Credit Card 101: The Basics

Despite your established career and long list of accomplishments, there is one area that may need a little fine tuning…personal finance. While you may be getting along okay right now, you can do better. Here is a reminder of some credit card basics:

Try to get the lowest interest rate you can. A credit card allows you to borrow money, usually up to a certain limit. It can be convenient during times when you don’t have access to cash or need to quickly get yourself out of a financial bind. However, whenever you use credit cards to purchase things, the bank charges you a fee. This fee is called “interest” and the amount of interest you pay is deemed your “interest-rate.” The lower the interest rate, the less of a fee you pay to borrow the money and use the credit card. Since most people end up needing a credit card every now and then, banks typically give you a small window (up to 1 month) with which to pay back the money you charged to the card. If you pay back the money within that amount of time, then you are not charged an interest fee on the money you borrowed. Your goal is to get a card with the lowest interest rate you can so that in the event that you do use the credit card and are unable to pay off the full balance by the end of the billing cycle, you aren’t charged a huge fee.

Be wary of 0% interest rates. Now this advice may seem counter to what I just said, but hear me out. Oftentimes, when you first sign up for a credit card, banks will offer you a 0% interest rate for the first 6-18 months. This means that you can borrow money “interest free” for that amount of time. While this is a good deal if you plan to pay off your balance quickly, more often than not, it’s a trap.  When college students, young professionals, and any adult in a financial bind realizes they can borrow money to purchase things now with no penalty for doing so, they tend to borrow more than they would have otherwise. Once the 6-18 month interest-free period ends, the interest rate often skyrockets to almost 20%, which can be a recipe for disaster for anyone seeking to get out of debt or build wealth in the near future. If you have one of these credit cards, you need to practice self-control to make sure you are not borrowing more than you can pay back.

Get a credit card from a credit union instead of a commercial bank, if you can. Credit unions (like Navy Federal, USAA, etc) are nonprofit banking institutions. Because of that, they have several advantages over typical commercial banks (like Bank of America, Chase, Wells Fargo, etc). One advantage of credit unions is that they tend to charge lower interest rates on credit cards and bank loans. I can tell you from personal experience that the interest rate on the credit card I have from a credit union is DRASTICALLY lower than the interest rate on the credit card from a commercial bank. In fact, the interest rate is so much lower that I never even use the other credit card.

Another advantage of credit unions is that they usually have better customer service and are more forgiving when you make a mistake. When I first got a credit card in college I was terrible at keeping track of things. I would sometimes forget to pay off my credit card balance, not because I didn’t have the money, but simply because I forgot to do so. If I had made that mistake with a commercial bank they might have charged me a late fee for not paying my balance on time. However, since I was part of a credit union, I just called them and explained my oversight. They “forgave me” and removed the late fee EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

You should know that you cannot just walk into a credit union and ask for a credit card. In order to receive services from a credit union and use them as one of your banks, you have to meet certain requirements in order to become a “member.” For example, some credit unions are only available for teachers and their families, another credit union may only serve members of the military and their families, and other credit unions may be strictly for hospital employees and their families. You just have to search for credit unions in your area, find one you are eligible for, and sign up.

Pay more than the minimum balance each month. When you charge money to a credit card, they usually don’t demand that you pay off the full balance right away. Oftentimes they only demand a small amount called a “minimum payment.” What they don’t tell you is that if you only pay the minimum payment each month, you will still be charged interest on the amount that’s left over. As a result, they will charge you even more money in interest and it will take you much longer to pay back the full amount. Moral of the story: pay more than the minimum payment and try to pay off the entire balance at the end of each billing cycle if you can.

Find out when your billing cycle ends each month. If you are going to be diligent about paying off your credit card balance each month or even just making sure you aren’t late on any payments, it is essential that you know when your billing cycle ends each month. Why is this important? Well because if you happen to use your credit card near the end of your billing cycle, then you must pay off the balance much sooner or else you will be charged interest on the amount you borrowed. For example, if your credit card interest rate is 14% and you purchase something for $100 on your credit card the day before your billing cycle ends, then you must pay back that $100 the same day or else the bank associated with your credit card will charge you an added fee of $14 and your bill will now be $114. I should note that most credit card companies will give you a grace period of about 25 days after you charge something, but not all credit card companies provide that benefit. Check to see if your credit card has a grace period and figure out when your billing cycle ends each month so you can coordinate your payments in a way that prevents you from paying interest.

