credit reports on a regular basis because they may contain errors that lower your score. In some cases, you may have negative items that need to be disputed or repaired. You can dispute or try to remove those yourself or, in particularly complicated cases, you may find it helpful to hire a credit repair company.
Once you know your number and know your reports are accurate, you need to stay on the right path for good credit. Make sure you’re doing things like paying on time, using very little of your credit card limits and minimizing your applications for new credit cards or loans. Over time, practicing those good habits should help your score will improve.
Take Advantage of Sign-Up Promotions
Credit card companies compete aggressively for your business and will offer you hundreds of dollars’ worth of points and miles for using their cards.
In September, Chase released the Chase Sapphire Reserve card that gave a whopping $1,500 bonus if you spent $4,000 in the first three months. It also gives a $300 annual travel credit, triple points in several categories, and is otherwise a phenomenal travel credit card if you can stomach a $450 annual fee.
While that particular card is an outlier, both in terms of the bonus and the annual fee, you can find a lot of cards that will give you a significant amount of bonus points or cash rewards when you open and spend a certain amount on a new card. Take advantage of these offers whenever you’re looking for a new credit card. It’s almost as if it’s not worth signing up for a card without it! (Editor’s note: Choosing the credit card that’s right for you depends on several things, like your credit score and how you plan to use the card. It’s also important to remember that spending to earn a sign-up bonus is only worthwhile if you can afford to do so. The interest you accrue on any credit card balances you carry from month to month would likely outweigh any rewards you earn by spending more than you can afford to pay.)
Use the Right Cards
Credit card points and cash-back rates vary by card and transaction type, so you’ll want to use your cards strategically, according to what they reward the most. It can be hard to keep it all straight, so I just stick with two cards so the rules are simple. Maybe I could get more points if I added a third or fourth card, but it adds complexity I don’t need in my life. The simpler system that works is better than a more complicated one that maybe works.
Use All the Benefits
There is a litany of perks and insurances that may apply to purchases made with your credit card.
Did you know that many credit cards will extend the manufacturer’s warranty for several months or even an extra year? You may know your credit cards offer car rental insurance, but did you know that some offer trip cancellation protection, roadside assistance, and even a baggage insurance plan? If these perks sound like something you’d use, check the benefits of your cards and make sure you use the one that offers you the best coverage.
These tips should help you make the most out of your plastic without making checkout a miserable experience where you’re fumbling with a stack of credit cards.
Image: Jacob Ammentorp Lund