The Ultimate Guide to Credit Cards
Friday, October 7, 2022

How to Use a Credit Card (5 Ways to Build Credit Wisely)

How To Use A Credit Card

credit card advice

Linsey Knerl

Written by: Linsey Knerl

Linsey Knerl

Linsey Knerl is a finance author and public speaker with a passion for helping everyday families earn more and live better. Her work can be seen in Investopedia, PC Mag, The Christian Science Monitor, TIME, Wise Bread, Next Avenue, MSN Money, and numerous other leading outlets. Her expertise lies in business economics, credit scores and reports, and saving and budgeting. Linsey has shared her financial knowledge with audiences at SXSW, FinCon, and the ASJA annual NYC convention.

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Edited by: Lillian Guevara-Castro

Lillian Guevara-Castro

Lillian brings more than 30 years of editing and journalism experience. She has written and edited for major news organizations, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the New York Times, and she previously served as an adjunct instructor at the University of Florida. Today, she edits all CardRates content for clarity, accuracy, and reader engagement.

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Advertiser Disclosure

Many consumers assume they know how to use a credit card (swipe and go, right?) — and while they may know the basics — diving deeper to learn more about rewards, strategies, and card varieties is certainly worth the time.

Credit cards are the most popular way to shop online and in-store, and it’s no wonder why. With the ability to securely shop at almost every location nationwide, plastic is quickly replacing cash and checks as a method of payment. While some stores have restrictions on the brand of card accepted, most are open to taking Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express.

Many stores are moving to the chip-and-PIN technology needed to process those fancy cards with the little square on the front (chip cards.) These cards are inserted into a slot at the bottom of a card reader, instead of being swiped as we’ve been used to doing for the past decade or so, and are more secure than the magnetic strip cards of years past. Most cards have additional protections in place, outside of the retailer, to keep your information safe and your purchases legitimate. These same features are what keep your finances safe when buying online.

So, how do you know which card is right for you? And how can you get maximum benefits from your choice? Wise credit card use is key, so we’ve put together these tips to help. We’ll cover how to find the right card for your credit score, how to use credit cards responsibly, how to take advantage of rewards and other perks, and how to avoid those interest charges that can add up so quickly.

1. Get a Card for Your Credit Type

In a perfect world, everyone would qualify for the lowest interest rates and best perks a credit card has to offer. In real life, however, banks understand that not everyone has the same degree of risk, and that’s why they’ve developed card offers that are specific to an applicant’s creditworthiness and financial needs.

What is good for one person may be a terrible option for another. Pick the tier that best represents your credit profile below, then work to move up in rank for bigger and better card options!

Good Credit | Fair Credit | Bad Credit | Student Cards

Cards for Good Credit (700+ FICO Score)

If you’ve reached a FICO score at this level, you are considered a good credit risk and have the option to apply for some of these top-notch card offers. The following cards are designed to reward good financial decisions and provide cardholders with flexibility and competitive features.

Discover it® Cash Back Review

at Discover Card'ssecure website

GOOD CREDIT RATING
★★★★★
4.9
OVERALL RATING
  • INTRO OFFER: Unlimited Cashback Match – only from Discover. Discover will automatically match all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year! There’s no minimum spending or maximum rewards. You could turn $150 cash back into $300.
  • Earn 5% cash back on everyday purchases at different places each quarter like Amazon.com, grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations and when you pay using PayPal, up to the quarterly maximum when you activate. Plus, earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases - automatically.
  • NEW! Discover helps remove your personal information from select people-search websites. Activate by mobile app for free.
  • Every $1 you earn in cash back is $1 you can redeem.
  • Get a 0% intro APR for 15 months on purchases. Then 14.99% to 25.99% Standard Variable Purchase APR applies, based on credit worthiness.
  • No annual fee.
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
0% Intro APR for 15 months
0% Intro APR for 15 months
14.99% - 25.99% Variable APR
$0
Excellent/Good
Discover it® Balance Transfer Review

at Discover Card'ssecure website

GOOD CREDIT RATING
★★★★★
4.9
OVERALL RATING
  • INTRO OFFER: Unlimited Cashback Match – only from Discover. Discover will automatically match all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year! There’s no minimum spending or maximum rewards. You could turn $150 cash back into $300.
  • Earn 5% cash back on everyday purchases at different places each quarter like Amazon.com, grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations and when you pay using PayPal, up to the quarterly maximum when you activate. Plus, earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases – automatically.
  • NEW! Discover helps remove your personal information from select people-search websites. Activate by mobile app for free.
  • Every $1 you earn in cash back is $1 you can redeem.
  • No annual fee.
  • Click "Apply Now" to see terms and conditions.
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
0% Intro APR for 6 months
0% Intro APR for 18 months
14.99% - 25.99% Variable APR
$0
Excellent/Good
GOOD CREDIT RATING
★★★★★
4.8
OVERALL RATING
4.8/5.0
  • Enjoy a one-time bonus of 75,000 miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase, every day
  • Miles won't expire for the life of the account and there's no limit to how many you can earn
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Enjoy two complimentary visits per year to Capital One Lounges or to 100+ Plaza Premium Lounges through our Partner Lounge Network
  • Earn 5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of trip options
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
N/A
N/A
18.99% - 26.99% (Variable)
$95
Excellent, Good