Look at your statement each month. This may sound a little basic, but trust me it bodes reminding. If you have your credit card payment set up for automatic withdrawal from one of your checking accounts you may be tempted to occasionally forgo looking at your bank statements. Let me caution you against that. It is important to check your statement, even if you have very few charges, to make sure there are no errors. The people who process your statements are human and sometimes mistakes are made. You’ll never know they are there unless you check. Plus, sometimes you may be charged extra fees you are unaware of. I remember a time when I went about 3 months without checking my credit card statement. (I hadn’t charged anything and was busy doing other things in my life). Imagine my horror when I finally did check it and saw that I was charged $79 for a “protection plan” that I DID NOT EVEN ASK FOR. That’s right. The credit card company realized I was a student and saw it fit to charge me $79 for a protection plan that I didn’t even ask for. $79 meant a lot to me as a broke college student and I was livid. I called the bank to ask why the charge was on my account and they explained its purpose but quickly removed it when I asked them to do so. If I would have gone even more months without checking my statement that charge would have added up. Learn from my mistakes. Look at your statement each month.

Check your FICO score periodically. Along with checking your statement, it is essential that you periodically check your credit score aka your FICO score. This score is a credit rating from 300-850 that determines how reliable you are as a borrower. The higher the score, the better. Your credit score is what is used to determine whether or not you qualify to rent an apartment on your own (without having your parents cosign for you). A higher score will also allow you to purchase a car or a home for a lower interest rate or fee. Check your FICO score periodically to get an idea of where you are at. Any score above 750 is pretty good, scores under that can use some work. Most credit card companies will give you a free estimate of your FICO score with each credit card statement.

Call the bank once a year to lower your interest rate. It is essential that you do what you can to lower the interest rate on your credit cards. Technically, your interest rate doesn’t matter as much if you pay off your credit card balance each month, but you want the interest rate to be low just in case. If there is one thing I’ve learned, it is that life can be unpredictable at times. We plan as best we can, but sometimes expenses can still catch us by surprise. Whether it’s a toothache that turns into an urgent dental procedure or an acute injury that turns into an expensive doctors appointment, you never know when you may need to use your credit card to cover an expense. Do your best to get the interest rate on your credit card as low as possible. While you may not be able to immediately alter the interest rate a credit card company starts you off with, you can however, ask for them to change the rate once you have had the card for awhile. In fact, I make a personal habit of calling my bank once a year to politely ask them to lower my credit card interest rate. Even with my status as a full-time medical student with no salaried income, they lower it EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.  Some times we have not because we ask not. Call your bank and ask them to lower yours as well.

Avoid Cash Advances. When you get a credit card, they may offer you something called a “cash” advance. This means that you can get a certain amount of money in “cash” for a particular fee. The problem with this convenience is that it ends up costing you a lot of money. Many credit card companies charge you a higher interest rate to do a cash advance than they do to purchase something directly with the card. Plus, they usually have rules that prevent you from paying back this cash advance (that is costing you lots of money) until after you have completely paid off your credit card balance. This means that you could easily fall into the trap of being stuck paying a super high fee for the cash advance for much longer than you would have liked. The bank profits a lot, which is why they offer it, but you end up paying a lot more than you may have anticipated which is why it’s best to avoid that option if you can.

To summarize, if you are like most people, you probably didn’t take a personal finance class in school. No worries. I’m here to help you learn the basics, especially when it comes to credits cards. When you first get a credit card, try to get one with the lowest interest rate you can (that way you won’t be charged as much money when you use it). However, be careful when you get 0% interest credit cards, because the interest rate tends to skyrocket to almost 20% after a certain time period which can get you into trouble if you aren’t careful. If you can, try to get a credit card from a credit union instead of a commercial bank. Chances are the interest rate will be lower and the customer service is usually better. When you use your credit card, try to pay more than minimum balance each month. Find out when your billing cycle ends each month so that you can pay off your balance before the added interest payment hits. Also, don’t forget to check your bank statement each month (to make sure there are no false charges or hidden fees) and look at your FICO credit score periodically since your FICO score is what apartment buildings will look at to see if you can get an apartment without needing someone to cosign or buy a home without paying a high interest rate. Lastly, call your bank once a year to get your credit card interest rate lowered and avoid cash advances if you can.