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The ultimate guide to credit cards How to use a credit card wisely

A credit card can be a powerful financial tool, but with great power comes great responsibility. Learn how credit cards work and find the best one for you.

We adhere to strict standards of editorial integrity to help you make decisions with confidence. Please be aware that some (or all) products and services linked in this article are from our sponsors.

We adhere to strict standards of editorial integrity to help you make decisions with confidence. Please be aware this post may contain links to products from our partners. We may receive a commission for products or services you sign up for through partner links.

If you are new to the world of credit cards, you may feel overwhelmed by constant advertising and a plethora of terms and cards being offered. How do you choose which one is best for you, and do you really need one? We're here to help.

Having a credit card (and using it sensibly) can set you up for financial success. A credit card offers a tool for you to build a strong credit history and credit score, which is vital to securing favourable terms for loans such as a mortgage. Here’s what you need to know to get a credit card and use it responsibly.

Credit card basics

As of 2022, Canadian credit card debt is at an all-time high - the average Canadian credit card balance was $2,121.

While you want to avoid debt, there are times where it makes sense to put expenses on your credit card. Buying items with your credit card, and paying them off can help to build your credit history and your credit score. Some credit cards even offer rewards and perks, like cash back and travel insurance.

Let’s break down what you need to become a wise credit card holder.

Credit score

Your credit score is a three-digit number that lenders such as banks use to judge your ability to repay your debts. The score ranges from 300 to 900, with a higher number being better.

When you get your first credit card it usually takes three to six months for a credit score to be generated. When you apply for your first credit card, you will not have a credit score yet. This is because your credit score is only calculated when a lender or other entity requests it to evaluate your creditworthiness. Over time you can either improve it with how you manage your debt.

Do you miss payments? Do you max out your credit card? It’s generally recommended to use less than 35% of the maximum limit on the card. So if the card’s limit is $10,000, try to put less than $3,500 on it at a time.

Should you get a credit card?

With great power comes great responsibility. A credit card is a powerful tool that can help you build good credit and secure important loans like a mortgage. At the same time, when misused, it can become a quick ticket into debt.

But if you are good at paying your bills on time, there are lots of reasons to get a credit card.

There are five benefits of using credit cards:

  1. 1.

    Using credit cards can help you build your credit history. When you have a high credit score, lenders and creditors will find it easy to allow you to borrow money. 

  2. 2.

    Some credit cards come with extra perks, such as cash back, travel insurance or gas savings.

  3. 3.

    Credit card users can earn free flights, free nights at hotels, or gift cards through bonus or points programs.

  4. 4.

    Some credit cards even give you cash back after earning you a percentage of money back from your spending with the card. You can earn anywhere from 0.5% to 3% back from every purchase.

  5. 5.

    Credit cards offer an easier option for paying for goods when overseas, serving as a more convenient alternative to debit (which usually won’t work in other countries) and avoiding the trouble of exchanging cash.

How to compare credit card offers

Credit cards come in different colours, interest rates and limits. There is the “Elite,” “Infinite,” “Platinum,” or “Black.” So how to choose? Here’s how to decide what should be in your wallet and how to choose the best credit card in Canada for your financial needs.

Define your needs

First, you need to think about how you’ll use the card, and see where you stand. Do you need cash advances? Do you need to simply reduce the cost of your high-interest debt? Do the annual fees make up for the credit card's other key features?

Understand your credit card interest rates

For example, a secured credit card is pointless for someone with a high credit score, but it can be the perfect solution to build a good credit history.

Whenever you have a balance on your credit card, you will pay interest. For credit cards, you are charged the annual percentage rate (APR), which is the same as the interest rate when it comes to credit card debt. The lower the APR, the less interest you’ll pay on your balance. 

APR typically  ranges from 19.99% to 25.99%. The rate itself is dependent on market conditions, inflation, costs of long-term deposits, competition for funds, and Bank of Canada policy.

The APR rate won’t matter to you if you’re confident that you’ll pay off your balance in full every month. But if you expect to carry a balance regularly, it may be the number one thing you look at.