+See More Cards for Good Credit

Cards for Fair Credit (650+ FICO Score)

Perhaps you’ve made a few credit mistakes but are well on your way to a brighter financial future. You are considered to have fair credit and can still take advantage of a number of cards with more lenient application requirements. These cards are popular for those who are working hard to get closer to a credit score nearer the national average (695, for the year 2017.)

FAIR CREDIT RATING
★★★★★
4.7
OVERALL RATING
4.0/5.0
  • No annual or hidden fees. See if you're approved in seconds
  • Be automatically considered for a higher credit line in as little as 6 months
  • Help build your credit through responsible use of a card like this
  • Enjoy peace of mind with $0 Fraud Liability so that you won't be responsible for unauthorized charges
  • Monitor your credit score with CreditWise from Capital One. It's free for everyone
  • Get access to your account 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with online banking from your desktop or smartphone, with Capital One's mobile app
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
N/A
N/A
28.49% (Variable)
$0
Average, Fair, Limited
FAIR CREDIT RATING
★★★★★
4.7
OVERALL RATING
4.5/5.0
  • Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase, every day
  • No rotating categories or limits to how much you can earn, and cash back doesn't expire for the life of the account. It's that simple
  • Be automatically considered for a higher credit line in as little as 6 months
  • Enjoy peace of mind with $0 Fraud Liability so that you won't be responsible for unauthorized charges
  • Help strengthen your credit for the future with responsible card use
  • Earn unlimited 5% cash back on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of trip options. Terms apply
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
N/A
N/A
28.49% (Variable)
$39
Average, Fair, Limited
Fortiva® Mastercard® Credit Card Review

at Fortiva'ssecure website

FAIR CREDIT RATING
★★★★★
4.6
OVERALL RATING
  • With the Fortiva® Mastercard® Credit Card, you earn up to a 3% cash back reward
  • Make contactless payments through Mobile Wallet
  • Periodic Credit Increase Reviews
  • Free access to your Vantage 3.0 score from Equifax†
  • † Your credit score will be available in your online account 60 days after your account is opened. (Registration required) The free VantageScore 3.0 credit score provided by Equifax is for educational purposes only and may not be used by The Bank of Missouri (the issuer of this card) or other creditors to make credit decisions.
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
N/A
N/A
29.99% OR 36% (V)
As low as $85
Fair

+See More Cards for Fair Credit

Cards for Bad Credit (<650 FICO Score)

If you are starting out with a new credit profile or have some mistakes that you are determined to move past, you’re in luck, because many banks understand that rebuilding credit takes time. These credit cards are designed for anyone who still has to pay off bad debts or needs to re-establish credit after a bankruptcy or settlement. This list proves that a lower score doesn’t mean you are out of the running for a reliable card account.

Matt Schulz of CreditCards.com shares that an unsecured card may also be an option for those with poor credit. “It works just like a regular credit card but keeps the risk to a minimum for everyone involved. Put $200 to get the card, put a few small purchases on it each month and then pay the balance in full. Do that repeatedly and before you know it, you’ll be ready to graduate to another card with better terms and better rewards.”

PREMIER Bankcard® Mastercard® Credit Card Review

at PREMIER Bankcard®'ssecure website

BAD CREDIT RATING
★★★★★
4.7
OVERALL RATING
  • Don’t let a low FICO score stop you from applying – we approve applications others may not.
  • You don’t need good credit to apply.
  • Just complete the short application and find out in 60 seconds if you’re approved.
  • When you need assistance our award-winning US-based Customer Service agents are there to help.
  • FICO scores are used to represent the creditworthiness of a person and may be one indicator to the credit type you are eligible for. However, credit score alone does not guarantee or imply approval for any PREMIER Bankcard® product.
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
N/A
N/A
See Provider Website
See Provider Website
Fair/Poor
PREMIER Bankcard® Grey Credit Card Review

