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Credit cards can either be essential to your financial success or detrimental to it. You need one to help build a credit history and improve your credit score, but it can be all too easy for some to rack up debt and get overwhelmed by high interest charges.
As premium credit cards become more accessible to the average consumer, shoppers everywhere must learn how manage their credit cards well. To get the most from your card, you'll want to know exactly what terms you agreed to, follow a strategy to get the most out of your points and remember to pay your balance on time and in full each month.
And if you aren't sure how to keep track of this information, or you find yourself transferring credit card debt from one account to another but have no plan to pay it off, you might fall prey to a few common mistakes and wind up using your credit card in all the wrong ways.
Though life is unpredictable and you may need to rely on your credit card in a pinch, there are many factors that are within your control. Below, CNBC Select speaks with Leslie H. Tayne, a debt-relief attorney and founder of Tayne Law Group, to learn what are the most common credit card mistakes and why you should avoid using your credit card in these 8 situations:
With credit card debt at an all time high, it's wise to think twice before swiping your card. "If you can pay your balance in full each month, or you've budgeted to pay it off over time, using a credit card for purchases can be a great way to earn rewards on your purchases and build credit," Tayne tells CNBC Select.
But if you maintain a revolving balance on your accounts, the sky-high interest rates will always negate your rewards and propel you into "a cycle of debt that can be difficult, lengthy and expensive to get out of," she says.
If you find yourself in this situation, using a no-fee balance transfer card like the The Amex EveryDay® Credit Card can help you pay off your balance over a period of 15 months with 0% promotional financing (then 12.99% to 23.99% variable APR). This can save you lots on interest, but once you transfer your balance, you'll need to remain disciplined so as not to charge new debt on your existing card all over again.
If you're worried that closing your account might ding your credit score, simply "leaving the card at home can be a great strategy," says Tayne. Some issuers will close accounts due to inactivity, so it's not a bad idea to put a small recurring purchase on your credit card (like your Netflix subscription) and set it to autopay each month so you don't forget to pay it.
"Don't swipe if you aren't sure what your account balance is," says Tayne. "While most lenders have removed over-the-limit fees from their cards, that doesn't mean you should spend up to or over your spending limit. Utilizing 100% of your available credit can lower your credit score and make you look like a riskier borrower."
Experts recommend that you spend, at maximum, no more than 30% of your available credit. That's one of the most important factors in achieving a good credit score.
When deciding between using credit, debit or cash, it seems obvious to choose credit cards for the cash back and rewards. Some people even choose to pay their mortgage or rent with a credit card — but you must be careful.
Before paying any bill — whether your utilities, rent, mortgage or medical bills — always make sure that there are no fees for using a credit card. More often than not, there is a 2-3% processing fee that can negate any rewards you might earn. In this case, it's best to use an alternative form of payment, like a check or a debit card.
When you're about to make an exceptionally large purchase at a retail store or in the doctor's office, you might be presented with the option to apply for a store credit card or a medical credit card. If you're feeling strapped for cash, especially if the expense arose due to a medical emergency or an unexpected broken appliance, these cards may seem like your only option. And in many cases, they seem even more alluring because they come with a 0% promotional financing period.
But think twice. Fear makes consumers act impulsively, and adding pressure to the situation only makes things worse. Before signing up for a new credit card, thus adding a new inquiry to your credit history, you should stop and think whether it actually makes sense to use a store or medical credit card.
Read the fine print and ask whether the promotional financing comes with deferred interest. And if you're in a medical office, ask about other payment plans.
You should also ask whether the cards carry an annual fee.
"The Best Buy store card, for example, can be a good deal if you know you have decent credit and can pay off the balance before the promotional period ends," Tayne explains. "But if you apply for the card and have poor credit, you could be stuck with an annual fee of $59 just for having the card open."
In the ideal world, you'll have a little time to do some planning and open a 0% APR credit card to finance your large expense over a period of several months. That way, once you've paid off your balance, you can use the credit card for everyday purchases, unlike a medical or store card, which usually have limitations on where you can swipe them.
The BankAmericard® credit card offers no interest for the first 18 billing cycles on purchases and balance transfers made within 60 days of opening your account (then 14.49% to 24.49% variable APR), and there is no annual fee.
