Earning

I'm getting my first credit card at 35: Here's where experts told me to start

I never liked the idea of spending money I didn't actually have.

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Which credit card?
Courtesy Gili Malinsky

I have never had a credit card. This shocks people sometimes, as I'm well into my 30s, and so many credit card companies push products into young people's hands as early as their teens. The typical American gets their first credit card at age 20.

I was always wary of getting one, though, especially as a broke writer in New York saddled with tens of thousands of dollars worth of student loan debt. I never liked the idea of spending money I didn't actually have, and I didn't want to get into any more debt than I was already in.

Today, however, I'm debt-free and am growing both my emergency fund and 401(k). So I feel much less nervous about the prospects of getting a credit card (and the potential impulse purchases it could lead to, like a horse, or a jet, or the entire contents of a Sephora store).

I turned to the experts to see how to narrow down my search for my very first credit card. Here's their advice.

'Check your credit score'

"The first step" in sussing out your best credit card option, says CNBC Select reporter Alexandria White, is to "check your credit score." This will narrow down which cards you're eligible for and help point you in the direction of your best offer. The better your score, the bigger your pool of options.

"There are so many free resources online now that you can get it within 5 minutes," she says. White suggests using Experian's free credit score tool or Discover's free credit score tool.

If you haven't yet built up credit, there are several ways to get started. You can become an authorized user on a family member's credit card, for example, or get credit for paying monthly utility bills on time. Secured credit cards, which you can get even with a poor or nonexistent credit score, can also be a good first step and help you work your way up to better offers.

Thankfully, my score has historically been good enough to qualify for a variety of cards.

Answer the question, 'What are you using the credit card for?'

Once you know what cards you might qualify for, it's time to narrow the field further to which of those cards you might benefit from having. Ask yourself, "What are you using the credit card for?" says Danny Lee, a CFP and the founder of Modern Millennial Wealth. "The reason I use credit cards is to take advantage of the rewards on stuff that I'm going to be purchasing anyway."

Are you a big traveler? Do you dine out at restaurants ― or, these days, order in a lot? Do you prefer cooking at home and shopping for groceries? Looking over your spending patterns can help direct you toward a credit card with relevant rewards.

The reason I use credit cards is to take advantage of the rewards on stuff that I'm going to be purchasing anyway.
Danny Lee
CFP, Modern Millennial Wealth

If there are retailers you shop with frequently, like Target or Amazon, for example, they may offer their own cards as well with rewards tailored to them. "Store cards accept a wide range of people with different credit scores," says White. "That said, they tend to have the highest interest rates."

Personally, I like a combination of cooking and ordering in, and I typically shop at smaller, local retailers like neighborhood coffee shops and thrift stores. So based on that expert advice, my best bet is probably a general cash back card that isn't tailored to one specific type of purchase or store.

Remember: 'Why pay a fee if you don't have to?'

Before you apply, check the cost. Credit cards charge various annual fees, ranging from hundreds of dollars per year to no fee at all. Cards with high annual fees tend to offer more robust rewards. "If you take full advantage of all the rewards and all the perks that they are giving you, then you can justify paying the annual fee," says Lee.

But if you don't think the rewards are worth the fee, then focus your search on cards without an annual fee. There are plenty, and many still offer rewards. "Why pay a fee if you don't have to?" says White.

That's the category I fall into. I'm not interested in an annual fee, regardless of rewards.

Once you have a credit card, 'treat it like a debit card'

To avoid that trap of overspending on my new card, White has one final piece of advice: "Never spend more than you can reasonably afford to pay off."

Though my new credit card may offer, say, $5,000 worth of spending, if my checking account isn't quite as full at any given moment, the interest accrued if I end up spending more than I can pay off can really add up and put me in a pretty big debt hole.

"Treat it like a debit card," she says, and try to only use as much as you can easily and quickly pay off.

My next step will be doing some research and going through relevant options, like the Chase Freedom Unlimited or the Capital One Quicksilver. Knowing my priorities in getting a card now ― no annual fee and general cash back ― I can start doing some research and reading through credit card lists to narrow in on what makes the most sense for me.

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