What I Wish I Knew About My First Credit Card

Teen girl with credit card

I was probably eighteen when I got my first credit card. 

Well, not exactly. You see, my mom listed me as an authorized signer on hers and gave me a card, noting it was "strictly for emergencies". But it wasn't until I was 21, working my first full time job, and knowing that I needed to start building my credit, that I finally took the plunge. Here are some lessons looking back.

I should've started earlier

Your credit score is made up of a lot of things – a full breakdown is on our FICO scores page – but a full 10% of it is how long you've had a credit line. Now, it might sound great that I had a three year head start with my mom's card, but the fact is, lenders look at authorized signers differently than they do a traditional borrower. That's because an authorized signer isn't technically responsible for paying the card back (sorry, mom), so it's weighted differently on new loan apps.

So, what's a better idea? Start early. There are a few ways I could've gone about it, and there are a few ways you can, too.

First up: try for the traditional card on your own. Depending on your income to expenses and how long you've had your job, you may qualify right off the bat. That's not always the case, though, and that's where co-borrowers and secured cards come in.

A co-borrower is someone you can put joint on your loan or credit card and – unlike an authorized signer – both parties are responsible for paying back the loan. Most teens look to a parent or guardian for their co-borrower, but bottom line: it should be someone you trust.

The other option is a secured credit card. With a secured credit card, you agree to hold some of your own money as collateral to the institution, with the credit limit tied to your investment. So, for example, if you agree to lock $500 of your savings into what your institution calls a "hold", then you now have that as a $500 credit line. It basically gives your institution the peace of mind that you – as a new borrower – have something to fall back on in case you default on your payments. The money's still yours, you just can't access it. Then, after say a year or two of you making your payments and building your credit history, you may qualify for a normal, unsecured credit card.

Spending less is key

A full third of your credit score is tied to your capacity – that's your limit tied to the balance you put on your card – so it's important not to let your balance get too high. That means you should use it for small stuff like gas and groceries, then pay it off. So, while a brand new PS5 might sound great, make sure you pay attention to your credit limit before taking the plunge.

Store cards aren't the best

We've all been there: you're standing at checkout trying to buy sneakers or something and the cashier says, "Would you like to sign up for a credit card today and save 10%?" Here's some advice: your answer should always be "no".

That's because store credit cards have rates that normally run over 20%, and that's not even counting fees. They're betting that you can't pay the card off right away and then you'll get nickle and dimed to the point that your 10% off doesn't matter.

Instead, go to your financial institution. You're far more likely to get a better rate.

Rewards matter (and you should use them)

Most credit cards come with rewards, and it's in your best interest to not only find a card with a good program, but that you actually use the rewards. Oftentimes, you can use rewards for merchandise, cash back, even donations if you're feeling philanthropic. Check out your program and shop around for the best deal.

If you're thinking about a credit card or wondering how you can build your credit, reach out and ask. Chances are, if you're reading this, you're already a member, so stop by your local office or give us a call at 800.242.2120.

-Devin M.

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