at PREMIER Bankcard®'ssecure website

BAD CREDIT RATING
★★★★★
4.7
OVERALL RATING
  • You don’t need good credit to apply.
  • We help people with bad credit, every day.
  • Just complete the short application and find out in 60 seconds if you’re approved.
  • You can build* or rebuild your credit: apply for a PREMIER Bankcard credit card, keep your balance low, and pay all your monthly bills on time.
  • Don’t let a low FICO score stop you from applying – we approve applications others may not.
  • FICO scores are used to represent the creditworthiness of a person and may be one indicator to the credit type you are eligible for. However, credit score alone does not guarantee or imply approval for any PREMIER Bankcard® product.
  • *Build credit by keeping your balance low and paying all your bills on time every month.
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
N/A
N/A
See Provider Website
See Provider Website
Fair/Poor
Surge Mastercard® Review

at Celtic Bank'ssecure website

BAD CREDIT RATING
★★★★★
4.6
OVERALL RATING
  • Up to $1,000 credit limit doubles up to $2,000! (Simply make your first 6 monthly minimum payments on time)
  • All credit types welcome to apply!
  • Free access to your Vantage 3.0 score From Experian* (When you sign up for e-statements)
  • Initial Credit Limit of $300 – $1,000* (subject to available credit)
  • Monthly reporting to the three major credit bureaus
  • See if you’re Pre-Qualified without impacting your credit score
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
See website for Details
See website for Details
24.99% – 29.99% (Variable)
See website for Details
See website for Details*

+See More Cards for Bad Credit

Cards for Students

College students have unique borrowing needs. They may not have had any blemishes on their credit histories, but they also haven’t had enough history to appear reliable to lending institutions. While students work hard to build credit under their own names, these cards can offer many of the same protections and perks as those offered to more established consumers.

Discover it® Student Cash Back Review

at Discover Card'ssecure website

STUDENT RATING
★★★★★
4.8
OVERALL RATING
  • INTRO OFFER: Unlimited Cashback Match – only from Discover. Discover will automatically match all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year! So you could turn $50 cash back into $100. Or turn $100 into $200. There’s no minimum spending or maximum rewards. Just a dollar-for-dollar match.
  • Earn 5% cash back on everyday purchases at different places each quarter like Amazon.com, grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations and when you pay using PayPal, up to the quarterly maximum when you activate. Plus, earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases – automatically.
  • No credit score required to apply.
  • NEW! Discover helps remove your personal information from select people-search websites. Activate by mobile app for free.
  • No annual fee and build your credit with responsible use.
  • 0% intro APR on purchases for 6 months, then the standard variable purchase APR of 15.99% - 24.99% applies.
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
0% Intro APR for 6 months
10.99% Intro APR for 6 months
15.99% - 24.99% Variable APR
$0
Fair/New to Credit
STUDENT RATING
★★★★★
4.7
OVERALL RATING
4.6/5.0
  • Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase, every day
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn $100 when you spend $100 in the first three months
  • Enjoy peace of mind with $0 Fraud Liability so that you won't be responsible for unauthorized charges
  • Enjoy no annual fee, foreign transaction fees, or hidden fees
  • Lock your card in the Capital One Mobile app if it's misplaced, lost or stolen
  • Earn up to $500 a year by referring friends and family when they're approved for a Capital One credit card
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
N/A
N/A
17.99% - 27.99% (Variable)
$0
Average, Fair, Limited
STUDENT RATING
★★★★★
4.7
OVERALL RATING
4.6/5.0
  • Earn unlimited 3% cash back on dining, entertainment, popular streaming services and at grocery stores (excluding superstores like Walmart® and Target®), with 1% on all other purchases
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn $100 when you spend $100 in the first three months
  • Enjoy peace of mind with $0 Fraud Liability so that you won't be responsible for unauthorized charges
  • Enjoy no annual fee, foreign transaction fees, or hidden fees
  • Lock your card in the Capital One Mobile app if it's misplaced, lost or stolen
  • Earn up to $500 a year by referring friends and family when they're approved for a Capital One credit card
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
N/A
N/A
17.99% - 27.99% (Variable)
$0
Average, Fair, Limited

+See More Cards for Students

2. Use the Card Responsibly to Build Credit

While time generally heals all wounds (and will eventually move a bad mark off your credit history), a more effective way to build credit is to handle your debt responsibly. There are many ways to prove that you are a good credit risk and to push your FICO Score in the right direction:

  • Pay in advance of your due date; if possible, pay your bill in full every month.
  • Be aware of your credit limit, never charge more than you have available.
  • Watch your transaction history carefully; report suspicious activity right away.
  • Never lend out your card or card number to someone else.
  • If you have questions regarding your account, contact your card company.

