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A stress-free guide to credit cards: How to use them responsibly

In this guide, Select reviews the terms that every credit cardholder should know and explains how to take advantage of perks, bonuses and rewards.

Good For
Young Professionals
36 min read
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Some of the Capital One offers mentioned below are not currently available.

There are a lot of perks that come with having a credit card, from the convenience of being able to pay for a purchase when you don't have cash to the chance to earn rewards on every dollar you spend.

Having a credit card can also help you build your credit history, which is important if you want to one day apply for a mortgage or personal loan.

While having a credit card can help you improve your credit score, it can also hurt it. It's essential to know how to use a credit card responsibly, spending within your means and paying off your balance in full and on time every month.

Credit cards can come with high interest rates compared to other financial products like personal loans or student loans. And unlike installment loans, which have predictable monthly payments, you must keep track of how much you owe on your card at any given time.

In this guide, we'll review everything you need to know to use your credit card with confidence, including how to get a credit card and how to use it responsibly.

How to read this guide:

Follow along from start to finish, or use the menu to find the section(s) you want to learn more about.

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What is a credit card and how does it work?

A credit card allows you borrow money from a bank under the agreement that you'll repay it by your bill's due date or incur interest charges, known as annual percentage rate, or APR.

These rectangular pieces of plastic or metal can be used to pay for new purchases by swiping, tapping or inserting your card into a card reader at checkout, or entering your credit card number when shopping online.

Some credit cards also come with rewards and promotional offers including welcome bonuses for meeting certain minimum spend requirements. The Wells Fargo Active Cash® Card, for example, offers new cardmembers $200 cash rewards when they spend $500 in purchases within the first three months of card membership. (See rates and fees).

Pros and cons of credit cards

Pros Cons
You can make a purchase now and pay it off at a later date.If you don’t pay your bill in full by the due date, you may incur interest charges and fall into debt.
Credit cards are widely accepted forms of payment.Some merchants may limit what type of credit card networks they accept.
Paying with a credit card is convenient.You’re more likely to overspend with credit cards versus cash or debit cards.
You can build a good credit score by paying on time and keeping a low balance.Maxing out your card or missing payments can cause your credit score to drop.
Many credit cards offer rewards, welcome bonuses and statement credit benefits.You may be tempted to overspend in order to earn rewards or perks.
If your credit card is stolen, you have limited liability ($50 max) from fraudulent charges.Credit cards can be skimmed at gas stations, stolen, hacked online or exposed in data breaches.

When you open a credit card, you receive a credit limit that can range from a couple hundred to thousands of dollars. You'll be able to spend up to that limit.

Most financial institutions allow you to track your credit card spending by logging into your online account or mobile app. When you make a purchase with your card, it will show up as pending on your account and post within a few days. Once the transaction is posted to your account, your total balance will increase. 

Every month, you will receive a bill from your card issuer including of all the posted purchases you made during your billing cycle. In order to keep your account in good standing, you'll need to pay at least the minimum payment  by your due date (which is the same date every month).

Most card issuers offer a grace period, which lets you to pay off your balance interest free within a minimum of 21 days from the end of a billing cycle. Any balance remaining after the grace period will incur interest. If you don't pay at least the minimum, you could also face late fees.

We recommend always paying on time and in full to avoid interest and fees. You'll be charged interest on any amount you don't pay after your grace period, and it can cost you hundreds of dollars over time.

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Types of credit cards

There are thousands of credit cards available to consumers, which can make it hard to settle on just one. You might want to have a few credit cards to meet your different spending needs. Cards with 0% APR are helpful when financing a big purchase and rewards cards offer you the opportunity to earn points or cash back on everything you buy. 

While there are lots of cards to choose from, they generally fall into four categories (and sometimes these categories overlap):

  • Rewards cards
  • Secured cards
  • 0% APR cards
  • Business cards

Rewards cards

Rewards cards, which include cash-back cards, are one of the most popular types of cards because you can earn cash back, points or miles on all your purchases. You'll typically earn at least 1% or 1X back on everything you buy, and the best cards offer three to four times that on a variety of purchases from food delivery and groceries to gas and travel.  The American Express® Gold Card tops our list for best rewards card, earning a competitive 4X points per dollar spent at restaurants and 4X points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per year in purchases, then 1X).

