Your health often tops New Year's resolution lists each year, but remember to include your credit card health as part of your improvement plan.
According to Melanie Lockert, founder and author of Dear Debt, "…The stress of being in debt and having to pay it back can be so pervasive. When I was paying off my student loans, I felt like I was constantly in a low-grade stress level because I knew my money was never truly mine."
"There can be so much shame and guilt associated with debt," Lockert adds. "You feel bad for getting into debt, frustrated trying to get out of debt and it can feel like you have no one to talk to about it."
Credit card debt is remarkably easy to get into and notoriously difficult to escape. But if you're in debt, particularly credit card debt, there are steps you can take toward the road to recovery. If you've avoided credit card debt so far, that's great, but there are still resolutions you can make for your long-term credit health and to ensure your credit cards are functioning as the tools they were meant to be.
Consider implementing these New Year's resolution ideas for your credit health--whether recovering from debt, learning new best practices for your credit cards or just maximizing your credit card perks in the New Year.
1. Stop paying credit card interest
If you're routinely putting more on your credit card than you can afford to pay off monthly, you're hurting yourself. Create a budget and stick to it. Your wallet will thank you.
Of course, stuff happens; perhaps you have a budget now, but you ran up some serious credit card debt before and you're still trying to dig out from underneath it. In that case, focus on balance transfer cards to pay off accrued debt.
Nearly every credit score level has options--even those with poor credit. If your credit is Good, Excellent, consider Citi Simplicity® Card - No Late Fees Ever (Citi is a CardRatings advertiser) , which has a 0 percent introductory APR on purchases for 12 months after account opening and a 0 percent introductory APR on balance transfers for 21 months from the date of first transfer (all transfers must be completed in the first 4 months)--yes, that's nearly two years--to catch up without paying interest (then, 14.74% - 24.74%, based on creditworthiness). Note that if you transfer a balance with this offer after your 0% introductory purchase APR expires, both new purchases and unpaid purchase balances will automatically accrue interest until all balances, including your transferred balance, are paid in full.
Even those with Bad credit scores can get a secured card with an introductory balance transfer interest rate for 6 months with the UNITY® Visa Secured Credit Card - The Comeback Card™. At 9.95% (then, it's not the 0 percent that those with better credit can get, but it is less than half the standard interest rate, which will help you get you on your feet faster.
Still, remember that even if a new credit card isn't an option for you, there are always the traditional ways to avoid interest: Commit to always paying off your balance and/or living within your means.
2. Protect your identity
All but gone are the days of paper travelers checks and cash when traveling. Many savvy adventurers now use credit cards; in the unfortunate event that you lose them, your hard-earned travel fund isn't lost forever like it is if cash goes missing. Still, be forewarned: Credit cards alone can not keep your money--or identity--safe.
Make sure you're smart about choosing a reputable bank's ATM and that you track your spending as you go so you're aware of any fraud immediately. Let your banks know when you're traveling and where, so they don't decline charges for possible fraud. Thinking of using the hotel's computer to print your boarding pass? Don't forget to clear your history so it's not available to others when you're done. Store belongings in your hotel room safe. Bottom line: Know where your personal information is and guard it from prying eyes.
3. Evaluate whether your credit card still meets your needs
Start the new year on the right foot by comparing your current credit cards to your needs. It's entirely possible that the card you've had for 10 years isn't really the best card for you anymore because your life or work situation has changed.
Pay attention to reward categories, rates and fees. You can sort by travel, cash back or gas rewards, among others. If you're carrying around a travel rewards credit card, but prefer stay-cations, you're unlikely to use those rewards.
And that card you got several years ago before you built up your credit score likely doesn't have as good a reward structure or even basic terms as that for which you could now qualify. Credit card issuers issue credit cards based largely on credit score and credit history, and they offer their best perks and features to people with a track record of solid financial practices.
A word of caution: Even if you change your credit cards, consider keeping that old card account open. A significant portion of your credit score is based on your length of credit history, so closing a card you've had for a long time could ding your credit.
4. Use your credit card rewards
Once you ensure you have the card (or cards) that suit your lifestyle, don't forget to actually use your rewards. Those points, cash back and miles don't do you any good sitting in an account.
It can be daunting to sort through the terms, especially because there's not a universal system, so 20,000 points could be $200 or $2, depending on the card. If you're unsure, call the card company; they should be happy to explain.
"Most people never use all of their credit card reward points," John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education for CreditSesame.com, said, adding that you can think outside the box when it comes to redeeming rewards. "Using credit card rewards points to buy gifts can be a great way to buy presents while saving money."
If you still find yourself not using the rewards, consider whether that's because they just aren't the kind of rewards that best fit your lifestyle. In that case, revisit resolution No. 3 above.
5. Teach your children well about credit use
Kids learn financial health from their parents, so make it a goal to teach them well this year.
Not sure where to being? Review six critical lessons about smart credit card use with your kids. Two additional suggestions: First, make sure your kids understand that credit cards are borrowed money and, second, drive home the point that financial responsibility is a requirement, not an option.
6. Address any problems that are hurting your credit
It's about as hard as uttering the words "I'm sorry," but taking a deep look into your credit report could be the best way to start your year. In this case, ignorance should not be bliss. You're entitled to a free credit report annually from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus. Request them from the official site: www.annualcreditreport.com.
When you examine your report, take the opportunity to clean up credit report mistakes that might be affecting your credit score. Are there credit checks that you don't know anything about? Missed bill payments for accounts you didn't open? These are tell-tale signs that your identity has been compromised and you'll need to address that sooner rather than later.
Speaking of paying bills, if you are someone who has trouble remembering to pay things on time, consider setting up auto payments or take advantage of technology and set reminders. Missing bill payments can tank your credit score quickly, but it's one of the easiest ways to maintain and even improve your score over time.
7. Set a budget and stick to it
This one doesn't need a lot of explanation. Credit cards are excellent financial tools and they can come in handy during an unexpected pinch or even just to help you accrue points or rewards for a splurge down the road. But relying on spending more than you have isn't a sustainable lifestyle. No amount of credit card rewards or 0 percent introductory periods can keep you living above your means forever.
As the New Year gets underway, take the opportunity to evaluate your credit card health and wellness just like you do your physical and emotional health. You may be glad you did.