Just as you shouldn't go grocery shopping when you're hungry, you should stay away from the plastic if you are experiencing any range of strong emotions.
"It's never a good idea to use your credit card when experiencing strong emotions, especially if you tend to steer toward 'retail therapy,'" says Tayne.
"While you could argue that shopping makes you feel better when you're upset, receiving your credit card statement in the mail will likely cause similar negative feelings that caused you to go shopping in the first place.
"During a period of heightened emotions, instead of reaching for your wallet, take a step back," Tayne says. "Take a deep breath and recognize your spending triggers. Go for a walk or call a friend instead of going shopping."
It's a good idea to never give your credit card away to sources you don't trust, including over phone or email, particularly in public areas using unsecured Wi-Fi. Using a virtual private network, or a VPN, is a way to protect yourself if you work remotely or travel a lot for business.
You should also be wary of writing your credit card information on paper forms, such as donation envelopes or subscription forms, when there is an alternative option. And on the internet, don't click on advertisements without verifying the source; better yet try finding the original website rather than trust an ad to lead you there.
Fraudsters are always on the lookout for new ways to scrape personal information from financial transactions. If you use your credit card in some way that is outside of your routine, be sure to look at your statement within 24 hours or so to make sure there are no mysterious transactions.
But despite these threats, having a credit card with $0 fraud liability protection is actually one instance in which a credit card is much safer than a debit card, so long as you check your accounts regularly and remain vigilant about suspicious activity.
Chase is known for its excellent fraud protection for travel cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® and cash-back cards like the Chase Freedom®. Like many card issuers, Chase guarantees no liability for fraudulent activity, conducts 24/7 fraud monitoring on your account and gives you the ability to temporarily lock and unlock your account if you misplace your card. You can also activate account alerts for any transaction that's made, and credit score monitoring is complimentary so you can stay on top of any activity that's reported to the credit bureaus.
If you're applying for a mortgage or other loan products, it's best to be conservative with your credit card. "The debt shown on your credit report will increase, thereby reducing your score and available credit while increasing your debt and liabilities," Tayne explains.
Most credit cards allow for a cash advance, meaning you can take out cash against your total credit limit when you need it. But it's not advisable, says Tayne.
"The interest rate on cash advances is typically higher than the purchase APR, not to mention the cash advance fees on top of the higher interest rate," Tayne tells CNBC Select. "For the same reason, it's also not advisable to use your credit card for large purchases outside of a promotional offer, because interest fees can end up costing you more than the original amount charged after the balance is paid off."
It starts with a little planning, Tayne explains. "Take any current or upcoming financial events into consideration when making a purchasing decision. Determine how your credit will be impacted by the use of the card and by how much."
And if you share finances with your significant other, Tayne advises you to talk to your partner before making a large purchase on your credit card. Accountability and communication can go a long way to interrupt old habits.
"You can also use virtual tools provided by your credit card issuer, such as Bank of America's Erica," Tayne tells CNBC Select. "You can see at a glance what your current balance is, as well as a weekly snapshot of your month-to-date spending, allowing you to quickly know if you have the resources to pay off the debt that you're about to incur."
Erica is available for primary Bank of America cardholders, including those who have the Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card, the Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card, and the Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card.
Finally, if you think that you'll be in a tempting situation to use your credit card, leaving the card at home can be a great strategy to avoid spending.
"You'll likely discover that most of the "needs" on the list are wants," says Tayne. In addition, waiting it out may motivate you to compare prices online or plug major purchases into an interest rate calculator to see how much you're really going to pay if you put it on plastic.
If you've used your credit card in one of these eight scenarios, you aren't alone. Most consumers have, at one time or another, made a common credit card mistake or error when redeeming their rewards.
If these apply to you, it's important to keep the bigger picture in perspective. Rather than fixate on what you've done wrong in the past, simply focus on making different choices in the future. And if you have an existing credit card balance you need to pay off, using a 0% interest credit card to do a balance transfer is one of the most common ways to get out of debt. Options like the Discover it® Balance Transfer, with 0% APR for the first 18 months for balance transfers (then 13.49% to 24.49% variable APR), could save you significantly and put you back in control.
Information about the Discover cards, Chase Freedom®, BankAmericard® credit card, Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card, Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card, Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card, and Amex EveryDay® Credit Card has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.
For rates and fees of the Amex EveryDay® Credit Card, click here.