Getting your first credit card is an essential, often daunting rite of passage – no matter how old you are when it comes. Most people think of credit newcomers as being college students, but first-time applicants come in all shapes and sizes. Many are simply late to credit-building class, so to speak. Others, such as immigrants and divorcees, are merely responding to a recent change in circumstances.
Your particular circumstances will dictate what, exactly, you should look for in your first credit card, but the benefit of opening an account is always the same: Credit cards are the most cost-effective, accessible credit-building vehicles at our disposal. Merely having an open credit card in your own name will help to improve your credit score, even if you lock your card in a drawer and don’t use it to make purchases. And having a good credit score can save you hundreds, even thousands, of dollars each year.
With that being said, let’s take a look at how the three main types of credit newcomers should go about choosing their first credit card.
If have an active university email address, you also have a leg up in the credit card game. Most credit card companies require one on a student credit card application, and students generally get better terms than their experience would normally merit. Why? Because issuers know that college graduates earn about 84% more than people who don’t make it past high school. They also have years of financial needs to capitalize on, considering that the median college student is just 27 years old, according to the Department of Education.
The first thing a student should look for in a credit card is an offer without annual and monthly fees. The rates and rewards available at this point simply aren’t worth paying for.
With your options whittled down to “free” student credit cards, focus on finding rewards that suit your lifestyle, if you plan to pay your bill in full each month. We recommend that you do so, as it’s important to adopt good habits and build savings at the beginning of your credit career.
But if you anticipate needing some extra time to pay off a looming big-ticket expense (e.g., textbooks or a car), you should try to find a card with a long 0% intro APR period instead of worrying about rewards.
The credit card pickings tend to be slimmer for non-student first-timers. But the available options are just as effective when it comes to credit building. And as long as you don’t need an emergency loan, it doesn’t really matter whether you get an unsecured (“regular”) credit card or one that requires a refundable security deposit.
Meaningful rewards won’t be on the table in either case. And you should think of your credit card more as an investment in your credit score’s future than a financing vehicle at this point in your life.
As such, we recommend prioritizing low fees and approvability when looking for your first credit card. With that in mind, you may want to place a deposit on a secured credit card.
You don’t want to apply for unsecured card after unsecured card, only to be rejected each time. Too many applications within a short period of time can damage your credit score and make access to credit even harder to come by. Secured cards are much easier to obtain because their deposit doubles as your spending limit, preventing you from overspending and shielding the issuer from risk.
First Card for a Fresh Start
Sometimes, your first credit card isn’t literally the first credit card you’ve ever owned. Rather, it may be the first card in your comeback from credit mistakes. And in that case, a secured card is undoubtedly your best option.
Secured cards are not only easier to get approved for than their unsecured counterparts, but they’re also far safer. The fact that your deposit matches your spending limit means it’s impossible to spend more than you can afford to pay back. And since carrying a balance from month to month would basically mean paying interest on a loan you’ve given yourself, hopefully, you’ll avoid doing that, too.
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