On the American Express secure site

Secured cards

A secured credit card is a great choice for anyone with a low credit score, whether you're just opening a credit card for the first time or rebuilding your credit history. These cards work like an unsecured card but require you to make a deposit (often around $200) in order to receive a line of credit. With some cards, such as the Capital One Platinum Secured Credit Card, some cardholders can open a card with only a $49 or $99 deposit.

0% APR cards

Some credit cards also offer interest-free financing periods of a year or more for new purchases and balance transfers. The best 0% APR cards offer 15-,18- and 20-month long 0% APR periods. For example, the U.S. Bank Visa® Platinum Card offers 0% for the first 18 billing cycles on balance transfers and purchases, then a 18.74% - 29.74% variable APR applies. Balances must be transferred within 60 days from account opening.

U.S. Bank Visa® Platinum Card

See rates and fees. Terms apply.

Information about the U.S. Bank Visa® Platinum Card has been collected independently by Select and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.

See rates and fees. Terms apply.

Business cards

Business owners and anyone who's self-employed can benefit from opening a business card with rewards geared toward common business expenses, such as shipping and travel, as well as intro 0% APR periods. Plus, many of these cards also allow you to open employee cards, which can help you streamline expenses. If you're looking to earn a competitive cash-back rate on all spending, the Capital One Spark Cash for Business offers 2% cash back on every purchase. It also comes with Capital One business benefits, which includes account management tools, such as the ability to download purchase records to Quicken®, QuickBooks® and Excel®.

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Questions to ask before you open a credit card

Before you apply for a credit card, you need to determine why you need one. To make the decision easier, answer the following questions:

  • Do you want to build or rebuild credit?
  • Do you want to earn rewards?
  • Are you in debt and paying high interest?
  • Do you have a big purchase coming up?
  • Do you travel abroad?

Do you want to build or rebuild credit?

If you're just beginning your credit journey, or looking to repair poor credit, it can be a little more difficult to find a card that fits your needs that you'll also qualify for. Check out secured cards or cards for building or rebuilding credit. If you have no credit history, a great choice is the Petal® 2 "Cash Back, No Fees" Visa® Credit Card, which doesn't include many common credit card fees. If you do have credit history, it will be reviewed and considered as part of the application process.

Do you want to earn rewards?

A rewards credit card is a great way to earn cash back, points or miles on every purchase you make. You can maximize rewards by considering cards that offer bonus rewards in specific categories, such as gas, groceries, restaurants, entertainment and travel. If you rather have a simple rewards program, consider a flat-rate cash-back card, such as the Citi® Double Cash Card (see rates and fees).

Are you in debt and paying high interest?

Carrying a balance on a high-interest credit card can be costly. You can transfer debt to a balance transfer credit card offering a 0% intro APR for up to 21 months from date of first transfer, such as the Citi Simplicity® Card (after, 19.24% - 29.99% variable APR; balance transfers must be completed within four months of account opening). There's an introductory balance transfer fee of 3% or $5, whichever is greater for transfers completed within the first 4 months of account opening. After that, your fee will be 5% of each transfer (minimum $5).

Do you have a big purchase coming up?

Some credit cards charge no interest on new purchases for over a year. The Chase Freedom Unlimited® offers 0% intro APR on new purchases and balance transfers for the first 15 months from account opening (after 20.49% - 29.24% variable APR; there's a intro balance transfer fee of $5 or 3% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater in the first 60 days; after that, the ongoing fee will be either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.)

Do you travel abroad?

Some credit cards charge around a 3% fee on purchases made outside the U.S. If you regularly travel abroad, a credit card with no foreign transaction fees is essential. Also, some cards waive Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fees. The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card offers cardholders both perks.

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How to apply for a credit card

Opening a new credit card may seem as simple as applying, but there are a few more factors to consider to ensure you get the best card for your needs. When you're ready to open a card, take the following steps before you submit an application:

  • Check your credit score
  • Compare credit card offers
  • Read the fine print
  • See if you prequalify
  • Submit the application

Check your credit score

Many card issuers are transparent about the credit score requirements needed to qualify for certain cards. It's important to know your credit score so you know which cards you have the best chances of qualifying for.

