At least once a year, you should take a look at your credit cards and see whether you're getting the best deals you can for your spending patterns. Is that a groan I hear? Don't worry, this review won't take weeks of research, or even a day! Beverly Harzog, a credit card expert and consumer advocate based in Atlanta, says you can do it in 60 minutes or less!
Step one: Know your credit score
Your credit score can change. The better your credit score, the better the credit card deals you qualify for. So you need to stay on top of it. "Think of your credit as a house, and your credit score as your foundation," Harzog says.
You can get a free copy of your credit report at annualcreditreport.com. You will save time if you're prepared, Harzog says. The site will ask you questions to prove who you are. "Know the name of your mortgage company and which credit card companies you're with," Harzog says.
If you request your report online, you will be able to view it immediately. "You may want to print it out to review it," Harzog says.
Your credit report is a report of your current and past credit history. Check the report for errors. The Federal Trade Commission says as many as one in four credit reports has errors. If you find an error, you'll want to report the error to the credit bureau that shows the incorrect information. You can use the online dispute link on their site to begin the process.
Your free credit report won't include your FICO scores -- the number between 300 and 850 that lenders use to know what level risk you are. It's a good idea to take a look at your credit scores once a year; you can visit myfico.com and pay for your FICO scores. Each of the three major credit bureaus has one on you.
"Be careful not to sign up for credit card monitoring service accidentally when you visit these sites," Harzog cautions.
Step two: Review balances
Review your current balances on your credit cards. See what interest rate you're paying on any unpaid balances.
As you look at each card ask yourself, "Where could I do better?" If you carrying a balance on a card, would you qualify for a different card with a lower rate? Or perhaps you can take advantage of one of the 0 percent APR balance transfer offers on the market.
"If you think your interest rates are too high, or you are getting offers in the mail for credit cards with rates that are lower, think of this as a planning session," Harzog says. "What steps can you take to make your situation better?"
Don't forget to check your rewards balances too. Do you have rewards that are about to expire? What do you need to do to have enough points to cash them in for something you want before any expire?
However, Harzog cautions, expiring points are not carte blanche to be adding balances to your credit cards. But if you're close to a reward, you may want to use that card first before your others.
Also, if you have a card with an annual fee, review your benefits to ensure that you are getting enough from the card to warrant the fee.
Step three: Compare credit card offers
Go to Cardratings.com and compare the rewards and other perks in the categories that you are most likely to use. For example, if you travel a lot, you want credit card that offers miles as a reward. If you have children, you might want a credit card that offers contributions to a 529 college savings plan. Look at your lifestyle and spending patterns to determine which credit cards reward categories work best for you. Consider any changes to your situation or family status. Do you need to change credit cards to match your new interests?
Step four: Fill out an application
Found a credit card that is better than the ones you have been using for your purchases? Complete an online application for the new credit card you would like to have. Be sure to print a copy of the agreement. You may need to save a screen capture of the agreement screen, Harzog says.
Step five: Keep records
Whether you prefer an electronic copy stored on your computer or a paper copy. File and save your credit report and FICO scores. If you needed to dispute an item on your credit report, keep a record of the dispute as well. Also, set a reminder for the next annual pull.
Step six: Update your calendars
Make a note in your online or desk calendar of any spending deadlines for rewards you discovered in doing your makeover. It's important to make notes of the deadlines somewhere where you are sure to see them so that you don't lose out on your rewards points.
"If you find you need to spend $500 over the next three months to qualify for your rewards, make sure you're buying things you need or would buy anyway," advises Harzog.
Take an hour to review your credit cards and spending patterns, and you can be sure you're getting the most out of your credit cards.