5 Things to Know About Credit Cards

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5 Things to Know About Credit Cards
Getty ImagesThe right credit card can help you manage your finances.
By Kimberly Palmer

Shopping for a new credit card can be pretty overwhelming, especially considering you have hundreds of types of cards to choose from. Should you go for a rewards card, the lowest interest rate card you can find or the card that comes with a free T-shirt? If you're trying to sort through all your options, consider these five tips that I recently shared on "The Tavis Smiley Show" from Public Radio International.

1. Use comparison websites. The myriad of credit card options today is matched by a slew of comparison websites that make it easier than ever to customize your search for the right card for you. Google's credit card search tool lets users narrow down their search by interest rate, rewards and a dozen other factors. IndexCreditCards.com, Bankrate.com, CreditCards.com, CreditKarma.com and NerdWallet.com all offer credit card search tools.

If you always pay your bill in full each month and never carry any debt, then you can take a closer look at the rewards options. Perhaps you prefer cash back to airline miles, or points that let you make purchases at retailers such as Best Buy (BBY) or Home Depot (HD). If you do carry any debt, though, then you'll want to focus on minimizing the APR, or annual percentage rate. Just don't sign up for the first offer you get in the mail because it might not be the best one for your situation.

2. Check up on the extra protections that come with your card. Credit cards come with various forms of protection, including from theft, non-delivery of items from a company and even extended warranties. If you travel a lot, then you might want to focus on cards that come with travel perks like insurance; if you buy a lot of large electronics, then the extended warranty protection might be for you. If you're a big shopper, then price protection, which offers to make up the difference if an item you buy drops in price, could be your best bet. The important thing is to read the fine print, ask questions so you know what perks come with your card and to pick the card that has the benefits that are important to you.

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%3. Don't be tempted by freebies. Credit cards sometimes offer tempting short-term benefits, including token gifts like T-shirts or a temporary zero percent APR. For the most part, you don't want to get sidetracked by these offers because they mask the far more important factors, namely the interest rate and any relevant fees. In fact, you should probably ignore introductory gifts all together because you'll have your card far longer than you'll enjoy the added freebies. You can buy your own T-shirt later.

4. Avoid rewards cards unless you carry zero debt. On average, rewards cards carry higher interest rates than non-rewards cards. According to IndexCreditCards.com, the average interest rate on a consumer rewards card is currently 17.64 percent, and the average rate on a non-rewards card is 15.48 percent -- that's a full two percentage point difference. It might not sound like much, but if you're carrying debt each month, then you want to make sure you're paying as little as possible for it. (Along with developing a plan to pay it off in full as soon as possible.) Any rewards are not worth the extra interest payments.

5. Rates and fees can be negotiable, so always ask. Credit card providers are sometimes more flexible than you might think. If you're a good customer with a strong credit history, then you might have some leeway to ask for a lower interest rate or for an unexpected fee to be removed. You can sometimes negotiate better terms for yourself, especially if you're a good customer who pays on time. There's no harm in calling up the customer service representative to ask what they can do for you.

The bottom line: You want to make sure your credit card is working for you, and not vice versa. Pay off your bill each month so you're not carrying any debt, and take advantage of the free rewards coming your way. If you do have debt, make a plan to pay it off, because the high interest rates on credit cards add up quickly over time.

Kimberly Palmer is a senior editor for U.S. News Money. She is the author of the new book, "The Economy of You." You can follow her on Twitter @alphaconsumer, circle her on Google Plus or email her at kpalmer@usnews.com.

5 Things to Know About Credit Cards
"Your daily habits and routines are the reason you got into this mess," writes Trent Hamm, founder of TheSimpleDollar.com. "Spend some time thinking about how you spend money each day, each week and each month." Do you really need your daily latte? Can you bring your lunch to work instead of buying it four times a week? Ask yourself: What can I change without sacrificing my lifestyle too much? 
Remove all credit cards from your wallet and leave them at home when you go shopping, advises WiseBread contributor Sabah Karimi. “Even if you earn cash back or other rewards with credit card purchases, stop spending with your credit cards until you have your finances under control,” she writes.
If you do a lot of online shopping at one retailer, you may have stored your credit card information on the site to make the checkout process easier. But that also makes it easier to charge items you don't need. So clear that information. "If you’re paying for a recurring service, use a debit card issued from a major credit card service linked to your checking account," Hamm writes.  
Reward yourself when you reach debt payoff goals. "The only way to completely pay off your credit card debt is to keep at it, and to do that, you must keep yourself motivated," Bakke writes. Just make sure to reward yourself within reason. For example, instead of a weeklong vacation, plan a weekend camping trip. "If you aim to reduce your credit card debt from $10,000 to $5,000 in two months," Bakke writes, "give yourself more than a pat on the back." 
“Establish a budget,” writes Money Crashers contributor David Bakke. “If you don't scale back your spending, you'll dig yourself into a deeper hole." You can use personal finance tools like Mint.com, or make your own Excel spreadsheet that includes your monthly income and expenses. Then scrutinize those budget categories to see where you can cut costs.    
Sort your credit card interest rates from highest to lowest, then tackle the card with the highest rate first. "By paying off the balance with the highest interest first, you increase your payment on the credit card with the highest annual percentage rate while continuing to make the minimum payment on the rest of your credit cards," writes Mint.com spokeswoman Hitha Prabhakar.
To make a dent in your debt, you need to pay more than the minimum balance on your credit card statements each month. "Paying the minimum -– usually 2 to 3 percent of the outstanding balance -– only prolongs a debt payoff strategy," Prabhakar writes. "Strengthen your commitment to pay everything off by making weekly, instead of monthly, payments." Or if your minimum payment is $100, try doubling it and paying off $200 or more. 
If you have a high-interest card with a balance that you’re confident you can pay off in a few months, Hamm recommends moving the debt to a card that offers a zero-interest balance transfer. "You’ll need to pay off the debt before the balance transfer expires, or else you’re often hit with a much higher interest rate," he warns. "If you do it carefully, you can save hundreds on interest this way."
Have any birthday gifts or old wedding presents collecting dust in your closet? Look for items you can sell on eBay or Craigslist. "Do some research to make sure you list these items at a fair and reasonable price," Karimi writes. “Take quality photos, and write an attention-grabbing headline and description to sell the item as quickly as possible." Any profits from sales should go toward your debt. 
If you receive a job bonus around the holidays or during the year, allocate that money toward your debt payoff plan. "Avoid the temptation to spend that bonus on a vacation or other luxury purchase," Karimi writes. It’s more important to fix your financial situation than own the latest designer bag.
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