Thankfully, there are numerous resources available for you to check your credit score for free, such as Discover Credit Scorecard and CreditWise from Capital One.

Compare credit card offers

When you're ready to shop around for offers, compare several credit cards so you know what's available. You can start by checking out Select's roundup of the best credit cards, which includes our top cards for a variety of categories, including balance transfers, no annual fee, travel and college students.

We also have side-by-side comparisons of popular cards:

Compare the rewards, fees, perks and credit requirements to see which card is best for your needs.

Read the fine print

When you've which credit card you want, make sure you read the fine print before applying. It's important you review the details specific to the card you want to apply for.

Make sure you understand all the terms and conditions before submitting an application. Review the annual fee and interest rates for purchases, balance transfers, cash advances and penalties. Plus, be aware of any fees charged for foreign transactions and late payments.

See if you prequalify

Most major credit card issuers allow you to submit preapproval forms on their websites. These forms require your name, address and the last four digits of your social security number. With this information, the issuer will perform a soft inquiry of your credit history and check if you are a good candidate for the card.

Preapproval, or prequalification, won't have any impact on your credit score. Once you formally apply and the issuer does a hard inquiry, you'll see a small ding on your report (usually within five points). Prequalification is a way to limit those hard inquiries, or hard pulls, so you're only applying for cards you're likely to get approved for.

Even if you've prequalified for a credit card, you're not guaranteed approval when you submit your official application.

Here are some issuers that allow you to check if you prequalify:

  • American Express
  • Bank of America
  • Capital One
  • Chase
  • Citi
  • Discover

When you submit a prequalification form, you may see that you're a candidate for several cards from that issuer. For instance, your results could say you have high approval odds for the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express and the American Express® Gold Card.

Once you see your options, you can choose which card to apply for based on your own personal spending needs and preferences.

Submit the application

Once you've settled on the best credit card for your needs, you can submit an application. The quickest way to do this is online (whether it's on a laptop or via a mobile device). You also have the option to call, go in-person to a bank or send in a paper application.

The application process is similar between issuers, and you'll typically be required to provide your name, address, date of birth, social security number, annual income and employment status.

After you submit an application, you can receive a decision in as little as 60 seconds, but it may take longer. If you're instantly approved, expect to receive your card within the next two weeks. Some card issuers, such as American Express, may provide an instant card number that you can use for online transactions right away.

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Understanding credit card rewards, perks and bonuses

Earning rewards is one of the biggest perks of using a credit card, but it can also be confusing to navigate the different offers. Credit cards typically provide one of three reward structures: cash back, points or miles.

Each type of rewards program works a bit differently and often comes with its own quirks. Card issuers frequently market credit cards with generous welcome bonuses or introductory financing periods, but there are other rewards and perks you may want to take advantage of, especially if you're paying a high annual fee. 

Here are the various kinds of rewards, perks and bonuses:

  • Cash back
  • Rewards points
  • Airline miles
  • Welcome bonus
  • Exclusive dining and entertainment perks
  • Other perks

Cash back

Cash-back cards offer cardholders a percentage of their spending back, and there are essentially three types: 1) flat-rate, 2) bonus categories and 3) rotating categories. 

Flat-rate cash-back cards offer the same amount of cash back on every purchase, which is good for consumers looking for a simple rewards program that requires minimal effort. For example, with the Citi® Double Cash Card, one of our top picks for cash-back credit cards, you earn 2% on eligible purchases (1% when you buy and 1% when you pay your bill). A $100 purchase effectively earns you $2 cash back.

Many cash-back cards offer bonus cash back in certain categories, such as grocery stores, travel, gas stations and entertainment. Sometimes, cash back in the bonus categories is limited to a certain amount of spending each year, but it can also be unlimited.

The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express is a bonus category cash-back card. It offers strong rewards rates for spending on groceries and streaming entertainment: You can earn 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%), 6% cash back on select U.S. streaming subscriptions, 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations, 3% cash back on transit including taxis/rideshare, parking, tolls, trains and buses and 1% cash back on other purchases.

Other cash-back cards offer 5% cash back in select categories that rotate throughout the year (typically changing each quarter). Common categories include restaurants, gas stations and grocery stores. These cards are popular among consumers looking to maximize rewards.

