How to Take Control of Your Credit Cards

A credit card can be a useful financial tool if used carefully.

A credit card can be a useful financial tool if used carefully.

A credit card is an easy way to finance purchases, earn rewards -- such as gas discounts -- and combine purchases onto one statement to review each month. If you're not careful, however, the amount you charge each month can creep up and lead to too much debt. By carefully controlling your credit card purchases, you can leverage your available purchasing power instead of getting caught in the trap of rising credit card debt.

Stay Aware of the Information in Your Credit Profile

Check your credit report often. Your credit report is a compilation of your public records, your existing credit information, and your personal information, and is used by creditors to determine if they want to offer credit to you. You can obtain a free copy of your credit report from each of the three reporting agencies -- Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion -- once per 12-month period. You can choose to order all three reports at once, or to stagger them throughout the year to provide you with information more frequently.

Stay aware of the interest rates you're currently paying. Credit card companies commonly offer an introductory interest rate that is raised after a year. Interest rates may also rise after you miss a payment, make a late payment or go over your credit limit. Pay careful attention to how much interest you're paying on your purchases, and if the amount becomes too high, consider transferring your credit card balance to another card with a lower interest rate.

Read your credit card statements thoroughly. Any information that the credit card company is legally obligated to pass along to you will either be on your statement or included as an insert with your bill. Read everything included with your statement to stay aware of changes in due dates, interest rates and yearly fees.

Take Action to Protect Your Credit

Build a strong credit profile. Work to pay your bills on time, take out various types of credit, and avoid spending more than you can pay back each month. If you notice that you're beginning to rack up credit card balances, consider freezing discretionary spending until you pay them off in full.

Work to prevent identity theft by keeping your credit card information safe. Shred statements that you no longer need, as well as any documents that contain personal information, such as your Social Security number. Avoid giving your credit card number to untrusted sources, and check your credit report and credit card statements regularly for unauthorized charges.

Know when to ask for help. If you are unable to pay your credit card bills in full each month and frequently find yourself only making minimum payments, or if your balances are creeping up due to high interest rates, it may be time to seek help. Don't wait until your bills are overdue or in collections. Instead, take action as soon as you notice that there is a problem. Consider consulting a financial planner or speaking with a nonprofit credit counseling agency to develop a debt management plan.

Items you will need

  • A copy of your credit report
  • Recent credit card statements

About the Author

Sandi Stritch specializes in alternative health and mental-health topics. She has more than five years experience working in a psychiatric hospital. Valentine began writing online in 2007 with pieces appearing in "The Main ARTery" and "In the Panhandle." She holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from Shepherd University.

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