How to choose a credit card

A credit card can be a useful tool or it can be a dangerous weapon. Most of this depends on you — the best credit card in the world won't help if you spend beyond your means. American adults carry thousands of dollars in average credit card debt. I lived a decade mired in it and I don't recommend it to anyone.

If you're responsible, however, a credit card can be both convenient and efficient. I have mentioned that I save 1% on my utilities by paying with my cash-back credit card. These are expenditures I'd make anyhow, but the card saves me money. (As a bonus, using the credit card helps with my quest for a paperless personal finance system.

But there are hundreds (thousands?) of different credit cards to choose from. You can compare each card against the average credit card rates , but beyond that how can you tell which is best?

How to Choose a Credit Card

When readers have asked me for credit card recommendations in the past. I've always declined. First, I'm still not completely convinced that credit cards are a good idea. Second, I don't have the resources to judge which cards are best. I do know, however, that it's important to choose the right card for your lifestyle. So i turned to our partner site CardRatings.com which was founded by consumer credit advocate Curtis Arnold, and focuses on making credit cards easy to compare – their credit card comparison table is a good place to start.

  • If you are are someone who revolves a balance credit card debt, focus on cards that offer low interest rates (especially on balance transfers) — and put a stop to new charges.
  • If you pay your balance in full every month, find a cash back credit card with no annual fees and a solid cash rewards program.
  • Some credit card users have special needs. If you spend a lot on gas, consider a gas credit card that gives added rewards on auto expenses. If you travel a lot, look for a card with rewards for flights and lodging.

When choosing a credit card, Money magazine recommends you pay special attention to the Schumer Box, a prominent table in every credit card application. In general it's important that you understand the different aspects of the credit card application. Look for:

  • An annual percentage rate (APR) of 11% or less on purchases.
  • Low rates on other loans, such as cash advances or balance transfers. (If you're doing a balance transfer, find a balance transfer card that offers 0% APR, at least for a year.)
  • Reasonable penalty terms. Find the penalty rate (or default rate), and follow the asterisk to see what triggers it.
  • Finance charges that are not computed using two-cycle billing. (Two-cycle billing sucks.)
  • No annual fee.

Don't choose a card just because it offers a signup bonus or because it gives you a discount at your favorite store. Read the terms and conditions. Understand the card's limitations. Remember: your goal is to pick a tool, like a vacuum cleaner. You're not looking for a one-time bonus, but a long-term relationship you can live with.

The Best Credit Cards

Consumer Reports wrote an article about using credit cards sensibly without falling prey to their traps.

Below the table, the CardRatings research staff provide their top picks for the best credit card offers for 2014 by category, breaking out many of the card details so you can compare things like interest rates, bonus rewards and balance transfer promotions on the best credit cards out there.

Best Low Interest Rate Cards If you're more interested in a rock-bottom interest rate than cash back, merchandise, or travel, here are some of the very best low-interest rate credit cards available. The first two are based on straight APRs, the last three are based on introductory rates for new accounts only:

Best Cash Back Cards You can't beat cold hard cash, no matter what the state of the economy. Here are the top credit cards that offer the best percentage cash back deals:

  • Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express
  • Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card

Compare this card with others in its category and apply here. You'll need good to excellent credit to be considered for this credit card.

Best Travel Miles Cards If accumulating travel miles to a trip to Europe or anywhere else in the world is a better incentive for you than cash, try these cards:

  • The Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card
  • PenFed Premium Travel Rewards American Express® Card
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred®

Best Reward Points Cards If you'd rather not have your points limited to airline travel, try these cards:

  • Fidelity® Investment Rewards® Visa Signature® card
  • Amazon.com Rewards Visa® Card from Chase

Best “Bad / No Credit” Credit Cards These are not the old subprime lenders of pre-crash era; the new poor/fair credit card lenders are both financially sound and ethical:

  • USAA Secured Credit Card

Most Innovative Credit Card. Capital One gets kudos from us for being straight forward, using clear language on its website and in monthly statements to explain how to build and maintain good credit, and for finding creative ways to encourage young consumers to develop good credit habits. A higher-than-average APR may encourage card holders to pay their balances in full each month, which would help establish good financial habits. CardRatings rounds up a list of their cards here

You can research other cards at the following sites:

  • CardRatings.com is part of U.S. Citizens for Fair Credit Card Terms, a consumer advocacy group devoted to educating consumers about credit cards.
  • GetRichSlowly has steps to get free online credit report.You can check:how to get free credit report as well as our own credit card comparison tables.
  • In Canada, try Money Tools, a website run by the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada. It provides an interactive credit-card selection tool.

Please make sure to double-check offer terms at the card issuers website as terms change frequently and the information above may not be up to date by the time you read this. If you choose to use credit cards, make a commitment to use them responsibly. I believe that most of the people who read this site are ready to do so. Like me, you may have had trouble in the past, but the fact that you're willing to learn more about personal finance demonstrates that you have some semblance of discipline. Use it. Finally, here's an infographic from CardRatings on how to choose a credit card.

More about...Credit

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