The Chase Freedom®, for example, offers 5% cash back in rotating categories on up to $1,500 in combined purchases after you activate the bonus every quarter. After you reach the limit, it's 1% on all purchases.

Cash-back cards are the most straightforward type of rewards card and don't require a ton of effort to collect and redeem your rewards

On the American Express secure site

See rates and fees, terms apply.


Instead of giving cardholders a percentage of their spending back in cash back, some rewards cards offer one point or more for each dollar spent. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card offers Ultimate Rewards® points, whereas the American Express® Gold Card offers Membership Rewards® points.

These cards are very similar to cash-back cards in that you can earn more rewards in certain bonus categories. The Chase Sapphire Reserve®, for example, 5X points on air travel and 10X total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® (immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually); offers 3X points on dining and travel (immediately after earning your $300 travel credit) and 1X points on all other purchases. 

Points cards give cardholders more redemption options than cash-back cards, but you may have to put in some effort to find the best deals.

For instance, points earned with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card are worth 25% more when redeemed for travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards® portal, so 60,000 points would be worth $750. However, if you redeem for gift cards, statement credits or other options, the value of a point varies. You have to crunch the numbers when you're ready to redeem to make sure you're optimizing your rewards.

On Chase's secure site

Airline miles

Another type of reward offered by credit cards is airline miles. These types of cards can be broken down into two categories: co-branded airline cards and travel rewards cards.

Co-branded airline cards, like the Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card, offer miles as part of the brand's unique membership rewards program. You can use your Delta SkyMiles card anywhere Amex credit cards are accepted, but there are some limitations on how you can cash in your miles: Use your rewards for Delta-related purchases, such as plane tickets or in-flight purchases and upgrades, or put them toward exclusive hotels and experiences curated by Delta Vacations and official travel partners.

Some top-notch travel rewards cards also offer rewards in the form of miles, but they tend to offer a bit more flexibility. For example, miles earned with the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card are each worth one cent when redeemed for statement credits to cover nearly every kind of travel purchase, and there's also the option to transfer miles to other airline loyalty programs. You can also redeem your miles for gift cards, Amazon purchases, merchandise and statement credits, but you typically won't get the same 1:1 redemption rate.

On the American Express secure site

See rates and fees, terms apply.

Welcome bonus

Many credit cards offer a welcome bonus giving new cardholders the opportunity to earn extra rewards, such as cash back, points or miles. To earn the bonus, you usually have to reach a minimum spending requirement within the first few months of opening your account. The threshold varies, but it can be anywhere from $500 to $5,000.

Cash-back cards usually have the lowest minimum spend with the best return rates, while travel rewards cards typically offer larger bonuses but have much higher spending limits requirements. Then there are the few cards, like the Prime Visa, which automatically gives you a welcome bonus of a $100 Amazon.com gift card upon account approval — no spending required.

Prime Visa

Terms apply.

Terms apply.

Exclusive dining and entertainment perks

Many card issuers and networks also provide access to exclusive dining and entertainment experiences, from festivals and workshops to intimate dinners. To take advantage of these benefits, you simply need to be a cardholder.

Below are just some of the dining experiences available to you depending on what kind of card you have:

