Guide to Credit Cards
Some of your friends may have credit cards already. At first glance, a credit card gives you freedom to buy something on the spur of the momentwithout worrying if you have enough cash in your pocket. It makes shopping look incredibly easy: just one payment at the end of the month.
Some of your friends may have credit cards already. But if you talk to friends or adults about using credit cards, you may find that there are drawbacks. Some credit card users find they've spent too much money on too many things. Some can't pay their bills on time. And, those who have trouble paying back their debts may find they can't borrow money when they want to make a really important purchaselike a car or a house.
The key to using a credit card wisely is knowing how to
use it responsibly. We hope this article helps you do that
by highlighting the important things all credit card users
I want to get my first credit card. How do I do it?
You may be able to get your first credit card with your
name on it through your parents. By having your parents
co-sign for the card, you use your parents' income and good
repayment history to qualify. You then can make purchases
with the credit card, and you or your parents can pay the
If you have a job or other income, you may be able to get a credit card on your own. This is important because if you want to use credit regularlyand someday apply for even more credityou will need to establish your own "credit history."
This credit history (prepared as a "credit report" by a credit bureau) is a description of how responsibly you handle creditfor example, whether you pay bills on time. Financial institutions usually check your credit report before lending you money or issuing you a credit card. To establish your credit history:
- Apply for a credit card at a local store or a small
loan at a local lending institution. Ask the creditor
if the store or lending institution reports credit
histories to a credit bureau. If they do and you pay
back your debts regularly, you will compile a good
- Ask the creditor for specific reasons if you are
ever turned down for credit. For example, your current
salary might not be high enough or you may not have
worked at your current job long enough. Time may
resolve these matters. Reapply for credit when your
- Ask someone with an established credit history (such
as a relative) to act as your co-signer if you cannot
get credit on your own. The co-signer must promise to
pay your debts if you don't. If you use a co-signer,
repay your debt promptly and try again to get credit on
There are so many credit cards.
Which one should I
If you are choosing a credit card, think about how you
will use it. You may want to compare the following cost
features to see which card will best suit your financial
- Annual percentage rate (APR): The APR measures the
cost of credit on an annual basis and may be the
easiest way to compare costs among credit cards.
Usually, the lower the APR, the less you'll be charged
for credit. The APR includes the interest rate and
other costs, such as service charges or loan fees. If
you expect to pay back less than the full amount you
charge each month, you'll have to pay finance charges
on the unpaid balance. In this case, choose a card with
a low APR.
- Annual fees: Many companies charge an annual fee, no
matter how much or little you use their credit card.
But if you intend to pay your credit card bills in full
each month, you may not have to pay monthly finance
charges. In this case, a card with a low annual fee may
be more important to you than one with a low APR.
- Grace periods: This "free" period allows you to
avoid any finance charges by paying your bill before
the due date shown on your statement. Some cards have
grace periods from 21 to 30 days. Some have no grace
periods and impose finance charges from the day you use
the card. Cards with longer grace periods may save you
money, but only if you pay all of your charges each
- Other charges: In addition to comparing the terms
noted above, check several credit card offers to see if
you will be charged a fee for things such as paying
your bill late or charging more than your credit limit.
These extra fees, which may be charged in addition to
interest, add to the cost of using your credit card.
There's a mistake on my credit card bill.
What do I do
Always read your monthly credit card statement promptly
and carefully. Check whether there are errors on your bill
(such as wrong amounts or no credits given for a returned
item), or whether someone has made illegal charges on your
credit card. If you find an error:
- Send the credit card issuer a letter right away within 60 days after the first bill containing the error was mailed to you. Use the special "billing error address" given on your monthly statement or credit card contract. Remember that only a letter to the special address protects your rights under the law. Phone calls do not protect you.
- Include in your letter: your name and account
number; the date, type, and dollar amount of the charge
you question; and why you think there was a mistake.
You may be asked later to sign a statement under oath
that you did not make the purchase in question.
- Know that the credit card company must tell you that
it has received your letter and corrected the mistake,
or explain why the bill is believed to be correct.
- Make sure to pay the charges on your credit card
bill that are not in dispute.
Help! My wallet was stolenwith my credit card in it. What should I do?