For example, if you have a $2,000 balance on a card with a 20% APR, you’d pay $400 in interest every year. On a card with a 16% APR, you’d pay $320.

Another note, you can find the APR range that credit cards can charge through the terms and conditions agreements on the carrier’s website, and you don’t need to apply for the card to see the terms.

You won’t know your individual APR until you complete a full application and get approved, as your credit rating plays a factor in the rate you qualify for.

Watch for fees

It isn’t only the APR that you have to worry about when getting a credit card. There are other fees that you need to be fully aware of. 

There are many fees, including but not limited to: 

Annual fee: Some cards come with a fee you pay every year for the pleasure of owning and using the card. The annual fee can be worth it, if benefits like cash-back, balance it out. 

Late fee: Depending on the lender, you may be charged a late fee, or charges for not making at least the minimum payment on time. Others charge this as a percentage of the amount you owe or just as a flat fee.

Balance transfer fee: Some cards will charge you this if you move your balance from one card to the other. 

Foreign transaction fee: While you can use most credit cards overseas, some will charge you this fee for any transactions across the border. 

Cash advance fee: Taking a cash advance (withdrawing cash from your credit limit) can sometimes charge a much higher fee than a regular transaction.

How long does it take to get a credit card?

Generally, it can take anywhere from one to three weeks to get a credit card after you have applied for it. The time is influenced by multiple factors, including your credit score and the method you’re using to apply.

When applying for a card, the issuer will typically outline the minimum credit score that you need to apply. If you meet these requirements, you'll often be instantly approved by an automated system.

Keep in mind that this is for online applications. If you decide to apply by snail mail, the approval process will likely take a few extra days.

If you don’t meet the requirements, then your application will need to be reviewed manually, which can take seven to 10 business days. Some issuers have a “reconsideration line” that you can contact in order to speed up this process. 

Once approved, the actual shipment of the card usually takes another seven to 10 business days. Some card issuers also offer expedited shipping.

APR vs. interest rate

Your APR is your “annual percentage rate.” For your credit card, your APR and your interest are essentially the same. The APR will represent the amount of interest you pay annually on your balance.

Like your interest, it is displayed as a percentage and the rate that you get is affected by your credit history and credit score.

For other types of loans, such as mortgages, your APR is your interest plus other fees, such as mortgage broker fees.

Types of credit cards

When getting a credit card, you first have to sift through all the different companies that offer them. Then you’ll also need to factor in the two main types: prepaid and secured.

After you’ve considered that, you also need to think about all the different card types that fall under these main two. Let’s review all the different options you’ll have for your first, or next credit card.

Prepaid cards

Prepaid cards are best when you don’t want to risk going into debt. You preload the card with the amount you wish to spend. The drawback is that a prepaid card does not have any impact on your credit score.

Secured cards

Secured cards are often issued to people with poor credit histories or have no credit whatsoever.

The credit card is backed by a cash deposit from the cardholder. But just like the regular credit cards, you have a monthly minimum payment and once you pay, your viable credit goes up again.

Student credit cards

As the name suggests, student credit cards are intended for students. They serve as an introduction to credit, offering a lower spending limit than most credit cards, and a chance to build up your credit score at the same time.

Low-interest credit cards

These are ideal for those who may have high balances. With lower APR, it will be easier to pay off your debt with a low-interest credit card. If you have a lot of debt transferring all of it onto a low-rate card may be a good idea (especially if you had multiple cards).

The low rate makes it easier to pay off, and the single card makes it easier to budget and track your progress. 

0% APR credit cards

These cards take low interest to another level. The 0% APR typically is not a permanent feature. Like many other credit card bonus offers, this is given for an introductory period, which could be anywhere from 3 to 12 months.

Cash-back credit cards

When you shop with a cash-back credit card, you can get a small percentage of your money back. Some cards only apply cash back to specific purchases, such as groceries. Others apply to everything you purchase. 