  • American Express: There are several different types of food-related perks for Amex cardholders, from exclusive experiences at festivals to special access to reservations with the Global Dining Collection (exclusively for The Platinum Card® from American Express and Centurion® members). Cardholders can also benefit from perks such as tickets to see the Eagles and Blake Shelton, with the Amex entertainment access benefit. And as the official card of Ticketmaster, Amex cardholders can access premium seating and presales at many events. Plus, there are special By Invitation Only® events exclusively for The Platinum Card® and Centurion® members. 
  • Capital One: Cardholders can take advantage of premier culinary experiences and events such as the New York City Wine & Food Festival and the iHeartRadio Music Festival. Plus cardholders can book premium reservations using OpenTable. Take advantage of exclusive access to various music events, such as the iHeartRadio Jingle Ball and Taylor Swift's tour. You can benefit from VIP packages, on-site cardholder lounges and more.
  • Citi: With Citi Entertainment, cardholders can enjoy food festivals and dinners, such as the Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival and No Kid Hungry Dinners. The Citi Entertainment benefit provides early access and special perks at music, theater, dining and sports events, such as Keith Urban in Las Vegas, Broadway shows and the Basketball Hall of Fame showcase.
  • Chase: Cardholders recently benefited from early ticket access to Food Lab Remixed, which hosts weekly cocktail parties. Sapphire cardholders can enjoy the Private Dining Series, which provides access to private dinners at some of the most buzzed about restaurants across the countryWith Chase Experiences, you can benefit from premier event access to concerts, shows, sports and dining events. Plus enjoy special offers at select venues including food, beverage and merchandise discounts and Chase Lounge access, when available.
  • Mastercard: If you have a Mastercard — regardless of the bank that issued your card — you can take advantage of Priceless culinary experiences. Recently Mastercard has recreated several restaurants from around the world for cardholders to experience in New York. Cards with the Mastercard logo receive access to Priceless, which provides various entertainment events from art and culture experiences, such as a show at Carnegie Hall, to early access to Off-Broadway two-for-one tickets, MLB games and much more.

Other Perks

Your credit card probably has other perks depending on the card network it's part of. Both Visa and Mastercard offer tiered benefits that can help you out in a pinch. These perks vary between card issuers and card network, so be sure to check your terms and agreements or call customer service to learn exactly what comes with your card.

Extra credit card perks include (but are not limited to): 

  • Emergency card replacement and emergency cash disbursement: Get assistance for reporting a lost or stolen card, getting a replacement card within one to three business days and cash to be available at a location near you typically within hours of your bank's approval.
  • Auto rental collision damage waiver: If your eligible rental car is damaged or stolen, you may receive coverage. You need to decline the rental company's collision damage waiver to activate this coverage.
  • Zero liability protection: You won't be held responsible for any unauthorized purchases made with your credit card, waiving the $50 maximum liability under the Fair Credit Billing Act.
  • Roadside dispatch: If you have a flat tire, need a jump start or are locked out of your car, Visa will assist you in arranging help from a local service provider at a pre-negotiated rate.
  • Cell phone protection: If you drop your phone or it's stolen, you may get reimbursed for the damage after paying a $50 deductible. (Check out Select's list of the best credit cards with cell phone protection.)
  • Purchase protections: You may receive reimbursement for purchases that drop in price or added protections like extended warranties or insurance for stolen items.
  • Airport lounge access: Complimentary Priority Pass membership with VIP access at over 850 airport lounges worldwide.
  • Global Entry statement credit: Receive up to a $100 statement credit for the Global Entry application fee cost, typically once every four years, but it varies by issuer.
  • Airline fee credit: Some cards may offer an annual credit to cover airline incidentals, such as checked-luggage fees, in-flight food and more.
  • Baggage delay insurance: If your checked baggage is delayed or misdirected for over four hours, you can be reimbursed for necessities you buy, up to $300.
  • Lost luggage reimbursement: If your luggage is lost or stolen, you may receive reimbursement for your checked luggage or carry-on baggage when you pay for the airline or common carrier ticket with your card.
  • Travel and emergency assistance services: When you're traveling anywhere in the world, you'll have 24/7 access to multilingual representatives who can answer questions that may arise and provide referrals to various services, such as medical referral assistance, emergency transportation service and lost luggage assistance. You're responsible for the cost of any services.
  • Trip delay reimbursement, cancellation and trip interruption insurance:: If your trip is delayed you could receive reimbursement for the costs. Or, if you need to cancel or shorten a trip, this benefit can help reimburse you for the non-refundable cost of an airline, ferry, rail, bus or cruise ship ticket.
  • Concierge services: This complimentary service provides representatives who can help with travel needs, purchasing a gift, booking a reservation and more.
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Credit card terms you should know

There are dozens of credit card terms that are helpful to know so you can understand fully how your credit card works. Here are 16 definitions to get your started:

