Judging from our inbox, there seems to be a lot of credit confusion. You’ve got many questions — luckily for you, we’ve got answers. Here are nine key things you need to know:
1. How many credit cards should I have?
Some financial gurus will tell you the answer is none. Meanwhile, other card experts say you can have a lot more.
Having one all-purpose card is fine, as long as you’re paying off the balance each month. But rewards cards tend to have higher interest rates, so carrying a balance can wipe out your rewards.
Keep a low-interest credit card if you don’t have an emergency fund. That way, you will have a place to turn if something unexpected happens, such as your water heater calling it quits.
2. Should I carry a balance?
Unless you must self-finance a purchase or are dealing with an emergency, paying credit card interest is just plain foolish.
Some people believe you need to carry a balance for your credit score to benefit. But as you’ll see in No. 3, that’s not really the case.
3. How is my credit score calculated?
While several companies create credit scores, your FICO scores are most likely to influence your access to credit and the interest rates that lenders charge you.
The main FICO scores range from 300 to 850. The higher the score, the more trustworthy you appear to creditors.
These FICO scores are calculated on five weighted factors:
- Payment history: 35 percent
- Amounts owed: 30 percent
- Credit history length: 15 percent
- New credit: 10 percent
- Mix of credit types: 10 percent
For more information, check out “8 Credit Score Myths: Fact vs. Fiction.”
4. How often should I check my credit score?
Experts generally suggest looking at your credit score frequently. It’s easy to do, without paying. Start here:
- “6 Ways to Get Your Official FICO Score for Free“
- “These 19 Card Companies Offer Free Credit Score Info“
Once you get a look at that magic number, you may want to take this advice on how to raise your score quickly.
5. Should I pay off the card with higher interest or a higher balance first?
The answer to this question also rests largely on which financial guru you ask.
Some argue you should start with the smallest balance, because quickly paying off an account can give you the momentum needed to stick to your debt diet.
However, from a purely financial standpoint, it is better to start with the highest-interest card. Paying off the high-interest card first will save you money on interest payments.
6. Should I co-sign a card for a friend or family member?
Co-signing for a card or loan puts you on the hook for the balance if the friend or family member stops paying. If the borrower makes late payments — and you may never know if he or she does — that can also negatively affect your credit score.
Sometimes even good people make poor money decisions, or life takes a turn they didn’t expect. Bottom line: You shouldn’t co-sign unless you’re ready and able to assume the debt as your own in the event your co-signer can’t pay.
7. When should my children get their first credit card?
Probably not until they have a real job and some emergency savings.
Children must have their own money before they start using someone else’s cash, so a steady job is a must. A work-study gig in the campus cafeteria for three months doesn’t cut it either.
Emergency savings help ensure your child doesn’t get sucked into using a credit card for every minor crisis or shopping whim. Students need to get into the habit of saving before they focus on the habit of spending.
Educate your children on smart credit habits, hope it sinks in and refuse to co-sign any applications for them.
8. Should I close the account on a credit card I no longer use?
If you are concerned about your credit score, it might be best to keep the credit card account open. Here is what FICO says on the subject:
“We never recommend closing a credit card for the sole purpose of raising your FICO score.”
9. Is it ever smart to pay an annual fee?
For most people, the answer is no, although you might need to do a little math to figure out what’s best for you.
As you’ll see if you try Money Talks News’ credit card search tool, there are plenty of great credit cards that are fee-free. That means typical cardholders probably shouldn’t be paying for the privilege of charging their purchases.
However, if you’re a heavy user, it might make sense to splurge on a card with a fee. A few years back, I interviewed a frequent traveler who told me he happily paid around $400 annually for his premier airline card. It was money well-spent, he said, because it included a sky club membership valued at around $700 per year.
He would have bought that membership anyway, which meant he was saving money before he spent a single cent with the card.
Look at the rewards you earn — and those you actually will use — compared with the annual fee and see if the card pays off.
Have additional intel to share about credit and credit cards? Do so in comments below or on our Facebook page.
Marilyn Lewis contributed to this post.