If you discover your credit card lost or stolen:
- Call the credit card issuer immediately about the
situation. Use the telephone number established by the
card issuer for this purpose. Follow up the call with a
letter giving your card number, when the card was
missing, and the date you called in the loss.
- Understand that if a thief uses your card before you
notify the credit card issuer, you may be held
responsible for up to $50 for unauthorized charges for
- Know that you cannot be held responsible for more than $50 in unauthorized charges for each card
I don't want anyone else using my credit card.
I protect my credit card account?
To safeguard your credit cardand your credit recordmake sure you:
- Never lend your card to anyone.
- Never leave your card or receipts lying around.
- Destroy all carbons and incorrect receipts.
- Never put your card number on a postcard or on the
outside of an envelope.
- Never give your card number over the phone, unless you
are certain the company or organization is highly
- Sign your credit card in ink as soon as it arrives.
- Keep a record of your card number, expiration date, and
phone number and address of the card company in a
safe place, separate from your wallet.
- Do not sign a blank receipt, whenever possible.
- Draw a line through blank spaces on charge slips above
the total so the amount cannot be changed.
- Open billing statements promptly and compare them with
receipts you have saved.
- Write promptly to the credit card issuer if any
questionable charges appear on your statement.
I've paid some of my credit card bills late.
I find out if my credit record is still good?
You have the right to know every piece of information
in your credit file under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. If
you want to find out what your credit record looks like,
take the following steps:
- Call credit bureaus to find which one has your file.
Look in your local Yellow Pages under "Credit" or
"Credit Rating and Reporting." Call every credit bureau
listed in your area and tell each one that you want to
see your file.
- Although the credit bureau is not required to give you a copy of the report, more and more are doing so often for a small fee. You'll be required to identify yourselfby phone, in-person, or by mailbefore any information is disclosed.
- If you were turned down for a credit card and you
request your file within 30 days of the denial, you
will not be charged for a copy of your file.
There seems to be a mistake on my credit file.
I fix it?
If you find any inaccurate information in your credit
file, you have the right to correct it. The following
information may be useful:
- Tell the credit bureau, in writing, why you think the
information is incorrect. Supply copies of any
documents supporting your position.
- If the credit bureau cannot confirm the information you
challenge, it must delete or change it.
- If you disagree with the credit bureau's findings, you
may write a brief statement stating your side. This
becomes a part of your credit bureau report.
- If negative information in your credit report is accurate, only time may erase it. Credit bureaus are permitted to report negative information for 7 years and bankruptcies for 10 years. In some cases, though, negative information may be reported indefinitely. Don't be misled by credit repair companies that promise to "repair" or "clean up" your credit history. They can correct errorsbut not change the past.
I spent too much shopping and now I'm having trouble paying back my credit card bills. What can I do?
Sometimes, because of overspending, illness, or other
difficulties, you may find it impossible to pay your bills
on time. If you ever find yourself in that situation,
consider the following information:
- Try to work out a modified payment plan as soon as
possible with those you owe money to.
- If you're having trouble making car payments, know that
financing contracts often let the financing company
repossess your car with no advance notice. Try hard to
work out car payment problems.
- Be cautious about turning to a debt counseling company
to solve your debt problems. Avoid paying in advance
until you find out what the company can really do.
Before you sign any contract, check out the
organization with the Better Business Bureau or your
local consumer protection agency.
- You may want to contact a non-profit counseling
service, such as the Consumer Credit Counseling Service
(CCCS), for help. You can find CCCS listed in your
telephone white pages. In addition, non-profit
financial counseling programs are sometimes offered by
universities, military bases, and credit unions.
This information is great,
but where can I get more help?
Different federal agencies regulate different kinds of cards, so check to see which company issued the card. For cards issued by:
- Department stores, oil companies, or other non-bank
creditors, write: Credit Cards, Correspondence Branch,
Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C. 20580.
- National banks, write: Office of the Comptroller of the
Currency, Consumer Activities Division, Washington,
- Savings and loan institutions or federal savings banks,
write: Office of Thrift Supervision, Consumer Affairs
Program, Washington, D.C. 20552.
- Federally-insured, state-chartered banks, write:
Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Office of
Consumer Affairs, Washington, D.C. 20429.
- All other banks, write: Federal Reserve Board, Division
of Consumer and Community Affairs, Washington, D.C.
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