  • Annual fee: The fee cardholders are charged every year for holding a credit card. Not all cards come with an annual fee.
  • APRThe interest rate you are charged on your statement balance if it's not paid off before the grace period ends.
  • Balance transfer APR: The interest rate for balance transfers, which may be equal to or greater than the purchase APR.
  • Balance transfer fee: Transferring debt from one card to another may cost you 3% to 5% of the total amount of debt you're transferring.
  • Billing cycle: The length of time between your last statement closing date and the next, typically 28 to 31 days. 
  • Cash advance APRThe interest rate you incur if you take out a cash advance, which is often one of the highest APRs you can be charged
  • Cash advance fee: The fee you're charged for each cash advance, usually 5% of the amount you withdraw.
  • Credit line: The amount of money you can charge on your credit card, which can range from $200 to several thousand dollars.
  • Credit utilization rate: The percentage of your total credit line you're using (also known as your debt-to-credit ratio)
  • Foreign transaction fee: Purchases made outside the U.S. may incur a fee per transaction, usually 3% of the transaction amount
  • Grace period: The period of time between the end of a billing cycle and when your bill is due, a minimum of 21 days
  • Late payment feeWhen you pay your credit card bill late, you may incur a fee up to $40
  • Minimum payment: The smallest amount of money you have to pay each month to keep your account current
  • Penalty APRWhen you pay late, card issuers may penalize you with an interest rate that's higher than your regular APR
  • Purchase APR: The interest rate you incur for new purchases that aren't paid in full every billing cycle
  • Statement balance: The total amount of all the charges you've made with your credit card that have posted by the day your billing cycle ends.
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How to safely use a credit card

While credit cards are one of the safest forms of payment, it's also easy to fall victim to credit card fraud. There are easy steps you can take to stay vigilant to make sure your card isn't stolen, and as well as what to do if your card is compromised.

How to prevent credit card fraud

The easiest way to protect your credit card is to regularly check your account balance and transactions. Most issuers allow you to turn on notification so you can be alerted by text or email anytime someone swipes your card, makes a purchase online, or spends over a certain amount.

When shopping online, you may be tempted to click on social media ads on Instagram or Facebook, but you should do so sparingly. Ads boasting limited-time offers or large discounts may not always be from a reliable site. Before clicking on any ad — whether it's via your smartphone or laptop — you should verify the source.

Another way to prevent credit card fraud from phishing scams is by using a virtual card number for online shopping. Right now, there are only two card issuers that offer virtual card numbers: Capital One and Citi.

Using Eno®, Capital One's intelligent assistant portal, you can create unique virtual card numbers that are linked to your eligible Capital One credit cards. Likewise, Citi allows select cardmembers to create a different virtual number for every website they shop.

For instance, if you used a virtual number to shop with your Capital One Venture card, you'd enter a decoy number that links back to your credit card account. This way, phishers and other fraudsters can't access your real card number. And in case someone does manage to steal your virtual number, you can simply get a new one without having to replace your physical card.

What to do if your credit card is stolen

There are five steps you should immediately take if you think your credit card has been stolen:

  1. Contact your credit card issuer
  2. Change your login information
  3. Monitor your credit card statement
  4. Review your credit report and dispute any fraud on it
  5. Protect yourself from future credit card fraud

What is $0 fraud liability

Under the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA), you can only be held liable for up to a maximum of $50 in the event of fraudulent charges on your credit card account, as long as you report it within 60 days. However, a number of major issuers, including American Express and Chase, guarantee zero liability with the caveat that you have to act quickly when something's not right.

Reasonable protective measures include:

  1. Contacting your card issuer as soon as you realize your card or device on which your account information has been added has been lost or stolen (or if you haven't received a new renewal card in the mail after more than 10 business days)
  2. Advising your card issuer if you suspect that your account is being misused
  3. Protecting your personal information and security codes from others, including your family and close friends
  4. Practice safe computing (e.g. use encryption, virus scanning software, firewall, anti-spyware software and other similar safeguards)

How credit monitoring services work

Credit monitoring services can provide you with early notice of potential fraud on your credit report, so you can take steps to protect your personal information. While these services can't actually prevent identity theft, they can keep you informed so you can take action if you notice something is wrong. 

