Credit cards are valuable tools and like any other tool, we’re always looking to get the best one for the job.
One of the trickier aspects of credit cards is that not everyone can get every card. But the better your credit, the greater the access will be.
In this article, I’ll share strategies that not only improve your credit so you get access to superior cards but also help you find the ones that are the best fit. There is no such thing as the best credit card for everyone; there’s only the best card for you.
1. Review Your Credit Report
The first step to getting a better credit card, one with richer rewards and better interest rates, is to ensure your credit report is accurate.
I use the waterfall method to check each of my three credit reports three times a year. It involves staggering my free credit report requests from Experian, Equifax and TransUnion (you can access your free annual credit reports on AnnualCreditReport.com.) By requesting my credit report once every four months, I get a relatively recent snapshot of my report.
If there are errors or inconsistencies, I move to correct them immediately. According to the Federal Trade Commission, 5% of consumers have errors significant enough to increase the costs on a financial product or service, while about 25% have a smaller error that could impact their score. It can take many weeks to get an error resolved, so I want to do it as early as possible.
2. Improve Your Credit Score
Once my report is accurate, the next step is to make sure I’m improving my credit score. There are many parts to your credit score, and one of the biggest factors, your payment history, accounts for 35%. It’s also something you largely have control over. I take special steps to make sure my bills are paid on time with auto payment so that my credit history shows a series of on-time payments.
In addition to making on-time payments, I try to keep a relatively low credit utilization. Credit utilization is how much of your credit limit you’re using each month versus the total amount that’s been offered to you. A lower percentage indicates a lower risk, which is what creditors prefer. (You can see where your credit stands by viewing two of your free credit scores on Credit.com.)
3. Study Your Purchase History
If you use a budgeting tool like Quicken or Mint, or one of their alternatives, you can review your purchase history and see what categories dominate your spending. If you don’t, you can quickly start one and have it read your previous statements to collect and categorize your purchases. This is valuable information because you can use it to determine the best cash back or reward credit card for you.
Don’t be lured in by the marketing of high cash back rates in obscure categories! If you know that you spend a lot in supermarkets, for instance, you can apply for a card that rewards you for spending in that category. If you travel quite a bit, it’s a good idea to apply for a card with rich rewards for spending in travel categories such as airfare, hotels and car rentals.
4. Pay Attention to Fees & Bonuses
Credit cards compete for your business, and this often comes in the form of rich signup bonuses. You can earn hundreds of dollars in perks or tens of thousands of travel reward points, but at a cost. Be sure to review the various fees involved in using the card because you could be paying for those “bonuses” with your annual fee.
Getting a better credit card isn’t impossible. It’s about improving your credit score so you get access to the better kinds and finding the ones that fit your purchasing history. Fortunately, the steps needed to achieve both of those goals can also have significantly positive impacts on other parts of your financial life too.