Picking a credit card out of your weekly mailbag reminds me of that game “Three Strikes” on the Price is Right. An eager contestant had to blindly pull out winning chips from Bob Barker’s velvet pouch usually to win a shiny new car.
Signing on to the perfect credit card isn’t quite as exciting and a bad choice can have more serious financial consequences than walking home empty-handed from a game show. Consumer Reports has attempted to simplify the process for us, even as just carrying a credit card has gotten pricier. The group finds terms on teaser rates shrinking, balance-transfer fees becoming standard and fixed rates higher than ever. Here is CR’s pick of the best and worst credit cards, based on what type of card you’re seeking.
Best Cash-Back Cards: Capital One No Hassle Cash Rewards, Chase Freedom Visa, and Discover More (DFS).
Best Gas Cards: Chase PerfectCard MasterCard (MA), Discover Open Road, and Hess Platinum Visa (HES).
Top Cards to Avoid: First Premier Bank, HSBC American DreamCard and New Millennium Visa or MasterCard.
To further help your search, here is some advice …
1. Pick Your Profile. What’s your card profile? If you won’t be carrying a balance month-to-month, reward yourself by choosing a card with perks that speak to your lifestyle needs. If it’s cash you love, a cash-back reward card can work well. If you love to shop, some cards offer points redeemable for various items such as Apple iPods (AAPL) or Sony (SNE) cameras. If you think you’ll carry a balance, pick a card that offers a low interest rate. And make sure you are on time paying your bill so that rate doesn’t balloon.
2. Shop Credit Unions. Community-based financial institutions and credit unions can often pass along lower interest rates to their banking clients, since they tend to have fewer overhead costs than big-box retail banks. You can search for a credit union near you by visiting creditunion.coop or findacreditunion.com.
3. Transfer for Free. If you’re looking to transfer a balance to a new card, look for a card that has a 0% interest transfer deal and charges nothing to transfer.
4. Limit Your Plastic. It’s okay to shop around for a credit card. Shopping for three or more credit cards is another thing. It’s important to limit your accounts to two or less. During the credit application process, banks check your credit history and those inquiries, when added up, can potentially damage your credit score. Plus, the fewer cards you have, the less you’ll spend.
5. Note: Small Limits Stink. While some credit card solicitations promise teeny-tiny interest rates, make sure they’re offering decent-sized credit limits, too. Using a card with a $500 or $1,000 limit is risky, as you may fast exceed the desirable utilization ratio of 30% (that mean's you only want to use a third of the amount of credit they give you). A few items here and there can eat up more than half of your credit limit, which can also bite at your credit score.
Catch more of Farnoosh’s advice on Real Simple. Real Life. on TLC, Friday nights at 8 p.m.