Applying for your first credit card can seem pretty darn exciting. Who wouldn’t want access to free money after all? As we grow up, we watch as our parents and other adults hand over their credit cards to pay for everything from the weekly food shop to weekend getaways. But by putting everything on plastic – even if those adults are being responsible and paying off their balance each month – it’s all too easy to create a disconnect between credit cards and ‘real money’.
Our lack of knowledge about credit cards and how they work – combined with the fact that when we first apply we are typically taking our first steps towards independence, living by ourselves and finding our freedom – can lead to some nasty mistakes. And while some of those mistakes can be rectified easily enough – often with financial assistance from the Bank of Mum & Dad – others can be long-lasting and much more serious.
So, what can we do about it? If you’re thinking about applying for your first credit card, one of the most important things you can do is educate yourself. Helping you to understand what to do – as well as what not to do – we’ve put together our top seven tips for first time credit cardholders, based on the most common mistakes people make when they first start flexing their own plastic.
Want to get the most out of your first credit card while avoiding common pitfalls? This is the place to be.
When you apply for a credit card, your card provider will assign you a credit limit. This limit will be based on a number of factors, including your credit history, your employment status and your income. For most first-time credit cardholders with limited credit history, their credit limit will typically be quite low, ranging from $500 to $1,000.
Regardless of how high or low that limit is, it’s important to remember that just because it’s there, doesn’t mean you have to spend it. When we first get a credit card, that notion of having ‘free money’ often encourages us to spend, giving us permission to spend even if we know we can’t pay it all back. However, this can lead to some serious problems if spending keeps stacking up.
How Does A Credit Card Work?
When you make a purchase on your credit card, that purchase is added to your balance. Most cards offer a grace period, in which purchases do not start accumulating interest until a week or so after the statement period ends and the monthly payment is due.
As long as you pay off the entire balance by the due date, you can avoid paying interest on your purchases. However, if you only pay off part of your balance, your purchases will start accruing interest at the card’s purchase rate. Not only that, any new purchases you make will also start accruing interest from the day you make them.
So, if you start spending on your new credit card, making purchases here and there without being able to pay them all off at the end of the month, they will start stacking up and attracting interest. This can make it hard to clear your balance, as you have to pay off what you owe, plus interest. And, if you chose a card with a high purchase rate, that battle becomes even harder.
Instead of thinking of your credit limit as ‘free money’, consider each purchase before you make it. Unless you know you can pay off those purchases at the end of the month, don’t make them. So, put that that MAC lipstick back on the shelf and remove that PS4 game from your cart. If you don’t have the money to cover it, your credit card should stay firmly in your wallet.
If you’re having trouble with overspending, a spend tracker app could help. Using this in conjunction with your banking app, you’ll be able to track your spending while keeping tabs on how much you have available to spend. You could also create a budget so you know exactly how much you can afford to spend on extras, letting you splurge when you can afford it.
Some credit cards are more exciting than others. While some simply offer access to credit, others offer the opportunity to earn rewards while accessing enticing features such as airport lounge passes, VIP event invitations and hotel stays. You want the more exciting option, right? Unfortunately, while they may seem appealing, these higher end cards don’t typically suit first-time cardholders.
One thing many first-time cardholders are drawn to is rewards. In an ideal world, rewards cards would work for everyone. They would let you earn heaps of incredible rewards simply for spending on your card. In the real world, however, rewards don’t come for free – and they don’t usually suit smaller spenders.
With a rewards card, you will pay an annual fee. If this annual fee is $90, you would have to earn rewards worth more than $90 each year just to make it worth your while. If your card provides rewards equal to 1% of your spending, your annual spend would need to be $9,000 just to break even. And, if you ever carry a balance on your card and pay interest, you would have to work even harder to see any value from your rewards.
Rewards cards tend to work best for cardholders who channel a large spend through their card, and then pay it all off at the end of each month. As a first-time cardholder, it might take some time before you are able to do that, so in the meantime, it would be best to stick to a simple, no frills card that helps you keep costs down.
Credit Cards For First-time Cardholders
Low Interest Credit Cards: With a low purchase rate, these cards can make it easier if you overspend and need some time to pay off your balance.
No Annual Fee Credit Cards: With no annual fee, this type of card can sit in your wallet until you’re ready to use it. You don’t have to pay to keep it there, and it can help you get the hang of credit while keeping features simple. Take note of the purchase rate on these cards, however, as they it may be higher than you’d expect.
