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How old were you when you got your first credit card?  According to Statistic Brain, most people receive their first piece of plastic at 20 years old.  When used responsibly, credit cards are a great way to build your credit.  They’re safe, convenient and can even help you earn rewards.  However, if you’re not careful you can easily find yourself in trouble.  Here are our tips for smart credit card use.

Keep your balance low

Unlike in the movies, you can’t just swipe your credit card without a care in the world.  All credit cards have a limit and you need to watch yours.  Never max out your card and keep your balance as low as possible.  Ideally, you want to spend less than 30% of your available credit.  Let’s say your card has a $2,500 limit.  Based on our advice, you cannot spend more than $750.  Set up mobile alerts with your bank so you’ll be notified when you’re approaching your limit or if they spot unusual activity on your account.

Shop safely

In 2016, 15.4 million Americans were victims of identity fraud as revealed by a recent Javelin Strategy survey.  Even if you always keep your card on you, you can still become a victim.  Since most cards now have security chips to protect in-store payments, scammers have switched to online crime.  Last year, card-not-present (CNP) fraud increased by 40 percent.  Never make online purchases or check your bank account while using free Wi-Fi.  These unsecured networks make it easy for crooks to steal your information.  Before using your credit card to checkout online, check the URL to see if it begins with “https”.  The “s” stands for secure.  It also doesn’t hurt to Google the company for customer reviews.

Review your transactions

Turning a blind eye to your spending is the easiest way to be stuck with a bill you can’t afford.  At least once a week, go online and look through your transactions.  Take note of where your money is going and make sure the charges are legit.  Sometimes criminals like to sneak in small purchases hoping they’ll be overlooked.  For those constantly on the go, we recommend using your banks mobile app to receive notifications every time the card is used.  If you spot any suspicious activity, call the customer service number on the back of your credit card immediately.  Once notified, the bank will usually launch an investigation, reverse the charges and issue you a new card.

Always pay on time

Rumor has it that carrying a balance helps build your credit but that’s a lie.  Thirty-five percent of your FICO score is based on your payment history which means you’re actually sabotaging yourself.  Always pay your card’s balance on time and in full at the end of each month.  To avoid late or missed payments, write the bill’s due date on a calendar and setup auto bill pay.  Alternatively, you can set up payment reminders with your bank.  This will allow you to keep your credit intact while saving money on interest and penalties.