The Ultimate Guide to Credit Cards
Sunday, July 14, 2024

How to Use a Credit Card: 5 Ways to Do So Wisely (Feb. 2024)

How To Use A Credit Card
Linsey Knerl

Written by: Linsey Knerl

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 Guevara-Castro

Lillian Guevara-Castro brings more than 30 years of editing and journalism experience to the CardRates team. 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 journalism instructor at the University of Florida. Today, Lillian 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 for all new cardmembers–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 you shop each quarter like grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations, and more, up to the quarterly maximum when you activate. Plus, earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases—automatically.
  • Redeem your rewards for cash at any time.
  • Discover could help you reduce exposure of your personal information online by helping you remove it from select people-search sites that could sell your data. It’s free, activate with the mobile app.
  • Get a 0% intro APR for 15 months on purchases. Then 18.24% to 28.24% Standard Variable Purchase APR applies, based on credit worthiness.
  • No annual fee.
  • Terms and conditions apply.
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
0% Intro APR for 15 months
0% Intro APR for 15 months
18.24% - 28.24% Variable APR
$0
Excellent/Good
GOOD CREDIT RATING
★★★★★
4.9
OVERALL RATING
  • $0 annual fee and no foreign transaction fees
  • Earn a bonus of 20,000 miles once you spend $500 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $200 in travel
  • Earn unlimited 1.25X 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
  • 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
  • Use your miles to get reimbursed for any travel purchase—or redeem by booking a trip through Capital One Travel
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
0% for 15 months
0% for 15 months
19.99% - 29.99% (Variable)
$0
Excellent, Good
GOOD CREDIT RATING
★★★★★
4.9
OVERALL RATING
  • Earn a one-time $200 cash bonus after you spend $500 on purchases within 3 months from account opening
  • Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase, every day
  • $0 annual fee and no foreign transaction fees
  • Enjoy up to 6 months of complimentary Uber One membership statement credits through 11/14/2024
  • 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
  • No rotating categories or sign-ups needed to earn cash rewards; plus, cash back won't expire for the life of the account and there's no limit to how much you can earn
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
0% for 15 months
0% for 15 months
19.99% - 29.99% (Variable)
$0
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
★★★★★
4.9
OVERALL RATING
  • 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
29.99% (Variable)
$0
Average, Fair, Limited
Discover it® Student Cash Back Review

at Discover Card'ssecure website

FAIR CREDIT RATING
★★★★★
4.8
OVERALL RATING
  • INTRO OFFER: Unlimited Cashback Match for all new cardmembers – 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 cash back 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 you shop each quarter like grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations, and more, up to the quarterly maximum when you activate. Plus, earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases—automatically.
  • Redeem your rewards for cash at any time.
  • No credit score required to apply.
  • Discover could help you reduce exposure of your personal information online by helping you remove it from select people-search sites that could sell your data. It’s free, activate with the mobile app.
  • 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 18.24% - 27.24% applies.
  • Terms and conditions apply.
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
0% Intro APR for 6 months
10.99% Intro APR for 6 months
18.24% - 27.24% Variable APR
$0
Fair/New to Credit
FAIR CREDIT RATING
★★★★★
4.8
OVERALL RATING
  • 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
  • Enjoy up to 6 months of complimentary Uber One membership statement credits through 11/14/2024
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
N/A
N/A
29.99% (Variable)
$39
Average, Fair, Limited

+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.”

