Steps to get your first credit card

Personal finance Q&A with Steve Dinnen

Q: I'm a college student struggling to get credit. I asked a financial specialist at my bank about what I should be doing to try and establish credit for myself. He was really vague in his response, and I left not knowing what to do. Would the best thing for me to do right now be to just wait until I get older to apply for a credit card?

A.A., via e-mail

A: It's pretty much a fact of life that you'll eventually want a credit card, even need one if you expect to rent a car, make purchases over the Internet, etc. It's also a fact that they can be trouble. Sallie Mae, the college funding company, recently found in a study on credit-card usage by undergraduates that rising numbers are using plastic to pay for tuition. Their average balance grew to more than $3,000, and 60 percent of survey respondents experienced surprise at how high their balance had reached.

The key to landing a credit card with a good interest rate is to start with a good credit score. To do that, Sallie Mae's Erica Eriksdotter says you'll need to build a payment history on your credit report. If you make on-time payments on bills for student loans, utilities, or cellphones, your credit report will show that you take responsibility for your financial obligations. Your score continually changes, depending on how well or poorly you manage your credit.

Credit scores can affect many aspects of your life. Your credit score can be used when you rent an apartment, sign up for a cellphone, or need a loan to buy a car or home. Some employers also check it to judge your degree of responsibility.

To build and maintain a high credit score, Sallie Mae makes these suggestions:

•Limit yourself to one low-interest-rate credit card or a check card tied to your bank account.

•Pay your bills on time.

•Apply for credit only when necessary. Opening too many cards in a short time can harm your credit score.

•Keep credit-card balances to less than 50 percent of the available credit limit on the credit card.

•Make more than the minimum payment on credit cards or pay off the balance each month.

•Periodically check your credit report for errors that can affect your score. By law, you're entitled to one free credit report each year.

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