Why Should Millennials Use Credit Cards?

Millennials concerned about racking up debt may be averse to credit cards, especially if they’ve struggled to use them responsibly. But knowing what credit cards can do for you, and how to use them appropriately, could change your view.

“Credit cards may have a bad reputation, but they actually are great financial planning and money management tools – so long as you use them correctly,” says Paul Golden, managing director of media and communications for the National Endowment for Financial Education. “At an age where you’re likely making and spending money, you should do it in a way that offers perks and protection.”

Credit cards can help you establish or rebuild credit, which can make it possible to take on bigger financial obligations, such as a car loan or mortgage. Of course, credit cards also come in handy during an emergency.

On top of that, credit cards offer better protection against fraud than debit cards. If someone steals your debit card, the thief can access all the money in your checking account until you sort out the situation.

Rewards are another appealing feature of credit cards – for some users, the best feature. There’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of rewards, as long as you’re not going into debt to do so.

Amanda Abella, millennial finance expert and author of “Make Money Your Honey: A Spirited Entrepreneur’s Guide to Having a Love Affair with Work & Money,” knows the potential of credit card rewards well. She has leveraged credit card rewards to build her business, travel for free and even pay the deposit on her apartment.

“If you’re spending money anyway, get something out of it,” Abella says.

Which Card Types Are Best for Millennials?

No single card is a fit for all millennials. The right card for you depends on your credit rating, debt and desire to maximize rewards.

“Both the type of credit card you need and the type of credit card you can qualify for will depend more on your credit habits and history than your age,” says Stefanie O’Connell, a millennial personal finance expert and the author of “The Broke and Beautiful Life.”

Your financial situation influences which type of credit card is a good choice. Here are some options to consider if you are:

Establishing or rebuilding credit: Consider a starter credit card. Some cards are tailored to students and can help users build strong credit histories. Starter cards can be secured – meaning you’ll have to put down a security deposit to open the card – or unsecured. There’s usually not much to be excited about with these cards, as they tend to offer few if any rewards or benefits. But using a starter card responsibly can help you achieve good credit, which can open up offers for better cards.

Cautious about using credit cards but have good credit: Even if you can qualify for some of the best cards on the market, maximizing rewards can be complicated. If you want to keep it simple, a basic cash back credit card with no annual fee is an easy way to earn rewards without worrying too much about the details.

Paying down debt: If you have revolving credit card debt, which is a credit card balance you carry month to month, it’s probably time to take a break from spending on your credit cards. Adding charges only compounds the problem, and interest can make you feel as if you’re just treading water. You can use a balance transfer card to consolidate your debt. If you use one of these cards exclusively for paying down debt, you can hit pause on interest and give yourself time to clear the slate. Balance transfer cards usually offer 0% interest for 12 to 18 months.

Making large purchases: A credit card can help you budget for major purchases without wiping out your savings account. Consider, in particular, credit cards with 0% introductory APR offers. Like balance transfer cards, these give you time to pay off purchases, such as furniture for your home or a wardrobe for your new job, without interest. Just keep in mind that introductory rates don’t last forever, and don’t use the 0% interest to justify spending more than you can really afford. When planning your budget, know how long the introductory period is, and expect to pay the balance in full each month.

Managing your credit well, but you want more rewards: You could benefit from more advanced rewards credit cards. They typically include bonuses for spending in certain categories, such as travel or groceries. That means charges in those groups will earn rewards at a higher rate than general purchases. Cardholder benefits are typically better, too, and may include travel insurance, purchase protection and free checked bags. But to maximize your rewards and benefits, you may want more than one card, and splitting expenses over two or more accounts requires sound financial management skills. It’s easy to lose track of spending if it’s not all in one place.

How Should Millennials Choose a Credit Card?

Understand your spending habits, and think about whether you’ll be able to pay off your balance each month when choosing a card. If you plan to carry a balance, for example, rewards cards aren’t a good choice because paying interest dilutes the value of your rewards. Instead, look into cards with a 0% introductory APR or an ongoing low interest rate, as minimizing interest is more important than earning rewards.

“Don’t get too caught up in being attracted to a credit card solely because of the perks or features they might offer,” Golden says. “Cash back, sign-up bonuses and travel points are very nice benefits to have, but they are not the most important considerations – particularly if you aren’t likely to take advantage of the features.”

Staying on top of payments should be your top priority, Golden says, because making late payments can drag down your credit score more than any other mistake.

Millennials s
hould be aware of fees and penalties and know their card’s interest rate, Golden says. Also, understand how accrued interest affects the price you pay for an item. For example, a $50 pair of jeans could cost $60 if you pay off the purchase over 12 months at 20% interest.

How Should Millennials Use Credit Cards?

Credit card goals for millennials can vary, but some best practices apply to any situation.

Choose the right card for your needs. A mismatched card can be a burden. Maybe you signed up for an airline card with an annual fee, thinking that you’d travel a lot, but you never quite find the time to take a trip using the rewards you’ve earned. If you’re not getting value from a card, downgrade to one that meets your needs. Or, if you’ve been paying your balances in full on a no-frills low-interest card, upgrade to a card that gives you rewards for your spending.

Use the 30% guideline to manage your credit. How you use credit cards can affect other areas of your financial life for better or worse. Paying credit card bills on time is essential to good credit management. Also, keep an eye on your credit utilization, or the amount of credit you’re using compared with your credit limit. Even if you’re paying your bills in full each month, using more than 30% of your available credit could drag down your credit score.

Don’t spend without a plan. Your credit limit is not your budget. “Only charge to your credit cards what you know you can afford to pay off immediately – not next week, not when you get your next paycheck, but when you actually make the purchase,” O’Connell says.

Exercise caution with credit cards. While some consumers use credit cards for every expense possible to maximize rewards, you don’t have to go that far, especially if you’re worried about overspending. Golden suggests charging a few recurring payments, such as your monthly cellphone or utility bills. They’re bills you’d pay anyway, and running them through your credit card can help you build a good repayment history.

Pay off card balances. Unless you’re using a 0% introductory rate card to pay off purchases or debt, you should pay off your balance every month. If you can’t do that, you need to reassess your spending. “Make sure you don’t find yourself in a position where you’re being charged interest, or your balance is more than you can afford to pay off,” O’Connell says.

Take advantage of card perks. If you’ve earned them, use them. Cash back, travel and other rewards can help you save money, but only if you actually redeem them. The same goes for cardholder benefits. For example, if your card offers an auto rental collision damage waiver, you can save at the rental counter, but only if you remember to use your card-provided coverage.

Trust yourself. Acknowledge your limits with credit cards, but give yourself a chance to learn. “You have to start telling yourself, ‘I am capable, I can figure this out,’” Abella says.


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