Best Credit Cards for 2012

NEW YORK ( LowCards.com) -- The start of a new year is typically when consumers take a close look at their finances and make resolutions on saving money and cutting expenses. Changing credit cards can save substantial money on interest payments, or earn some extra cash with attractive rewards.

But credit cards are not one-size-fits-all, and shopping for the best credit card to fit your specific needs is a must. The credit card offer you get today is determined by your credit score and how you have handled finances in the past.
Credit cards are not one-size-fits-all, and shopping for the best credit card to fit your specific needs is a must.

Getting started
When shopping for a credit card, you must first determine what kind of credit card consumer you are. Are you a disciplined person that charges only what you can afford and pays off the balance in full on time every month? If so, a rewards card is the best credit card for you. If you do carry a balance from month to month, though, you should not be concerned with the rewards of a card, but in paying off this balance as quickly as possible. For you, getting a card with the lowest interest rate is the most important consideration.

Know that credit card companies can make every card seem like the best on the market. Television ads, emails and direct-mail pieces tout the low rates and benefits of every card. But consumers should look closely at the terms and conditions of the offer before applying for any credit card. The lowest interest rate is given only to applicants with good to excellent credit scores, not to everyone who applies. If you don't have a good credit score, you could get an offer with a higher rate -- or a declined application.

Before you apply for a credit card, check your credit score so you know what offer you can expect. A FICO score in the mid-700s is considered a good score, and you can expect to get the lowest interest rates. A FICO score less than 640 is too low for normal credit cards and you will have to look at other options, such as a secured card.

Low interest rates
If you feel you are likely to carry a balance on your credit card from one month to the next, it is vitally important to get a credit card with a low interest rate. According to the LowCards.com Complete Credit Card Index, which tracks more than 1,000 credit cards, this past week was 15.14%. Look in the terms and conditions for the range of interest rates, because most cards have three rate tiers; the higher your credit score, the lower your APR will be. If your FICO score is in the mid-600s, you will probably get the highest rate.

When shopping for a low-interest credit card, consider your credit union and local bank. In addition, these are the most attractive low-interest credit cards:

Simmons First Visa Platinum ( V) An APR of 7.25%, but you have to have outstanding credit to be approved. No transaction fee for balance transfers.

Iberia Bank ( IBKC) Visa Classic If you have an excellent credit score, you can get a 7.50% APR. They also offer a 1.99% APR for six months on balance transfers.

Capital One ( COF) Platinum Prestige The lowest rate is 10.90%. The card offers 0% through March 2013 on balance transfers with a 3% balance transfer fee. There is no fee for international transactions.

Balance transfers
Consumers can transfer their credit card debt onto another card that is offering an attractive interest rate and sometimes save significant money on interest charges. Many issuers are offering 0% interest rates on balance transfers for a substantial time. The two important considerations for consumers are to make sure they can pay off this transferred balance during that 0% introductory period and that the interest penalties you save are more than the fee you'll pay to transfer the balance from one issuer to another.

When comparing cards for a balance transfer, look also at the ongoing interest rates. If you can't pay off the balance before the introductory period ends, you will then pay the ongoing interest rate. Another consideration is that the credit card issuer may accept only a portion of the amount you want to transfer because, depending on your credit limit, the issuer will want to leave room for new charges.

The best offers will typically be given to applicants with a credit score in the mid-700s. If you have a score less than this, you may get a shorter introductory period, or your application may be declined.

Citi ( C) Platinum Select This card gives you a 0% interest rate for 21 months on both the balance transfer and new purchases. That gives you almost two years without paying interest on your transferred balance. The balance transfer fee is 3%. The ongoing APR is 11.99-21.99%.

Discover More There is a Discover ( DFS) More card that offers 0% interest on balance transfers for 18 months. Consumers also get 0% on purchases for six months. The balance transfer fee is 3% and the ongoing APR is 11.99 to 20.99%.

Slate from Chase ( JPM) Slate offers a 0% intro rate for 12 months on balance transfers, but the unique feature about this card is that it is not charging a balance transfer fee when you transfer during the first 30 days of an account' opening. The ongoing APR is 11.99 to 21.99%.

Cash rewards
If you are struggling to make up your mind about the many types of reward cards, a card that gives you a little extra cash is always a good choice. Cash rewards won't make you rich, since the average reward is about one penny per dollar spent, but that can add up. Many cards now offer a generous cash bonus with the new card. Cash-back cards typically have a slightly higher interest rate, so only apply for a reward card if you will pay off the entire balance each month. Reward cards are generally available to consumers with good FICO scores.

Chase Freedom -- $200 Bonus Cash Back Get a $200 bonus if you spend $500 in the first three months. You will earn an unlimited 1% cash back on everything you buy. Earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in seasonal spending categories that change every three months. The interest rate is 15.99 to 22.99%.

Capital One Cash Get 1% cash back on all purchases. Get a 50% cash-back bonus on the cash you have earned on your anniversary date. New-account holders earn a one-time $100 bonus after spending $500 in the first three months.

BankAmericard Cash Rewards Earn 1% cash back on every purchase, 2% on groceries and 3% on gas -- and a 10% customer bonus when you redeem into a Bank of America ( BAC) checking or savings account. Get a $50 cash rewards bonus after you make at least $100 in purchases within 60 days of account opening.

Secured cards
If your credit score is too low to qualify for a regular credit card (less than FICO 640), a secured card may be your best option. These require a security deposit that will be your credit limit. Choose a card that reports your payment history to the credit bureaus, because this can eventually raise your credit score if you use the card responsibly and make all payments on time. You do not have to use this card -- just keeping it open and in good standing can create a positive credit history. Secured cards offer almost 100% approval, but they also charge higher interest rates and fees.

Capital One Secured MasterCard ( MC) Get automatic reporting to the three major credit bureaus. You can even earn credit line increases based on your payment and credit history. This card requires a $200 minimum security deposit and your credit line will be equal to your security deposit. The interest rate is 22.99%, and the annual fee is $29. The refundable security deposit is $49, $99 or $200, based on your credit.

Orchard Bank Secured Visa Reports to all three credit bureaus. The minimum security deposit is $200. The rate for purchases is 7.99%, and the $35 annual fee is waived the first year.

-- Reported by Bill Hardekopf of LowCards.com.
Bill Hardekopf is chief executive of LowCards.com, which compares and rates more than 1,000 credit cards. He is the co-author of "The Credit Card Guidebook."

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