Credit cards were created as a tool for financial freedom, but we often find them to be a source of stress and anxiety. Chances are you've winced when swiping for a hefty purchase or closed one eye and held your breath as you opened a bill. Is it ridiculous to think that a new credit card could empower you and align with your financial needs and long-term goals? More than 250 credit cards exist today, and there's no one-size-fits-all option. But it's easy to make an informed decision once you identify your top financial priorities.
To reconcile your wants with your needs, sit down and think about how you actually spend your money. "First, be honest about your financial habits and needs, what rewards you'll actually use and your credit history," Brooklyn Lowery, site editor for CardRatings.com, told Forbes. "You must have a clear understanding of your credit score and credit history." Hard credit inquiries that are rejected can hurt your score, so by knowing the number, you can apply for cards that you're likelier to get approved for. If you have a short credit line or you're rebuilding your credit, a secured card may be the way to go. Personal finance writer Marcie Geffner suggests the Capital One Secured MasterCard, which has no annual fee and gives regular reports to the three major consumer credit bureaus. Make your payments on time, and try to use less than 30 percent of your credit line. You'll inch toward credit health month by month.
Get clear on how you will use this card each month -- both your habits (the good, the bad and the ugly) and your intentions. Will you pay off the card each month or carry a balance? Are you diligent about paying all your bills on time, or would you benefit from a waived late-payment fee? If it's the latter answer for either question, a low annual percentage rate should be your top priority, for mounting interest is a slippery slope to credit card debt. Geffner says: "Pay attention to which APR applies when and for how long. Cards may have an introductory APR offer that expires after a set number of months, different APRs for purchases and balance transfers, or a higher-penalty APR that's typically triggered by late payments." The Chase Freedom Unlimited card is uber-popular for its hassle-free cash back offers, including 1.5 percent cash back on every purchase and a $150 bonus after spending $500 on purchases in your first three months. But it has a zero annual percentage rate for 15 months, followed by an APR of 16.99 to 25.74 and a 3 percent transfer fee. Moral of the story: Racking up free dollars is great, but overspending and leaving a balance will outweigh the perks.
With good, reliable spending habits and a solid credit score, feel free to prioritize cards with rewards programs and other perks. Cash-back cards allow you to earn money and set it aside for the future, a useful system if you'd like to boost your savings account or save up for a luxury item. The Citi Double Cash Card offers an impressive 2 percent cash back on purchases -- 1 percent when you buy and 1 percent when you pay -- with no caps, no annual fee and no transfer fee for 18 months. Buyers often maximize the benefits by charging everything from a shopping trip to monthly expenses and then paying the balance in full. Jet-setters may prefer to put their dollars toward points for a flight across the globe. There are loads of cards with points for specific airlines, though the Chase Sapphire Preferred card offers flexibility and other perks to enhance your travel experience. You can earn 50,000 bonus points if you charge $4,000 in the first three months, worth $625 when redeemed through Chase Ultimate Rewards. You receive two times the points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide, as well as up to $10,000 in travel insurance per person. Rewards cards reward you for smart financial decisions and allow you to create opportunities for enjoyment.
Finding the right credit card doesn't have to be difficult. With some calculations and research upfront, you could turn a previously daunting task into a healthy exercise that will set you up for long-term success -- and have fun along the way.