Rewards credit cards

Rewards credit cards are similar to a cash-back card, but instead of cash, each purchase gives you points. The “rewards” you get from these points can range from discounted hotel stays, to free meals, or cheaper gas.

The cards may be usable only with certain types of purchases, such as a specific store.

Airline and travel credit cards

If you travel a lot, having a travel credit card in your wallet could come in handy. Rewards can include free checked bags, free travel insurance or rental car insurance or even drink coupons or lounge access.

Your purchases can also rack up travel rewards that you can use to get discounted flights. Keep in mind that some cards are airline-specific.

Small business credit cards

If you own a business, you’ll have supplies and other goods you need to spend on. With a small business credit card you can save money or earn rewards as you shop for these necessities.

They typically have higher credit limits that will allow for bigger purchases needed to get a business off the ground.

No annual-fee credit cards

Some cards, especially rewards cards, can come with annual fees.

With a no annual-fee credit card you can avoid those annual charges and still get the benefits of a credit card. 

No foreign transaction-fee credit cards

A typical credit card will tack on an extra fee for transactions with a different currency.

If you travel often a no foreign transaction-fee credit card might be worth signing up for since you won’t pay extra on every purchase.

Credit card rewards

Aside from travel or cash-back rewards, there are other perks that you can get from owning and using a credit card.

These other options include:

There are also bonuses and features that you may not consider, like insurance on car rentals and travel. Free upgrades on flights, in hotels or discounts when shopping at certain stores. Some cards even offer concierge services, Uber credits, cell phone protection or free credit checks.  

Rewards cards tend to have higher interest rates than regular credit cards, so It’s important to consider how much money you’ll save by getting one.

Can you lose your rewards?

Rewards cards come with conditions that are not too different from a regular credit card.

Missing payments can lead to a loss of your rewards, so can account inactivity. If you have a rewards card, be sure to use it at least once every few months.

Card issuers are also wary of people racking up points with their purchases, only to then return the goods they purchased. To avoid that conundrum, returning goods you purchased will lead to you losing the rewards you accumulated.

There are also cases of people getting cards with big sign-up bonuses, and then canceling the cards shortly after, which is called "credit card churning". To combat this, many cards’ sign-up bonuses come with conditions, such as a minimum amount of time from sign up to canceling. If you’re going to get a reward card, hold onto it for at least a year before canceling.

Also, be wary of cards that have an expiry date for their points. This situation is more common if you’re collecting rewards via a points program. Be sure to read the fine print and avoid any surprises on your purchases.

You must also stay up-to-date on the terms of your card. There are instances of the issuer changing the rules or conditions that come with their cards. Such changes require a time period notice, so it pays to pay attention to any communications you receive from the card issuer.

About our authors: faces of finance

Dina Al-Shibeeb
Dina Al-Shibeeb, Staff Writer

Dina Al-Shibeeb is an award-winning journalist with hyperlocal and international experience in various news formats. She began her reporting career covering business news for a trade magazine and then later the Arab Spring and its aftermath for a Dubai-based news station. She has since worked in Canadian media, covering municipal affairs in Vaughan, Ont., for Metroland Media. Her work has also appeared at the Toronto Star, Financial Post, National Post and other community sites across Canada.

Following her work, especially In Vaughan, she developed a big interest in covering urban planning issues and its encroachment into the environment while reporting passionately on affordable housing stories. In her spare time, Al-Shibeeb enjoys different sports from swimming, tennis to kickboxing. Occasionally she experiments with new recipes.

Amy Tokic
Amy Tokic, Associate Content Editor (SEO)

Amy Tokic is an SEO content editor for Money.ca. She holds a B.A. in Communications from the University of Windsor. Amy is an award-winning author and has been writing professionally for 15 years, publishing articles in the lifestyle and health sectors. She’s been a guest on many podcasts, and been quoted and sourced in publications such as Toronto Star, PopSugar, Martha Stewart Living and many more.

In her free time, Amy loves perusing used book and record stores, and chasing squirrels with wild abandon (a habit attributed to spending too much time with her pooches).

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