We get it, soon-to-be-grad, you’re busy. Finals need to be taken; dorm rooms need to be cleared out. Jobs need to be procured — as does your very first apartment. But amid all these big changes, you’ll also want to make time for some good old fashioned financial literacy. After all, money management is critical to your success in the so-called real world. And, believe it or not, having a credit card can help your overall financial health. Of course, that’s only if you use that little piece of plastic responsibly, so, to help you come out ahead, here are 7 credit card tips for soon-to-be college grads.
1. Get One
Sure, there are plenty of reasons to be wary of plastic. But a credit card is one of the best ways to start building credit — and you’ll need a solid credit score when it comes time to get an affordable auto loan, mortgage, insurance policy or more. If you don’t have a credit card already, you’ll probably need to look into secured credit cards, which require an upfront deposit that serves as your credit limit and are designed specifically for people with thin or bad credit. If you were using plastic while in school, you may be eligible for an unsecured card with better terms and conditions. Of course, that’ll come down to what your credit looks like already. (You can see where you stand by viewing two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)
2. Pay Your Bills on Time …
The number one rule of credit cards? Pay your bills on-time each and every month. If you don’t, you’ll likely be hit with a late fee, face a penalty annual percentage rate (APR) and damage your credit — seriously. A first missed payment can cause a score to drop 100 points or more.
3. … & in Full Each Month
Or, at the very least, keep the total amount of debt you’re carrying on the card below at least 30% and ideally 10% of your total available credit limit. Any balance over that could hurt your credit utilization rate, which is the second most important factor among credit scores.
4. Monitor Your Statements
Do it even if you’ve signed up for auto-pay, because fraud, unfortunately, can occur at any time. Plus, you’ll want to be sure your balances aren’t burgeoning out of control. Check statements every day or at least once a week. Make small payments if those balances are starting to climb too high and be sure to report any suspicious activity your spot right away to your issuer.
5. Upgrade When You Can …
The better secured credit cards on the market (go here to check those out) usually provide cardholders with automatic reviews after 6 to 12 months of use that’ll determine whether they can get their deposit back and possibly receive a credit limit increase. Make a note of when you’ll be eligible for that type of upgrade and keep an eye on your credit as you use your card. You may be able to build a score solid enough to qualify for not just an unsecured credit card but a rewards or low-interest piece of plastic.
6. … But Resist the Urge to Churn
Be prepared to encounter big signup bonuses as you shop around for new plastic. (Example: Earn $150 when you spend $3,000 or more in your first three months as an accountholder.) But refrain from applying for every offer you see. Yes, an extra $150 or a boatload of bonus miles are nice, but too many new credit inquiries (which are generated each time you fill out a credit card application) can damage your credit score and make it harder to qualify for important financing down the line.
7. Know When to Stop Charging
If your spending starts to get out of control, put your card on ice. Literally, if you have to. (That’s actually a better bet than formally closing the card, which can hurt your credit score, though you can do that, too, if absolutely necessary.) Next, come up with a plan to pay down those debts. Rework your budget to come up with some extra dollars you can put toward your balance and, if you’re carrying debt on multiple cards, prioritize payments. Make the minimum payment on all your cards but put the most money toward the balance with the highest APR (which can lower the total cost of your debt.) Alternately, you can pay off the smallest balance first, which could keep you motivated as you work to get back into the black. You can find more strategies for paying down credit card debt right here.
Looking to do some more financial planning pre-diploma? We’ve got 50 money moves you should make before graduation.