Have you ever seen so many credit card mailers, banner ads, and targeted emails outlining exciting new credit card offers with unprecedented bonuses? The credit card scene is a wild one at the moment — and many people tend to submit a credit card application for whichever product is dressed in the shiniest ribbons.
That’s not the way to go about opening credit cards. Strategy and thought should go into opening each card. A questionnaire or checklist would be helpful, wouldn’t it?
You’re in luck because we’ve made one for you. Let’s look at five evergreen questions you should ask yourself, no matter what stage of your credit journey you’re currently in. And yes, these are in order of importance.
1. Are you an impulse spender?
Whether you’re looking at your first credit card or your 20th, if you’re an impulse shopper, you should almost certainly not open the credit card you’re currently eyeing.
Credit cards can be a wonderful instrument for unlocking some of the most important purchases of your life, such as auto loans and mortgages. But they can also sabotage consumers who do not possess a Churchillian resolve to fight debt on the beaches, in the fields, and in the streets. Many credit cards can incur interest of 25% or higher.
The sole exception is if you’re applying for a credit card with 0% intro APR on purchases and/or balance transfers. Cards like these can help those who have previously treated credit cards with negligence out of the quicksand of debt they’ve staggered into.
2. What is your credit score?
The answer to this question is very important before you begin surveying the credit card landscape. Depending on your credit score, you may not qualify for the cards that you want.
As a general rule, I suggest you don’t apply for rewards credit cards like the Citi Premier® Card or the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card unless your credit score is at least 700. You can apply with a lower score, but your odds of approval aren’t the best. And more importantly, a credit score below 700 is indicative of a credit profile that needs some nurturing.
If you’re just beginning in the world of credit, you may want to start with a secured credit card, as these cards are generally the easiest to be approved for. By treating your card responsibly, you may well have a credit score above 700 within a year or so, and you’ll be ready to apply for bigger and better things.
3. What type of rewards do you want to collect?
There are a handful of different types of credit card rewards, from cash back to transferable points to airline miles to hotel points.
If your sole objective is to earn cash back from your purchases, you’ll narrow your search to cash back cards (like the Citi® Double Cash Card). If you’d prefer free hotel stays, you’ll look at both hotel credit cards (like the Hilton Honors Surpass Card from American Express) as well as flexible points credit cards (like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card).
Your earning preference may change from year to year. It’s okay to jettison a card when your preferences change. Think of a credit card as your employee. You want it to work hard for you. If it’s not giving you the return you want, call it into your office, terminate its employment, and find a replacement. Or better yet, simply call the bank to downgrade it to a no annual fee version (if possible), keep it, and just use it intermittently to build your credit history.
4. What benefits are important to you?
Here’s where your lifestyle really comes into play. Are you a traveler? A road warrior? A homebody? A student?
There’s a credit card that offers ongoing benefits for everyone. Here are some examples:
- If you fly American Airlines a lot, you may value the Citi® AAdvantage® Platinum Select Card. It offers one free checked bag for you and up to four companions on your same reservation. This benefit alone will save $60 per person per round trip.
- If you are a truck driver, you’ll get a lot of value from the Citi Premier® Card, which offers 3 Citi ThankYou® points per dollar at gas stations. You can redeem this for 3% in cash back, or you can transfer the points to various airlines and hotels for potentially more value in cheap flights and hotel stays.
- If you pay for cell phone coverage, you can open the Wells Fargo Active CashSM Card, which comes with automatic cell phone protection, up to $600 per claim (max two claims per 12-month period) just by paying your phone bill with the card. There’s a $25 deductible, which is very low.
- If you travel a lot for work, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card comes with benefits like primary rental car insurance (saving you potentially $10+ per day over the in-house rental agency). You’ll also get trip delay insurance which can reimburse you for food, lodging, etc., when your flight is delayed. These benefits have saved me several hundred dollars along my travels.
Read more: How to choose a credit card wisely
5. Are you at peace with the annual fee?
By now, you’ve decided which cards fit your lifestyle — and hopefully a handful of them stand out. Now to find a card with an annual fee you can swallow.
Ideally, your preferred card would charge nothing for you to keep it year after year. But unfortunately, the cards that come with the best benefits also come handcuffed to an annual fee.
But don’t be put off by annual fees right away. If you find a card that perfectly fits your lifestyle, it can repay your annual fee many times over.
For example, the premium Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card incurs a $395 annual fee. But each year, the card gives you:
- Up to $300 in statement credits when booking travel through the Capital One Travel portal.
- 10,000 Capital One miles (worth at least $100 in travel) after each account anniversary.
- Priority Pass™ airport lounge access with guest privileges (a similar membership costs $429 per year).
- Various top-notch travel insurances.
If you’re even a casual traveler, you could get an effortless $800+ per year in value from this card. That’s $400+ more than you’re paying toward the annual fee.
Choosing a credit card is far from a simple task. There are so many amazing products out there that it can be easy to suffer from the infamous “analysis paralysis.” But by asking five simple questions (in a very specific order), you can quickly narrow down which credit cards best serve your financial goals — and your unique lifestyle.
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