Credit monitoring services flag new activity, including:

  • Hard inquiries on your credit report, such as someone applying for credit in your name
  • New accounts opened in your name
  • Balances and payments on your credit products
  • New address or name changes to your credit file
  • Public records, such as bankruptcies
  • Personal information on the dark web, such as your social security number, email address and passwords

When you sign up for credit monitoring, you'll receive alerts and resources to help you identify and protect against possible theft, but these services can't actually guarantee fraud prevention. At best, they keep you instantly informed so you can take action as you notice something is off. 

IdentityForce® tops our list of best credit monitoring services. Both IdentityForce® UltraSecure and UltraSecure+Credit offer the most extensive security features that monitor your information on a variety of sites and services, including the dark web, court records and even social media. You receive alerts for potential fraud on your bank, credit card and investment accounts, as well as the use of your medical ID, social security number and address.

IdentityForce® UltraSecure and UltraSecure+Credit

See our methodology, terms apply. To learn more about IdentityForce®, visit their website or call 855-979-1118. 

On Identity Force's secure site

See our methodology, terms apply. To learn more about IdentityForce®, visit their website or call 855-979-1118. 

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How to responsibly manage your first credit card

Simply opening a credit card doesn't instantly improve your credit score — you actually have to use it. But until you feel confident in balancing all of your financial obligations, start small by using your credit card conservatively and checking your credit card statement regularly so you can track your spending. 

If you're using your credit card for everyday spending, try to charge no more than 10% to 30% of your credit limit on your card at one time. For instance, if your card has a $500 limit, try not to spend more than $150 each month. This will keep your debt-to-credit ratio low (the second-most factor in determining your credit score) and helps you get in the habit of only spending what you can afford to pay off each month.

Most important: Pay your bills on time. Making consistent, timely payments has the biggest impact on your score. Lenders are more willing to give you credit when they see a long history of on-time payments on your credit report. When you open your first credit card, it's really important to start out practicing good financial habits: spending within your means and paying your bill on time and in full so that you never get dinged with over-the-limit fees or have to pay interest on the balance.

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What not to charge on your credit card

When deciding what you should charge on your credit card, consider treating your credit card like you would cash. Make it a habit to check your balance regularly, just as you would a debit card, so you avoid overspending. While some people like to use their credit cards for everyday purchases, others like to use it more sparingly. However you decide to use it, try to avoid putting these five charges on your credit card:

  • Your monthly rent or mortgage payment
  • A large purchase that will wipe out available credit
  • Taxes
  • Medical bills
  • Small impulse splurges

Your monthly rent or mortgage payment

Even though credit cards are convenient, you shouldn't charge your monthly rent or mortgage payments because the processing fees are typically around 2% to 3%. Even with a good cash-back card, you likely won't earn enough rewards to offset the cost of the processing fees.

A large purchase that will wipe out available credit

It might be tempting to charge a large purchase to your credit card, especially if you're looking to earn a big sign-up bonus. But you should never take on debt that you don't have a clear plan to pay off. A rewards bonus is often a good way to earn a lot of points, but it's not worth it if you're paying a high interest rate on the debt.

When a large purchase lingers of your credit card balance, you'll not only be hit with interest, but you'll also wipe out your available credit limit. Your credit utilization rate is a very important factor in determining your credit score, and if one or more of your cards is maxed out, you'll likely see a dip in your score.

If you do need to make a large purchase you can't afford to pay off right away, consider opening a 0% interest credit card. Make sure you create a plan to pay off the balance within the introductory period, so you're not hit with high interest charges later.


You can pay taxes with a credit card, but in most cases you probably shouldn't. Unlike using a bank account transfer, credit card payments aren't free. You'll wind up incurring a fee that's a percentage of your tax payment.

This fee will vary by the payment processor, but they can range from 1.87% to 3.93%.

Medical bills

Charging unexpected medical debt on a credit card may seem like a quick fix, but it can cost you more if you're unable to pay off the full amount right away.

Many doctor's offices and hospitals will work with you to set up a payment plan, if you can't afford your bill.

It's also important to have an emergency savings account, to help you cover unexpected expenses. Financial experts recommend setting aside money in a high-yield savings account. You only need to save $20 per week to stash away $1,000 in a year

Small impulse splurges

It's not always the big purchases that can set you back, but the seemingly insignificant ones as well. While it can be convenient to charge everyday purchases to your credit card (not to mention a great way to add rewards points), it's really important to make sure you're only buying what you can afford to pay off. 