Low Income Credit Cards: These cards have a lower minimum income requirement, making it easier for first-time applicants with a lower income to apply. With a lower income requirement comes a lower credit limit. These cards also usually have a low rate or low fee.
Student Credit Cards: Geared specifically towards students, these cards can be easier for students to get approved for, even with a lower income and minimal credit history. Be aware of higher purchase rates, even if annual fees are low.
Credit Cards For More Experienced Cardholders
Rewards Cards: Before applying, weigh up what you would pay in annual fees against what you would earn in rewards. As rewards cards reward spending, these cards may not suit first-time cardholders who are not yet used to regulating their spending, and who may have trouble paying off their entire balance each month.
Platinum Cards: With a higher minimum income and a requirement for good credit history, these cards don’t usually suit first-time cardholders. They also tend to have a high annual fee and high purchase rate, making them more expensive, especially if you overspend and carry a balance.
Cards with Introductory Offers: While you may be able to take advantage of a good intro offer as a first-time cardholder, it’s important not to get sucked into applying for a card simply because it has an appealing offer. Look beyond the offer to see how well the card will suit you in the long term, reading the small print to see how much it will cost you to keep it in your wallet.
According to a survey (1) released last year by consumer education website CreditSmart, many young Australians are unsure about credit reporting and how it affects them. The survey showed that 44% of millennials are unsure of the difference between a credit score and a credit report, and more than half are unaware of what a lender looks for in a credit report.
While it may not affect them too much in the short term, this lack of understanding could cause problems later on down the line. Someone who doesn’t understand credit reporting may make no effort to build their credit over time, or worse, may make mistakes that cause them to have bad credit, making it difficult to get approved for a car loan or mortgage when they’re older.
Credit Reporting: How Does It Work?
Whether you like it or not, you have a credit file. Allowing potential lenders to access important information about what credit you currently have or have had in your name in the past, this credit file tells lenders how well you have dealt with that credit and how much of a risk you are likely to be if they provide you with more credit.
Based on an analysis of your credit file, you will receive a credit score. According to ASIC’s Money Smart website, this credit score will be based on things like:
Depending on the credit reporting agency, the credit score you receive will range between zero and 1,200 or zero and 1,000. A good score would suggest to a potential lender that you are a responsible borrower with a proven track record of dealing with credit correctly. So, a higher score should make it easier for you to get approved for any new credit you choose to apply for.
However, a low score would generally suggest that you have been irresponsible with credit in the past, perhaps maxing out your credit cards or failing to make repayments on time. With a low credit score, you may find it more difficult to get approved for credit applications such as a personal loan or credit card, a car loan or a mortgage. If you are approved, you may have to pay higher rates of interest, making the loan more expensive overall.
What about having no credit history? When you have no credit history, that means you have had minimal credit in your name. As potential credit providers are unable to see how you have dealt with credit in the past, they have no idea how you may deal with it in the future. This can make it difficult to get approved, which could become a problem when you look to get a mortgage or other types of credit in the future.
Applying for a credit card – and using it responsibly – can help you to build your credit score. If you have a credit card, your credit score will be positively affected if each month you make repayments on time. According to Experian, one of Australia’s three main credit reporting bureaus, payment history is one of the top factors in most credit scoring models and accounts for 35% of a credit score (2).
Other ways to improve your credit include limiting your credit applications (as numerous credit applications can be an indicator of financial stress), and reducing your credit card limits. Why? If you have a number of credit cards with high limits, it increases your potential for risk. With all that spare credit, lenders see that you could spend up to those limits and get into trouble financially.
In terms of managing your credit score, you should regularly review your credit history to make sure everything in your credit file is accurate and up to date. You can apply to have errors corrected with the appropriate credit reporting agency. Managing your debt wisely can also help you maintain your credit, preventing you from getting over your head and missing repayments.
How bad is bad credit? A default will stay on your credit report for five years, while a late payment will stay on your credit report for two years. The more late payments on your credit report, the more your credit score will drop. Even declined credit applications take their toll. This is especially important to remember for first-time cardholders.
When you turn 18, you will likely start receiving invitations to apply for all sorts of credit cards by your bank, and in some cases, other lenders. These invitations may make it seem like you are already approved, and all you need to do is fill in a few details to apply. However, you still need to meet the eligibility requirements of the application. If you don’t, your application will likely be declined, and this will be recorded on your credit file.
