How to Shop for a Credit Card

January 13, 2010, Written By Bill Hardekopf
How to Shop for a Credit Card

January is historically the busiest month for credit card applications. Consumers are inspired by New Year’s resolutions to save money or find themselves trying to repair the damage done by holiday shopping.

Before applying for a credit card, consumers should do an internal audit on their financial situation and then thoroughly compare credit card offers instead of applying for the first offer that comes in the mail.

Shopping for a credit card can be overwhelming since there are over 1,000 credit cards on the market. If you don’t have a plan, it is easy to just pick a card because it has a familiar name or the advertised features sound attractive. You want to pick the right card. If it doesn’t fit, credit cards don’t have a free return policy. Every time you
apply for a card, it is reported on your credit score and too many applications can pull down your score.

Start by checking your credit score to understand how lenders will judge you. Also, this will enable you to check the accuracy of the report to make sure you are not being penalized unfairly. Checking your score may help you estimate the interest rate you may receive.

Then, classify yourself. Credit cardholders fall into four categories: those who pay the full balance each month, those who carry a balance all the time, those who want to transfer their balance to a lower rate, and those with either no credit or marginal credit.

The type of customer you are dictates how you shop for a credit card.

1) If you pay the full balance each month…

If you pay off your balance each month, the interest rate is not that important. You can make the credit card work for you and earn free rewards or cash. There are reward programs for practically every hobby or interest, so apply for a card that has the best reward program that fits your needs.

Finding the best reward card can be difficult since the offers are often hard to compare. To simplify, assume that the average reward program pays you 1% of what you spend. If the card offers you more than 1% of what you
spend, it is an above average offer. Very few cards offer cashback rewards over 1%. The ones that do have a minimum spending limit you must reach to receive the higher rate, or it is part of a rotating reward program and the categories change every quarter.

When choosing a reward card, first look at your annual credit card usage. If you charge less than $5,000 a year, your best option is a general reward card, such as Blue from American Express. You can select rewards on lower levels like gift cards, restaurants and retail stores. If you have an airline reward card and charge $5,000 or less each year, you may need five years to earn a free ticket (most cards offer a free, domestic airline ticket for 25,000 points). If your usage is more than $50,000 per year, look for a card with unlimited rewards since some cards cap rewards at $50,000.

Hotel reward cards sometimes offer the most generous point distribution for everyday purchases, general purchases, and bonus points. Starwood American Express offers 10,000 points (three free nights at some hotels) with first purchase plus an additional 15,000 Starpoints if you spend $15,000 in six months. Some hotel cards also redeem points for airline tickets or retailer gift cards.

Now is the time to take advantage of cards that do not charge an annual fee and to use reward points as you earn them. Rewards aren’t covered under the CARD Act and issuers can make changes or place restrictions on them at any time. Rewards are an easy area for struggling issuers to cut costs and add fees.

2) If you carry a balance…

The average credit card rate is 13.25%. If your credit score is above 720 and your APR is over 15%, apply for a card with a lower rate. If you have good to average credit, you won’t get approved at the lowest advertised rate. Look at the rate tiers in the terms and conditions to judge what rate you may actually receive and to determine whether it will be worth the effort to apply.

This group of cardholders has been the hardest hit by issuers reacting to the tight credit market and the provisions of the CARD Act. In 2009, issuers increased rates for many cardholders that carried a balance to as high as 29.99%. Issuers also switched rates from fixed to variable.

Issuers once competed aggressively to attract consumers that carried a credit card balance. Now they are raising rates, slicing credit limits, and even closing accounts for this same group.  Issuers have been burned by high default and delinquency rates, and any significant outstanding balance now waves a huge red flag of risk.

3) If you want to transfer a balance to get a lower rate…

Ideally, balance transfers help you shift your balance from a high interest rate card to one with a lower rate. This used to be so easy that cardholders transferred their balance from card to card to take advantage of the intro period and avoid interest payments. Issuers allowed this and did not even charge a fee for balance transfers.

Today, balance transfer options are still available but they aren’t as easy and welcoming as they used to be. Many introductory periods have been cut from twelve to six months, the ongoing interest rates are higher, and some issuers have increased the balance transfer fee from 3% to 4% or, in some cases, even 5%.

It is important for consumers to mathematically calculate whether a balance transfer makes financial sense. Compare the up front balance transfer fee (which is then rolled into your balance) and what you will save in interest payments for the introductory period to the interest payments you will make on your existing card. Carefully read the terms and conditions of the card you are considering to see if purchases made during the introductory period are covered at the introductory rate or if that rate only applies to the transferred balance.

If you have average credit, there is no quick fix to get a lower rate. Issuers have tightened lending and approval rates to this group. The best way to lower your rate is to raise your credit score. That will take time, but it will be worth the effort.  Ironically, one of the fastest ways to pull up your credit score is to pay down your debt and reduce your credit utilization ratio.

4) If you have no credit or bad credit…

Secured cards are for those who have no credit or a bad credit history and can’t get a traditional credit card. This card may also be an option for those who have a completed bankruptcy. Think of a secured card as a short-term band-aid to repair your credit. If used correctly, a good payment history with the secured card should improve your credit score enough to qualify for a standard card in twelve months to two years.

The secured card looks like a traditional credit card–a merchant will not know it is a secured card. The difference between the secured and unsecured card is the higher rate and fees for the secured card. You must make the monthly payments on the card or the bank will turn the account over to collections, further damaging your credit score.

The deposit for a secured card determines the credit limit. If your deposit is $300, you will receive a Visa or MasterCard with a credit limit up to $300. The security deposit is not used to pay for charges but to cover the balance if the account is closed. The deposit is held until the account is closed.

A secured card has certain requirements. You must have a telephone in your home, reside in the United States, and have a valid social security number. While many applications are accepted, you are not guaranteed to receive a card. Unpaid tax liens or undischarged bankruptcies may prevent you from getting the card. Some issuers will not offer you a card if you have declared bankruptcy in the past.

Make sure that the issuer of the secured card you are applying for reports to the credit bureaus. This is necessary to help rebuild your credit history. If the issuer doesn’t report your history, a good payment record will not positively affect your credit score. Some cards require an additional fee for this. Save yourself some money and choose a card that doesn’t require this fee but still reports to credit bureaus.

Paying your bill on time can result in your account being upgraded to an unsecured card within two years. Some cards may also increase the credit limit to more than the amount of your deposit. After twelve months of good payment history, contact the issuer about converting your secured card to an unsecured card with a lower rate and a deposit refund.

Once you have determined the type of credit card customer you are, compare all the cards in that category. Don’t just look at the advertised slogans or features. Dive into the terms and conditions of each card. Make a grid of the rates, fees and rewards of each card so you can compare apples to apples and make an informed decision on the right card for you.

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The information contained within this article was accurate as of January 13, 2010. For up-to-date
information on any of the terms, cards or offers mentioned above, visit the issuer's website.

About Bill Hardekopf

Bill Hardekopf is the CEO of and covers the credit card industry from all perspectives. Bill has been involved with personal finance for over 15 years. He is a frequent contributor to Forbes, The Street and The Christian Science Monitor.
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