"Ask Brianna" is a Q&A column from NerdWallet for 20-somethings or anyone else starting out. I'm here to help you manage your money, find a job and pay off student loans — all the real-world stuff no one taught us how to do in college. Send your questions about postgrad life to email@example.com.
Q: I already have student loans to pay back, and I'm scared to take on more debt. Should I avoid using credit cards?
A: You're smart to steer clear of unmanageable credit card debt. Plastic can make it too easy to book an impulse tropical vacation during the icy depths of January. But my advice mirrors that of Rod Griffin, director of public education at credit bureau Experian: "Don't be afraid of credit cards. Be afraid of debt."
Using credit cards responsibly is a good way to build a solid credit history — but you don't have to go into more debt to do it.
GOOD CREDIT GIVES YOU OPTIONS
Your credit score doesn't dictate your worth as a human being. But it does determine how many options you have — and how good they are — when you shop for a car loan, a home loan, a cellphone plan or an apartment. A tip-top credit score will make you feel like a bouncer has lifted a velvet rope and let you into an exclusive club whenever you apply for new lines of credit.
There are two main types of credit scores: FICO and VantageScore, and each have multiple versions. But the FICO Score 8, which ranges from 300 to 850, is the one lenders use most often . Paying your bills on time and keeping your credit usage low — meaning you don't max out your credit cards — have the biggest impact on your credit score. You can get your credit report for free once a year from each of the three credit bureaus at annualcreditreport.com.
Some millennials may have limited credit histories because they simply couldn't get access to credit. The Credit Card Act of 2009 made it hard for anyone under age 21 to get a credit card without proof of substantial income, in part to protect them from shady marketing practices that were once rampant on college campuses. Fast-forward to 2015, when a report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that consumers ages 18 to 20 had, on average, about half the number of credit cards that those ages 21 to 34 did.
If you can't qualify for a card on your own, you can give your credit score a lift with a secured credit card, which requires a security deposit, or by becoming an authorized user of a partner's or parent's credit card. Another, newer option is a credit builder loan, which places the money you borrow in a savings account or certificate of deposit. You get the money back when you have fully repaid the loan.
USE CREDIT, SKIP THE DEBT
You may be thinking that keeping up with your student loans is already helping you to create a credit history. And that's true. But unsecured credit cards issued in your own name are an even more powerful way to demonstrate your financial trustworthiness, Griffin says.
That's because you control how much to pay toward your credit card bill: the full balance, the minimum or nothing at all. (A late payment will hit your credit report once it's 30 days past due.) Resisting the temptation to overspend and having the good judgment to pay off your balance indicates to lenders you're likely to repay new types of credit you take on.
"The free will that's associated with a credit card gives better insight into how you manage the debt you have," Griffin says.
The best way to use your credit cards to build strong credit is to make purchases you know you can pay back right away. To start, try using your card to pay for one type of purchase only, like gas, says Tyler Gray, a financial planner at SageOak Financial in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Or put your monthly bill for Spotify or Netflix on your card, and set up autopay from your checking account to pay off the full balance every month. Pick the right credit card and you'll also get rewards, like cash back, on the type of charges you make most often.
Keep a $0 balance on your credit cards and get your scores as close to 850 as possible, and you'll know how it feels to enter the sought-after club of the creditworthy.
This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet.
Brianna McGurran is a staff writer at NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @briannamcscribe.
NerdWallet: What's my credit score? https://nerd.me/2-nerdwallet-finance
Get your credit report for free https://annualcreditreport.com
Associated Press: Liz Weston: The best ways to build credit now http://bigstory.ap.org/article/22ad30c6f5ff428199ab2670676d2523/liz-weston-best-ways-build-credit-now