The good news is that negative items on your credit file fall away over time. If you make mistakes, you can work on balancing them out with responsible behaviour. Making your credit card repayments on time, paying off your balance in full and being smart with your spending should help you build up your credit over time, making it easier to get approved for big ticket credit applications, such as a mortgage in the future.
While it may look similar, withdrawing money on a credit card is not the same as accessing money from your current account using your debit card. As the name suggests, a ‘cash advance’ provides you an advance in cash. Just as a purchase on your credit card advances you credit, cash withdrawn on your card provides access to money that is not actually yours. It’s your lender’s.
Your lender will allow you to ‘borrow’ money using your credit card using the cash advance feature, but it comes at a cost.
It’s best to avoid cash advances whenever possible. Just pretend the feature doesn’t exist.
Aside from receiving invitations to apply for credit cards through the post, you may find temptation to apply elsewhere as well. Credit card providers may set up shop at college and university orientation weeks, offering sign-up bonuses such as t-shirts, pens and hats to unsuspecting students starting their journey into tertiary education.
If you have looked at credit cards online, you may soon find your social media feed clogged with credit card ads, most likely unsuited to your needs. These ads show feature-packed cards with enticing introductory offers, which usually have high annual fees and interest. But, what you may not know as a first-time cardholder is that credit cards don’t have to be expensive.
By choosing the right card, and dealing with it responsibly, you could access credit for free.
Interest: You can avoid interest by shunning cash advances, and by only spending what you can afford to pay back at the end of each month. Choosing a card with up to 44 days or 55 days interest free, you can avoid interest accruing by always clearing your balance by the due date.
Annual Fees: By choosing a card with no annual fee, you can avoid that yearly outgoing to save money. These cards are typically no frills, but this can make it easier for you to manage as you get used to dealing with credit.
Other Fees: If you check the small print, there will be plenty of potential for fees. However, by being smart, you can avoid most of these fees altogether. By making your repayment on time each month, you can avoid the late payment fee. By not going over your credit limit, you can avoid the over-limit fee. By shunning cash advances, you can avoid the cash advance fee. And so on.
On your credit card statement, it will tell you what your minimum payment is. This is the minimum payment you must make to avoid getting a late payment fee or a default on your account. Varying according to the card provider, the minimum payment will either be a fixed amount, such as $20, or a percentage of the balance, which is usually 2-3%.
Changes to the way statements are provided now mean that card providers need to tell you how much it would cost in interest and how long it would take to pay off your current balance if you were only to make the minimum payment. By taking time to check that out, you will see why it’s not a good idea to only pay the minimum.
Sometimes, paying only the minimum can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars in interest, leaving the cardholder in debt for years, or even decades. While we know it’s not always possible to pay off your balance in full, try to pay as much as you can, and then pay it all off the following month.
To make it easier to remember, you could set up auto-pay so you never have to worry about missing a payment. This could be arranged for the day after your payday, so you know the money will be ready in your account.
Balance transfer offers are common in the credit card world, but they should not be thought of as a ‘get out of jail free card’ that allows you to be irresponsible with your spending. Used correctly, a balance transfer offer can be used as a tool to pay down debt. But, that doesn’t mean you should overspend on your current card because you think you can clean up the mess with a balance transfer afterwards.
Here’s how a balance transfer works:
However, dealing with a balance transfer doesn’t always run as smoothly as that. Here are some problems that can occur:
As you can see, balance transfer offers are not an easy solution. While they can certainly help you to pay off your credit card debt with hard work and good budgeting, they are not something you should rely on as an excuse to overspend.
Having a great relationship with credit means being smart with your credit cards, and understanding how they work. At CreditCard.com.au, we want everyone to find the best card for their needs, to then use them wisely. Whether you’re applying for your first credit card, or you’ve had a number of credit cards in your name, you can hone your knowledge at our sister site, Credit Card EDU.
With seven courses to choose from, this 100% free online course provides essential information about how credit cards work, and how you can make them work for you. Using this info – plus the tips above – you can then check out the range of cards available here on CreditCard.com.au to find the one that will best suit your needs. Don’t forget to browse the other articles here as well for even more info!
Pauline is a personal finance expert at CreditCard.com.au, with 8 years in money, budgeting and property reporting under her belt. Pauline is passionate about seeing Aussies win by making their money – and their credit cards – work smarter, harder and bigger.
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