The Millennials Guide to Avoiding Credit Card Debt

Americans owe billions of dollars in credit card debt, and the high interest rates that come with it can lead to a debt spiral that is very challenging to overcome.

Millennials, having lived through the financial crisis and other economic downturns, appear to be more wary of credit cards than other generations, according to several recent surveys from sources including Bankrate and TransUnion. This wariness is healthy, but it’s important for this younger generation to know that credit cards by themselves can be harmless and perhaps even beneficial if used wisely. (See also: Why Millennials Should Embrace Credit Cards)

If you’re a millennial, consider these tips on how to use credit cards while avoiding getting into dangerous debt.

Pay attention to interest rates

Sometimes when you’re in a financial pinch, you may be relieved to see a new credit card application come in the mail. But it’s a bad idea to apply without looking at the terms first. Not all credit cards are created equal, and some have very high interest rates that could cripple you financially. An annual percentage rate of about 15 percent is standard, but some can go well above 20 percent, and it’s possible to find rates below 12 percent. Be sure to read the fine print on all cards, and compare rates to find the best card available for you. (See also: Best Credit Cards for Millennials)

Also, don’t get too enamored with low introductory rates; remember that all introductory rates eventually aren’t introductory anymore. If you’re struggling to get out of debt, it may be helpful to transfer a balance to a card with a 0% introductory APR, but be aware that rate will jump after a certain amount of time. (See also: The Best 0% Balance Transfer Credit Cards)

Avoid fees

Some credit cards will charge you an annual fee just to have them. Sometimes, this annual fee allows you to receive special benefits, but the average person should never feel the need to pay money just to have access to credit. You may feel like you’ve “arrived” because you are spending $550 per year for that platinum card, but it’s a silly expense if you’re only using the card to pay for lunch and fill your gas tank. These premium credit cards come with many perks and benefits that only benefit certain people. (See also: How to Decide if an Annual Fee Credit Card Is Worth It for You)

Pay on time

The nice thing about credit cards is that if you pay off the balance every month, on time, you’re not charged any extra fees or interest. There’s really no down side to using a credit card to buy items and paying the bill in full each month.

Paying your bill on time is the number one factor in determining your credit history. Miss a payment, and you are subjecting yourself to late charges and a hefty amount of interest. Additionally, you could see your credit score suffer. (See also: 5 Simple Ways to Never Make a Late Credit Card Payment)

Watch the revolving balance

Even if you pay your bill on time every month, your credit score could be hurt if you have a high balance each month. Credit bureaus don’t like it when you are bumping up against your credit limit on a regular basis. In fact, as much as one-third of your credit score is based on “credit utilization,” or the amount of debt you have versus the amount of credit you have available. In other words, you should still try to avoid racking up a large credit card bill, even if you’re diligent about paying on time. (See also: This One Ratio Is the Key to a Good Credit Score)

Use them to build credit

When used responsibly, credit cards can help you build a credit history and make it easier to get favorable terms when borrowing money elsewhere. If you are applying for a mortgage, for example, a lender will review your credit score and payment history to determine the rate and size of the loan that you are eligible for. Without a lengthy credit history, lenders may find it hard to give you good terms, or you may be turned down altogether. (See also: 5 Ways to Improve Your Credit Score Fast)

Have multiple cards, but be careful

People with high credit scores tend to have more cards than those with lower scores. This is because your credit score is partially based on how much debt you have compared to your overall availability of credit. Since more cards will generally mean more available credit, there is an advantage to having multiple cards. The very, very big caveat to this is that if you have more cards, you have more ability to borrow and rack up debt.

Having multiple cards can give you flexibility, because not all cards are accepted everywhere. Additionally, it may be helpful to have credit cards with varying kinds of rewards. There is no universal rule of thumb regarding the optimal number of credit cards, but it’s likely that you can get away with having two or three.

Track your spending

One nice advantage to using credit cards is that it will allow you to keep a real-time record of your purchases. If you use cash instead, recording your spending is more of a manual chore.

Most credit card companies allow you to check your transactions online and will even categorize your purchases, thus helping with budgeting. If you use credit cards, don’t just mindlessly pay your bill when it comes. Take the time to review what you spent during the previous month, and try to identify where you may be able to cut expenditures and boost your savings.

Use your rewards

There’s a healthy competition among credit cards to offer rewards to cardholders when they make purchases. Some cards give you cash back. Many offer airline points or other travel rewards. There are cards offering cash back to be used at Disney theme parks, and some that allow you to direct money into retirement accounts.

When used responsibly, these credit cards can save you a lot of money. Do some research to find the credit cards with the best rewards for you, and try to stay away from cards with an annual fee, if possible. (See also: 5 Tricks to Making the Most of Your Reward Miles)