[Update: Some offers mentioned below have expired. You can view the current offers from our partners here — Chase Freedom.]
The leaves are changing color and Halloween is almost here, which means the holidays are approaching fast. Now is the time to get your credit cards in order and avoid holiday overspending. Here are six ways to help you get started.
1. Check Your Credit Score
Your credit score is one of the greatest indicators of the overall health of your finances, so it pays to know where you stand. You can view two of your free credit scores, updated every 30 days, by signing up for an account on Credit.com, and by checking your score, you can see what areas you need to improve. For example, you may find out that you need to do a better job making loan payments on time or lowering your credit card balances. And if you have problems with your credit, then you can adjust your holiday shopping plans accordingly, so you don’t do any more damage.
2. Take Stock of Your Cards
Before your holiday shopping begins, you’ll want to know which cards you have at home, in your wallet and elsewhere. Perhaps you have some credit cards that you keep in your car, or at work. Or you might have signed up for store credit cards in last year that you forgot about. In any case, make sure that you can find all of your cards, and double check that the accounts are still open (and, ideally, in good standing).
3. Check Your Available Credit
One reason that you should take inventory of your credit cards is to see each card’s line of credit and how much of it is still available. That’s because your debt-utilization ratio — how much credit you’ve used versus how much is offered to you — is one of the biggest factors that determine your credit score. If you’re bumping up against your available credit limit, that’s a sign that you may have taken on too much debt and need to adjust your spending habits.
4. See Which Cards Offer the Most Rewards
If you are in the habit of avoiding credit card interest charges by paying your statement balances in full, then you may be the type of credit card user who could benefit from a rewards credit card. You may be able to find credit cards that reward you for the kind of shopping you do over the holidays. For example, the Chase Freedom card (reviewed here) offers 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in spending each quarter on select categories of merchants. From October through December, that category is department stores, wholesale clubs and drug stores, and you can check Chase’s website for specific stores that fall into those categories. That’s just one example — you can see our roundup of the best cash back rewards cards here.
5. Examine Your Cardholder Benefits
While most people focus on credit card rewards, your card’s purchase protection benefits could offer you tremendous value during the holidays. For example, a price protection policy could refund you the difference when an eligible purchase experiences a price drop. A return protection policy could come in handy if a merchant is unable to accept or offer a refund for an unwanted item. Damage and theft protection policies are commonly found on many credit cards, while extended warranty coverage can add a year to your manufacturer’s warranty. By knowing which policies your cards have, you can choose to use the ones that offer you the most valuable benefits.
6. Create a Budget
The final, and perhaps most important, way to prepare for using your credit cards during the holidays is to examine your budget. It’s very easy to get carried away with your holiday spending, so it’s vital to create a budget before its too late. After all, you don’t want to bump up against your credit limit, as we mentioned earlier, or take on so much debt that it drags down your credit score.
By deciding in advance how much is prudent to spend during the holidays, and by closely tracking how your actual charges compare to your budget, you can keep your spending under control. When you prepare your credit cards well in advance of the holidays, then you can start the new year off in a good financial situation, rather than making up for last year’s missteps.
At publishing time, the Chase Freedom card is offered through Credit.com product pages and Credit.com is compensated if our users apply and ultimately sign up for this card. However, this relationship does not result in any preferential editorial treatment.