Milestone® Mastercard® Review

at Milestone Mastercard®'ssecure website

BAD CREDIT RATING
★★★★★
4.9
OVERALL RATING
  • Greater access to credit than before - $700 credit limit
  • Get a Mastercard accepted online, in store and in app
  • Account history is reported to the three major credit bureaus in the U.S.
  • $0 liability* for unauthorized use
  • Access your account online or from your mobile device 24/7
  • *Fraud protection provided by Mastercard Zero Liability Protection. If approved, you'll receive the Mastercard Guide to Benefits that details the complete terms with your card.
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
N/A
N/A
See terms
See terms
Fair/Good
PREMIER Bankcard® Mastercard® Credit Card Review

at PREMIER Bankcard®'ssecure website

BAD CREDIT RATING
★★★★★
4.9
OVERALL RATING
  • PREMIER Bankcard credit cards are for building credit.
  • Start building credit by keeping your balance low and paying all your bills on time each month.
  • When you need assistance our award-winning US-based Customer Service agents are there to help.
  • Credit Limit Increase Eligible after 12 months of consistent responsible account management.
  • We report monthly to the Consumer Reporting Agencies to help you build your credit.
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
N/A
N/A
See Provider Website
See Provider Website
Fair/Poor
Secured Chime Credit Builder Visa® Credit Card Review

at the issuer'ssecure website

BAD CREDIT RATING
★★★★★
4.8
OVERALL RATING
  • No credit check to apply
  • Adjustable credit limit based on what you transfer from your Chime Checking account to the secured deposit account
  • No interest* or annual fees
  • Chime Checking Account and qualifying direct deposit of $200 or more required to apply. See official application, terms, and details link below.
  • The secured Chime Credit Builder Visa® Card is issued by The Bankcorp Bank, N.A. or Stride Bank, N.A., Members FDIC, pursuant to a license from Visa U.S.A. Inc. and may be used everywhere Visa credit cards are accepted.
  • *Out-of-network ATM withdrawal and OTC advance fees may apply. View The Bancorp agreement or Stride agreement for details; see back of card for issuer.
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
N/A
N/A
N/A
$0
None

+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 for all new cardmembers – 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 cash back 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 you shop each quarter like grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations, and more, up to the quarterly maximum when you activate. Plus, earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases—automatically.
  • Redeem your rewards for cash at any time.
  • No credit score required to apply.
  • Discover could help you reduce exposure of your personal information online by helping you remove it from select people-search sites that could sell your data. It’s free, activate with the mobile app.
  • 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 18.24% - 27.24% applies.
  • Terms and conditions apply.
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
0% Intro APR for 6 months
10.99% Intro APR for 6 months
18.24% - 27.24% Variable APR
$0
Fair/New to Credit
STUDENT RATING
★★★★★
4.7
OVERALL RATING
  • Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase, every day
  • Early Spend Bonus: Earn $50 when you spend $100 in the first three months
  • Earn 10% cash back on purchases made through Uber & Uber Eats, plus complimentary Uber One membership statement credits through 11/14/2024
  • 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
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
N/A
N/A
19.99% - 29.99% (Variable)
$0
Average, Fair, Limited
Discover it® Student Chrome Review

at Discover Card'ssecure website

STUDENT RATING
★★★★★
4.7
OVERALL RATING
  • INTRO OFFER: Unlimited Cashback Match for all new cardmembers – 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 cash back into $200. There’s no minimum spending or maximum rewards. Just a dollar-for-dollar match.
  • Earn 2% cash back at Gas Stations and Restaurants on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter, automatically. Plus earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases.
  • Redeem your rewards for cash at any time.
  • No credit score required to apply.
  • Discover could help you reduce exposure of your personal information online by helping you remove it from select people-search sites that could sell your data. It’s free, activate with the mobile app.
  • 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 18.24% - 27.24% applies.
  • Terms and conditions apply.
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
0% Intro APR for 6 months
10.99% Intro APR for 6 months
18.24% - 27.24% Variable APR
$0
Fair/New to Credit

+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.

Advertiser Disclosure

CardRates.com is a free online resource that offers valuable content and comparison services to users. To keep this resource 100% free, we receive compensation for referrals for many of the offers listed on the site. Along with key review factors, this compensation may impact how and where products appear across CardRates.com (including, for example, the order in which they appear). CardRates.com does not include the entire universe of available offers. Editorial opinions expressed on the site are strictly our own and are not provided, endorsed, or approved by advertisers.