A $50 dinner might not seem like a big deal, but these kinds of small purchases can add up quick and if you can't afford to pay them off, you'll end up paying more in the long run. For example, a balance of $1,400 would take 25 months, or over two years, to pay it off with a monthly payment of $70. And depending on your APR, you could easily spend over $300 on interest. No doubt there's better ways you could be spending that money.

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Bottom line

Using a credit card is very easy, but you need to establish good financial habits as soon as you open your first card. Always strive to spend within your means and pay your balance off each month on time and in full. 

The benefit of having a credit card are plentiful: It offers more fraud protection than debit cards, gives you the opportunity to earn rewards and take advantage of special cardmember perks, and some cards even offer special financing programs so you can pay for big purchases over time. 

And of course, credit cards help you establish a credit score so you can qualify for the best loan and credit products at the best interest rates.

Simply put, credit cards can be both convenient and beneficial when used responsibly. It's important to familiarize yourself with how credit cards work so that you can stay on top of your spending and feel confident in your ability to manage your finances.

Our credit card methodology

To determine which credit cards offer the best value, Select analyzed 234 of the most popular credit cards available in the U.S. We compared each card on a range of features, including rewards, welcome bonus, introductory and standard APR, balance transfer fee and foreign transaction fees, as well as factors such as required credit and customer reviews when available. We also considered additional perks, the application process and how easy it is for the consumer to redeem points.

Select teamed up with location intelligence firm Esri. The company's data development team provided the most up-to-date and comprehensive consumer spending data based on the 2019 Consumer Expenditure Surveys from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. You can read more about their methodology here.

Esri's data team created a sample annual budget of approximately $22,126 in retail spending. The budget includes six main categories: groceries ($5,174), gas ($2,218), dining out ($3,675), travel ($2,244), utilities ($4,862) and general purchases ($3,953). General purchases include items such as housekeeping supplies, clothing, personal care products, prescription drugs and vitamins, and other vehicle expenses.

Select used this budget to estimate how much the average consumer would save over the course of a year, two years and five years, assuming they would attempt to maximize their rewards potential by earning all welcome bonuses offered and using the card for all applicable purchases. All rewards total estimations are net the annual fee.

While the five-year estimates we've included are derived from a budget similar to the average American's spending, you may earn a higher or lower return depending on your shopping habits.

Our credit monitoring methodology

To determine which credit monitoring services offer the most benefits to consumers, Select analyzed and compared 12 services that offer a variety of free and paid plans.

When ranking the best free credit monitoring services, we focused on the following features:

  • Number of credit bureaus monitored: Services that monitor credit reports from more than one credit bureau were ranked higher since it's rare for free services to monitor several reports.
  • The credit scoring model used: If users receive updated FICO Scores, the service was ranked higher since lenders use FICO Scores in roughly 90% of lending decisions. We found that the majority of free services use VantageScore.
  • Dark web scanning: If the service checks the dark web for your name, social security number, address and other personal information, it was ranked higher.

When ranking the best paid credit monitoring services, we focused on the following features:

  • Cost: Lower cost services that offered more benefits ranked higher in our reviews.
  • Number of credit bureaus monitored: Services that monitored credit reports from all three credit bureaus, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion, were ranked higher because they offer more holistic coverage.
  • The credit scoring model used: Services offering FICO Scores were ranked higher since lenders FICO Scores are more widely used in lending decisions compared to VantageScores.
  • Dark web scanning: If your name, social security number, address and other personal information is monitored on the dark web, since it's hard to monitor this on your own.
  • Identity theft insurance: We considered whether the paid services offered identity theft insurance and looked at the amount you're covered up to. We found that the best services offer up to $1 million for eligible expenses associated with resolving and restoring your identity.

Keep in mind that credit monitoring services can only alert you of changes to your credit file, not fix or prevent any errors.

Information about the Prime Visa, Chase Freedom®, Capital One Spark Cash for Business, Citi Simplicity® Card has been collected independently by Select and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication. If you purchase something through Select links for the Prime Visa, we may earn a commission.

Petal 2 Visa Credit Card issued by WebBank.

To learn more about IdentityForce®, visit their website or call 855-979-1118.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.