Many credit problems occur when cardholders can’t afford to pay their minimums each month. Understand how much you’ll owe, and make every effort to meet the monthly requirement. If circumstances prevent you from making the minimum, contact your card company before your bill is due to let them know and possibly work out alternate payment arrangements. Multiple late payments will result in bad marks on your credit report, higher interest rates, and penalty fees.

3. Earn Rewards & Bonuses Through Qualifying Purchases

If you ask cardholders what they love most about their favorite card, they will probably reply with the “perks.” In fact, personal finance author Donna Freedman uses her rewards credit cards for everyday stuff like groceries, utilities, and medical co-pays. When she has earned enough points, she redeems them for gift cards that will later pay for her holiday and birthday shopping. Being wise with rewards cards helps free up money in her budget by taking care of 90% of the gifts she purchases each year!

The most common types of rewards and bonuses include:

Cash backThis is awarded as a percentage of qualifying purchases (1-5%, for example.) It is paid out at the end of the promotional period, quarterly, or when a certain threshold has been reached as either cash, check, or a statement credit. Some promotions or purchase types will pay more than the standard rate. Always sign up for bonus cash back offers your card may advertise throughout the year.

Airline miles This type of reward currency can be used for flights, upgrades, hotels, rental cars, and more. Miles don’t have to be earned only through official airline cards, however. Many travel-friendly cards will give out generic “miles” that can then be transferred to the frequent flier program of your choice. Some will even allow you to “erase” past travel purchases by simply crediting your statement when you’ve earned a certain number of reward miles.

Points and giftsSome cards use their own currency to hand out rewards. These can be done as a point system (which can be redeemed for a variety of merchandise awards, gift cards, or cash). Another option is a store credit card, which works with just one retailer or vendor to offer gift cards or credit to that company alone. They are most beneficial to customers who are fiercely brand loyal and want a card that rewards this fact.

Gas rewardsThese types of rewards are self-explanatory. Earn rewards on your gas purchases, sometimes saving the most when you churn those reward points back into gas gift cards or credit at the pump.

Of course, your rewards can go further when you use signup bonuses to jump-start your earnings. Many cards will offer new applicants a large gift of points or gift cards to sweeten the deal. These are good opportunities to cash in with a card you wanted to sign up for anyway!

Remember, cards usually only award points, rewards, miles, or other perks for qualifying purchases. While this definition will vary from card to card, the general rule is that you only earn on purchases as defined by the terms of the promotional offer. Balance transfers and cash advances almost never count, and many qualifying purchases may be limited by the retailer, date processed, or the cardholder on the account. It’s wise to read your credit card documentation or contact a card rep if you are unsure whether a purchase qualifies for a special offer or reward perk.

4. Avoid Interest Charges by Paying Your Balance Off

Cards are a fantastic tool if used properly. They can help you build wealth and give you flexible ways to pay for purchases. But what happens if you don’t pay for all your shopping before your statement hits the mail?

To be certain you don’t pay more than the original price of your purchase, know your grace period. This is the number of days you have from the time you charge something until you start paying interest. Make sure your purchases are paid for in full before this time runs out!

Image Representing 0% Credit Card Grace Period

You’ll also want to be familiar with your interest rate, often called “APR.” This APR (annual percentage rate) is the amount of interest your credit card company will charge you – each year — for not paying your balance in full. This interest starts accruing the day your grace period ends.

Skip this drama entirely by paying your credit card bill in full each month. Bobby Lee of 2-Minute Finance advises beginner cardholders to reserve a card for large purchases only (say, $50 and up.) “At the end of the week, set aside money from your checking account to cover those purchases,” Bobby recommends.

These weekly “set-asides” will ensure that you’re not spending more than you have available to pay. In addition, the higher purchase amount threshold makes you pause and think before spending money. Never paying interest requires you to never fall into the trap of carrying a balance from month to month.

5. Enjoy the Perks & Protections of Owning a Credit Card

In addition to rewards, such as cash and travel miles, there are other card benefits that you would be wise to take advantage of. These include certain purchase protections and the ability to access a line of credit for unexpected large buys or emergency situations.

Percentage of Cards Offering Purchase Protections

Bobby Lee’s favorite protection is hands down, the return protection that many cards offer. “If you want to return an item you bought online or in-store, but the retailer refuses to take it back, your credit card has you covered,” he explains.

Typically, he’ll use this coverage if a return falls outside a retailer’s return window but within the credit card’s 90-day claim window. Now that’s smart!

There are many perks to owning a credit card, especially if you use it to build your credit and get increasingly better card offers over time. It’s not a bad idea to regularly check your score, see where you fall in the tiered card system mentioned above, and re-apply every year or so for a better card than what you have. As you use credit wisely and climb the card ladder, you’ll get bigger and better perks and protections to make life easier and more rewarding.

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