For plenty of people — and millennials especially — a credit card is a scary prospect. And we get why: Phenomenal spending power plus itty-bitty charging restrictions equals a major opportunity to go into debt.
But if you’re foregoing credit cards completely, you could be making it harder on yourself when it comes to another important facet of your finances: building a solid credit score. That’s because credit cards are fairly easy to qualify for — there’s actually a whole category of them designed specifically for people who need to build or rebuild. (You can monitor your progress by viewing two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)
Plus, while installment loans (think auto loan or mortgage) come with an automatic price tag and, more often than not, automatic interest, you don’t need to take on debt to build credit with a credit card. That’s actually a common misconception, but, trust us, no balance here required.
To help you how to best leverage your plastic, here are four ways a credit card can help you build credit.
1. You’ll Establish a Payment History
And that’s the number one most important factor when it comes to credit scores. Of course, to build good credit, you’ll want to make all of your credit card payments on-time. (One misstep can really cost you and your score.) To avoid any blemishes, set up alerts that reminds you when your due date approaches or even consider setting up auto-payments each month. Just be sure to keep an eye on your statements for any errors or fraudulent charges.
2. Its Limit Can Bolster Your Credit Utilization Rate
That’s how much debt you’re carrying versus your total credit. Experts generally recommend keeping your credit utilization below at least 30% and ideally 10% of your total available limit(s) — which is easier to do when you have a credit card you’re consistently paying off in full.
3. Your Credit Will Start to Age
And that’s a good thing because length of credit history accounts for about 15% of your credit scores. Length of credit history, also referred to as the age of your credit, is essentially how long you’ve had your credit lines. When it comes to building credit in this category, there’s little credit newbies can do, except, you know, wait. But because a credit card represents one of the easier points of entry into the financing world, that plastic in your wallet can help you get started.
4. You Could Be Rewarded for Having a Mix of Accounts
Credit scoring models like to see that you can manage different types of credit. So, if you’ve got an installment loan on your file — like, say, that student loan you took out to pay for college — adding a revolving line of credit, like a credit card or home equity line of credit, could improve your performance in this key credit category. Mix of accounts, or credit mix, accounts for roughly 10% of the points in your credit score.
Of course, there are ways to build credit outside of simply using your own credit card. That includes looking into credit-builder loans at your local bank or credit union or becoming an authorized user on a friend or family member’s credit card. (The account will appear on your credit file and bolster your performance in the aforementioned credit scoring categories, but you won’t be liable for the charges.) And if your credit is kind of shoddy, you can try disputing any errors on your credit report, limiting credit inquiries and addressing accounts in default. You can find a full 11 ways to improve your credit scores here.
Got a credit score question? Ask away in the comments section and one of our experts will try to help!