The next time you're on a plane, listen closely to the part of the safety announcement explaining what to do if the cabin runs out of oxygen. The yellow masks will fall from the ceiling, and it's up to you to put your own mask on first before you attend to anyone else around you. That's because you're no good to anybody if you pass out.

Asking your relatives to co-sign your credit card application sounds a lot like asking them to put the mask on you, first.

I'm assuming your intentions are nothing but good. However, the fact that you're trying to rebuild your credit signals that you've experienced some turbulence over the past few years. Nothing splits up a family like fights about money. Don't make the problem worse by tying your financial health to that of a loved one.

If you co-sign a credit card together, and either of you hits another rough patch, you're risking both of your credit scores. You'd hate to see your credit score improving, only to drop when your co-signer starts dipping into that shared credit line because they just got laid off. Instead, use this two-pronged approach to rebuilding your credit and learning how to use cards effectively:

  • Get a prepaid debit card for your everyday purchases. American Express (American Express is a advertiser) now offers a family of prepaid cards with few, if any fees. For instance, Bluebird lets you reload with cash for free at any Walmart register and includes free online bill pay. Serve offers easy methods to send and receive cash from friends. Use any of these cards to enjoy privileges like purchase protection and roadside assistance. American Express officials have even told reporters that they scan cardholder activity to review whether prepaid customers might qualify for fully-fledged charge cards. These cards give you added security, while building positive money management habits.
  • Get a secured credit card to improve your credit history. Capital One, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America all offer affordable secured credit cards with annual fees under $50 and security deposits less than $300. Even if it hurts to stash that much cash right now, proving that you can manage a monthly bill on your own will help you qualify for unsecured credit much more quickly.

Use both of these tools wisely, and you can look forward to a boost in your credit score and fewer awkward family gatherings.

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